We had a virtual coffee recently with Duncan Macrae from All-Star Kids. We discussed his varied career in the OSH childcare sector, his approach to creating engaging experiences for children, and how his personal and professional journey has shaped his vision for early learning.

Duncan, what is the thing you’re most excited about or love talking to people about in your career?

Well, I’ve had a varied career in the OSH childcare sector. I come from a marketing media background but spent several years working in the United States at American summer camps during my university studies. Those four years really shifted my focus from marketing to creating experiences for kids that support their individual development and foster community and connection. This led me to work in the incursion space, running programs in schools linked to the Victorian and Australian curriculums, and eventually into the OSH sector in an operations role. After serving as the Chief Operating Officer at one of the largest before and after school care providers, I decided to start my own business, focusing on school holiday programs and now opening an early learning center. One thing that sets us apart is giving children choice within their activities. We offer structured sessions where kids can choose from a variety of activities, fostering engagement and reducing negative behaviors.

That sounds fantastic. Can you tell us more about how the children choose their activities?

Absolutely. We provide a structured environment where each age group, which has its own name, cycles through what we call the ABCs: Active, Brainy, Creative, and Star sessions. During these sessions, children can choose from different activities. For example, our grade one and two kids, known as the Eagles, might choose between tennis or a fun game like Golden Child for their active session. This structure not only ensures a well-rounded experience but also allows children to engage in activities they are genuinely interested in, which significantly reduces negative behaviors.
We’ve found that when children are given the autonomy to choose their activities, they are more invested and enthusiastic. This leads to fewer disruptions and a more harmonious environment. It’s amazing to see how much more willing children are to participate and cooperate when they feel they have a say in what they’re doing.

It sounds like a lot of planning goes into these programs. How do you manage that?

Once we get an idea of the numbers, we plan out the entire school holiday program, taking into account feedback from previous sessions. We have a schedule with over 15 activities available every day, all led by staff hired for their ability to lead specific activities. For instance, this week we’re doing Shrek the Musical as our big Star session, with a presentation for parents on Friday. Kids auditioned for roles and are now in rehearsals, which has led to higher attendance because they are so engaged.
Planning is indeed a critical component. We can’t just plan a single day; we need to plan multiple variations to accommodate different interests and ensure that we have a balanced mix of activities. This requires significant groundwork, but it’s worth it when we see the children so engaged and happy.

How does this approach impact the parents’ decision-making?

Parents are often hesitant initially, but we see a transformation by the end of the day. Children who are engaged in activities they choose are more likely to want to return. Parents often tell us their kids don’t want to leave when it’s time to go home and are eager to come back the next day. This level of engagement and enthusiasm makes our programs highly attractive to families.
We understand that parents are looking for environments where their children are not only safe but also happy and engaged. Our approach provides that assurance. When parents see their children thriving and excited about their day, it reinforces their decision to choose our programs.

Where did this approach come from?

Working at American summer camps where kids stayed for four weeks really taught me the value of creating a sense of community and resilience in children. While Australian parents are not as accustomed to sending their kids away for long periods, we try to incorporate those same principles into our programs. We focus on giving kids the opportunity to learn new skills and build confidence through experiences, whether it’s hitting a tennis forehand or performing in a musical. These experiences are crucial for their development and future success.
The American summer camp model is all about building lifelong skills and friendships. It’s about creating an environment where children feel part of a community, learn to overcome challenges, and discover their strengths. By integrating these elements into our programs, we help children develop a strong foundation for their future.

How do you ensure your staff are as passionate and engaged as you are?

We hire staff for their specific skills and passions, whether it’s music theatre, sports, or arts and crafts. This ensures they are engaged and enthusiastic about what they’re teaching, which in turn engages the kids. We view our staff as camp counselors rather than traditional educators, which means they play multiple roles – mentor, role model, peer support, and more. This approach helps build strong relationships with the children and enhances their learning experiences.
Our training programs are designed to instill this mindset in our staff. We emphasize the importance of being a positive role model and engaging fully with the children. When staff members are passionate about their activities, it naturally transfers to the kids, making the entire experience more enjoyable and effective.

Have there been any challenges along the way?

One major challenge is the regulatory requirements with qualifications. I believe in hiring passionate individuals with specific skills over those who just have the necessary certifications. This has led to some disagreements with the Department of Education, but I stand by the belief that passion and real-world experience provide a far richer learning environment for the children.
We often face skepticism from traditionalists who believe that only certified educators can provide quality care. However, the feedback from parents and the children’s positive experiences strongly support our approach. It’s about finding the right balance between meeting regulatory standards and providing an enriching environment for the kids.

Can we dive into an example of that? 

Sure. Recently, we had a staff member who is a professional musician leading our music theatre sessions. Her passion and expertise were so infectious that the kids were incredibly excited and engaged. We had kids auditioning for roles, rehearsing diligently, and even calling their parents to ask if they could stay longer to practice. This level of engagement would not have been possible if we had someone less passionate and experienced in that role.
Another example is our sports sessions. We have a former tennis coach who runs these sessions, and his enthusiasm for the sport inspires the kids to try harder and enjoy the game more. It’s these small but significant differences that make our programs stand out.

How do you see the future of care and early learning evolving?

I believe the future of childcare lies in personalized and passion-driven programs. Children are more likely to thrive in environments where they feel valued and where their interests are nurtured. Our approach of giving children choice and hiring passionate staff is just the beginning. We aim to continue evolving by incorporating more feedback from children and parents and staying ahead of educational trends.
I also see a greater integration of technology to enhance learning and engagement. However, the core of our philosophy will always be about creating exceptional experiences that support children’s development. We want to build a community where children feel safe, valued, and excited to learn.

What advice would you give to other childcare providers looking to venture down this pathway? 

My advice would be to focus on hiring passionate staff and giving children a voice in their activities. It’s essential to create a structured environment that offers variety and choice. Engage with parents to understand their needs and incorporate their feedback into your programs. Lastly, don’t be afraid to challenge traditional methods and advocate for what you believe is best for the children’s development.
It’s also important to build a strong community within your staff. When your team feels supported and valued, they are more likely to be enthusiastic and committed to their roles. This positivity translates directly to the children’s experience, making it a win-win situation for everyone involved.

We loved speaking to Duncan. If you or someone you know has a story to share, we’d love to have a discussion. Let us know via the website, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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