Dr Karen Tonge, wearing a black PhD cap, smiles at the camera against a background of greenery. Photo: Paul Jones

The power of play: PhD graduate working to transform the early years of a child’s life

The power of play: PhD graduate working to transform the early years of a child’s life

Dr Karen Tonge examines how early childhood teachers encourage kids’ movement

When Dr Karen Tonge steps on stage today(Thursday 3 November) as part of the University of Wollongong’s (UOW) graduation ceremonies, it will be to the cheers of her family who have been with her along every step of her academic journey. 

Dr Tonge finished her PhD in 2019, but she didn’t realise how much the opportunity to don the traditional blue cap and gown meant to her husband Paul and children, Lily, Arlen and Isla.   

“I took part in the online graduation celebration last year, and although it was different, I was happy with that,” Dr Tonge says. “But when these graduation ceremonies came around, my children were so excited to be able to see me graduate in person. I was surprised, I didn’t realise how much it had meant to them. So I’m taking part for myself and for my family.” 

Dr Tonge will celebrate her graduation from the University of Wollongong (UOW) on Thursday, 3 November. It is a chance for the mother-of-three to be a role model to her children, to show them that learning is a lifelong endeavor.  

“As a female, as a mother, it is important for me for my children to see that there is no end point to learning. There are no barriers. It is not easy, but it always worth doing.” 

As an early childhood teacher, Dr Tonge could never have imagined that one day she would be a PhD graduate. But, as she has come to realise, life often holds many surprises. Born and bred in the Illawarra, she undertook her Bachelor of Early Childhood at the University of Wollongong (UOW), and then spent the next 16 years working in Early Childhood Education and Care services (ECEC) throughout the region.  

“I have always loved working with young children and their families. High-quality early childhood experiences have such an impact and a difference on a child’s life,” Dr Tonge said.  

“Not every child goes home to a safe and supportive environment, so I loved being able to offer that safe space for the children. Regardless of what sort of environment they were going home to, they knew that they had someone in their lives who valued them and spent quality time with them that day. I wanted to be the point of difference in their lives.” 

After many years as a Director and Manager, Dr Tonge decided to try her Graduate Certificate, which then became a Masters in Early Childhood Education, also at UOW, her first experience of balancing study with her family. It was not always easy, but she always made it work.  

“I was studying my Masters full time and in my final year, at the end of autumn session, I submitted my final assessments for the semester and then went straight into labour. I gave birth to my youngest daughter that night,” she says with a laugh. “I had the mid-year break as my maternity leave and then finished off my Masters in the spring session.” 

With the support of her supervisors, Senior Professor Tony Okely and Associate Professor Rachel Jones, and inspired by the exciting and collaborative research underway at Early Start, Dr Tonge decided to take on a PhD.  

With the foundations of her career in early childhood teaching, Dr Tonge’s thesis focused on how educators influence the physical activity of the children in their care.  

“We know that being physically active is so important to our wellbeing and to children’s wellbeing, so I wanted to examine whether both children and educators were engaging in sufficient physical activity in their day, and what were the environment factors that contributed to that?. 

“The first 2000 days of life is a significant and sensitive period for children, and being physically active and reducing sedentary behaviors is fundamental for the promotion of life-long behaviours, health and wellbeing, as well as optimal learning and development. 

“The majority of children attend an ECEC service every week, so ensuring they are receiving adequate physical activity during their day is important. 

“It is about advocating for children. A high-quality early childhood experience makes such a different to their lives, their wellbeing and their outcomes.”  

Dr Tonge discovered educators were not as active as it would appear, and much of their movement throughout the day was low to moderate, rather than intentional and high-impact. Consequently, many children are not meeting the recommended guidelines for physical activity and sedentary behavior while they are in the ECEC setting.   

“Educators are active and moving throughout the day, in the course of their jobs, but they are not necessarily leading the children in physical activity. This has an impact on the activity levels of the children. I found children are much more active when they are engaged in free play and free flowing environments, and when they have access to a nature-based outdoor environment.”  

Three years after it was submitted, Dr Tonge’s PhD has led to more opportunities in the research space. She is now working with Barnardos in the Communities for Children project and Shellharbour City Council to develop a framework to make Shellharbour a truly child-friendly community.  

In collaboration with researchers from Scotland, Dr Tonge is also focusing on nature-based play and different perceptions of risky play, a concept that she believes is in the best interests of children. 

“Risky play is so important. It is where children engage in rich and meaningful learning across all developmental areas. Risky play affords opportunities to make decisions, as well as learn about themselves - their boundaries and their limits.  

“Play is powerful, and is fundamental to a child’s learning and development. It’s okay for children to play, and explore, and get messy. It is part of the life experience. By letting them engage in, learn from and manage various experiences, we are setting them up for life.” 

As she navigates a new future as a researcher and academic, Dr Tonge said she is surprised by where her passion for working with children and families has taken her. As an early childhood teacher, she would never have imagined that one day she would be working on international collaborations and navigating a career that encompasses research, teaching and consultancy.  

“I needed to be brave, and to step out of my comfort zone, and though it was tough at times, it was worth it. I’ve shown my children the value of persistence and resilience. I started my PhD for me, to have something that was just mine. I’m so happy to be able to graduate and to have my family there with me.”