As someone who grew up on a property outside Armidale, UNE alumna Dr Fran Hughes described studying her PhD at UNE as feeling like ‘coming back to the land she was raised on’. Fran graduated her PhD in late 2020 and was awarded the Beth Southwell Award for her PhD project. Fran is also currently a sessional academic in the School of Education at UNE.
While Fran only recently completed her PhD, she is certainly no stranger to the field of education. After finishing her initial schooling in Armidale she trained as an early childhood teacher in Sydney and has worked in the education sector over the following decades as an early childhood practitioner, lecturer in higher education and as a consultant.
“My PhD is titled ‘Problematising Sustainability in Nature Play Programs: Pedagogical Transformations and Ambitious Alignments’,” said Fran while reflecting on what brought her to UNE when she was considering studying a PhD. “I studied at UNE for a couple of reasons. My supervisor, Dr Sue Elliott has been advocating for sustainability in early childhood since the early 1990s and more recently has a high interest in nature play/bush kinder. She was the first person I could have chosen to be my supervisor. Both my supervisors, Dr Sue Elliott and Dr Genevieve Noone, provided generous, consistent, wise and inspiring mentoring along my journey.”
The impetus behind Fran’s study journey and PhD studies seem to be closely tied to her rather significant and underrepresented field of study.
“My motivation to study a PhD was a strong desire to research a topic I was extremely interested in. In my study, I explored educators’ understandings of a nature-sustainability nexus and its influence on their pedagogies in Australian Nature Immersive Play Programs (INPPs). There is little research about the pedagogies for Early Childhood Education for Sustainability in nature programs internationally.”
There is such a gap in the academic scholarship here that Fran noted that that she believes her PhD “is the first PhD on nature play in early childhood in Australia.”
“The recent growth in Australian nature play programs has offered possibilities for young children and early childhood educators to connect with nature and build strong relationships with the Earth. INPP programs also offer great benefits in relation to physical, cognitive, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing. In respect to sustainability and nature, the main focus has been on education about nature, not education for and with nature. I felt it was important for me to research relationalities of humans with nature. Laying foundations in this area is important to me personally and professionally.”
Not only is this research important to Fran, but education scholarship more broadly. This is proven by Fran receiving the Beth Southwell Award from the NSW Institute for Educational Research for her PhD project. To provide further context, this State award is given to a student whose PhD thesis is considered outstanding in the field of education research.
“Winning this award generated a strong sense of pride for myself, my supervisors and UNE. I am honoured to win this award and am grateful for the recognition I have received for my work. Winning this award has inspired me to continue to research in this field, to write papers and to encourage and motivate others by presenting about my thesis.”
Often times a research path will continue after a PhD project, and this is true of Fran as well who plans to continue to follow her interests in the field of education.
“I am currently engaged in a research proposal to examine the numbers of INPPs in NSW, how and why the programs are being implemented, the key enablers and barriers for existing and new programs, recommendations for consolidation and growth and examine what support is required for existing and starting nature play programs. This is very exciting.”
Fran’s personal and professional interests overlap in her research, giving her an exciting and engaging experience throughout her studies. As such Fran has a simple, but important piece of advice for students who are looking to follow their academic dreams: “Study in the field you are genuinely interested in.”