For Harpreet Gill, everything is connected to five elements — the earth, sun, the moon, fire and space.
And at the Terrace Sunflower Daycare, she tries to incorporate those elements into the children’s play and storytime with an emphasized importance.
“All life comes from these things and goes back to these things…So, I really like for them to have very simple respect for nature, respect for culture and respect for each other,” says Gill. “That’s all children needs to know, everything needs respect.”
Gill has been running Sunflower Daycare since its beginning as a home business in 1998, eventually moving to its current location on Cramer Street. For years, she’s sparked the imagination of the young and eager minds that passed through her doors by the hundreds. As an early childhood educator, she says that age period is a crucial part of their development and it’s necessary to instil good values into them so they can carry those morals into their older years.
Born and raised in India, she says when she first moved to Canada over 40 years ago, she was fascinated with the different First Nations cultures. For her, their traditional and spiritual understanding of the world echoed her Sikh teachings from when she was a child.
“Every early morning, we did our Sikh practices. [My father] sent me and my other siblings to the temple where we learned how to read our holy book… which is our guru,” Gill says.
“We learned that God is not a person, not a building, not a rock, not a tree… God is an energy… I guess in some ways, it’s similar to the First Nations culture where everything has an energy and you have to respect it. Just like you would do with God, the energy.”
At the walls of her daycare, a few handmade drums are hung. She uses them when they tell stories to one another. Throughout the years, she’s taken workshops and made connections with elders in nearby communities to learn hands-on about their practices. She says she’d regularly invited them in to share their wisdom, sometimes even leading field trips to their villages or to special places like the fish hatcheries or the lava beds.
From those experiences, she’s learned a lot and now knows how to properly warm-up the cowhide on the drum. She says the ritual is to establish a relationship between the drummer and the animal that once lived. The children are encouraged to do the same.
She adds there are a lot of kids from First Nations backgrounds who attend her daycare and she wanted to include that in her daily sessions. From celebrating different festivities like Hobiyee, using common phrases in the various Indigenous languages to learning the significance of a “talking stick” during class discussions.
“When we read a story aloud to these children about culture, or we dance their way, when we play their drum to them… It’s like magic happens, they listen very carefully,” Gill says. “You can see that these conversations have an impact when they play.”
Whenever she takes her groups on a walk, Gill will bring a bag with some sanitary gloves. She says the kids are aware of the garbage scattered across the playground and how it hurts nature, so they often ask if they could pick it up.
“[We talk about how] we want to keep our land clean. If we will keep our land clean, the ocean will stay clean. And the sand beside the ocean will be ugly if we don’t do anything,” she says. “These are in the cultural stories, but there’s a real story behind it… God has given us [nature] for free, there is no charge… we just need to remember to keep the garbage out.”
Part of her teachings is to help them understand their collective power as a group. She talks of her youthful days in India as a child, where she would be “playing on the street with no fear” with all her siblings and neighbours. Many times, they’d stay outside until the moon was out.
“We played with no fear that somebody’s going to steal us. I think if there’s a community energy, a community power. I don’t think bad things happen. And that’s what I tell them, that if you guys stay together, there’s nothing that can come near you.”
Now in her 60s, Gill says running a daycare can be tiresome at times as she finds it difficult to keep up with the kids. She does her best to spend individual time with each child and let them know she’s someone they can trust.
But despite her age, she’s supported by their “young and happy energy” which she believes is keeping her going.
“Working with children is not an easy job but bringing interesting stuff for them to learn and to keep them close to nature [is good],” she says. “And at the end of the day, when the children are happy, we’re all happy.”