Creating an Environment of Change for Tribal Head Start

Renetta Goeson is being honored as a Champion of Change for her commitment to delivering on the promise of Head Start in her community, helping to educate and care for our youngest, most vulnerable children. 


It is a great honor to be chosen as a Champion of Change for Head Start. As I think about change, I am quickly reminded of changes that have occurred for my tribe, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate (SWO) of the Lake Traverse Reservation. Historically, children were revered as sacred because they were viewed as a gift from the spirit world. Children were respected as not only sacred, but capable beings, as they strive to understand the world and make their own theories to explain how it functions.

I feel it is important to acknowledge our history and indigenous knowledge as we think about promoting change in Head Start. As Momaday stated, “Notions of the past and future are essentially notions of the present. In the same way an idea of one’s ancestry and posterity is really an idea of the self.” The Indigenous people of North America all have commonalities in our history that we must acknowledge as we move forward in our work with children and families.

Our goal is to provide an environment in which children are respected as sacred and capable. All children who come through the doors of Head Start must be as viewed as having enormous potential. I believe our Head Start programs should be seen as “not just anywhere” but a place where a community of learners (children, family, elders, tribal leaders, staff, and community partners) gather for the benefit of the whole child and their family.

One of the challenges we face across the nation is high obesity rates. We all know that early and appropriate intervention is particularly valuable in reducing the probability of obesity in children. There is considerable evidence that proves that childhood eating and exercise habits are more easily modified than adult habits. Therefore, one of the goals for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Head Start Program is to provide a safe means of exercise as well as a learning environment that can engage a multigenerational community of learners.

The SWO Head Start has been studying the Reggio Emilia Approach to learning for 5 years and has found that this approach best fits our tribal community as it honors children as capable and sacred beings. While studying this approach it became evident that the former outdoor environment no longer fit our philosophy and honored our children by providing children with choices and opportunities to explore their world in a culturally appropriate manner. (The former “playground” consisted of 2.5 acres with two typical “structures” in which children could engage in limited activity such as climbing, sliding and running.)

Children deserve a beautifully designed space to learn and grow with endless meaningful learning experiences available. In addition, the outdoor environment should be an extension of the indoor learning environment and also reflect the culture of the Dakota people.

In October 2009, the 2.5 acres of our playground were surveyed and special consideration for the natural elements of the space was incorporated into the design of a natural playground. For example, existing hills were developed into natural slides with no fall zones, which become sledding hills during the winter months. High winds are prevalent in our region of South Dakota; therefore, a small wind turbine will be present so that the children can explore the use of wind energy. Our outdoor environment development has been an on-going project and has been evolving over a period of time.

Listed below are some of the features that are represented in our planned outdoor learning environment:

  • A child-sized pow-wow arena, where children can dance and sing to traditional Dakota songs.
  • Seven Tipis will be present, representing the seven districts of the Oyate. The tipis will serve as learning spaces in which developmental domains can be enhanced, such as art, science, literacy, dramatic play, sensory activities, fine motor activities, and numeracy activities.
  • Water features are incorporated into the design, which is culturally relevant and an important part of our fishing community. A small stream runs through the entire length of the environment.
  • There are less than 100 fluent speakers of our sacred Dakota Language; the tribal council has declared our language in a state of emergency. Therefore, it is imperative that our language is visible throughout our environment.
  • The sacred cotton wood trees (the tree of life) will be planted throughout the environment with plaques and pictures that will serve as memorials in honor of our historical leaders.
  • Gardens and fruit bearing trees will be present for harvesting and teaching the children and families how to prepare our traditional foods, since this is becoming less prevalent among the younger generations; having these activities available will be a valuable learning opportunity for the young families. A composting site will be available to provide additional nutrients to the gardening soil as well as a teaching tool for the children, families and staff.
  • Collection tables are strategically placed throughout the environment for children to collect items for exploration and activities.

As a tribal program, we are striving to create a culturally appropriate environment for the benefit of the SWO Head Start children, families and community. It is our hope that the outdoor environment we create will be part of our community for generations to come…an environment that honors our past and builds a bridge of hope for the future leaders of our tribal nation.

Renetta Goeson is a Head Start Director.

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