Friday, December 21, 2012

Time for break...

Well to wrap a busy year I'll leave you with a quote from journalist and author of several brilliant books, Chris Hedges...

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success”, defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand
that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

I'll see you lot next year. The next big project for me to take a critical look at Māori spiritualism in the ECEC context. I have no strong opinions on the topic, but being an anarchist, I do harbour a lot of mistrust towards organised religion and the ideas that we a answerable to a higher deity. Plenty of reading and thinking to do on that one anyway - should keep me out of trouble eh?

Later skaters.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

A pause in the theory - keeping it real...

I want to give my learning journey from Pikler to a more socio-constructivist teaching position a more practice-based context – to move on from all this academia and get real. And that context is art...

It was a discussion about play and the role of the teacher that first made me question the wisdom of Pikler's learning principles and the needs of the older child. I was at a centre that was (and continues to be) very much inspired by Pikler. A teacher and I were in the art space, but it was empty of children and activity. My colleague commented with a sigh that 'somehow it's just all different with art'.

It may be a coincidence, but my personal pedagogical journey has been primarily shaped by art.

Teacher practice in New Zealand remains firmly under the sway of constructivism – a legacy of Kindergartens, the pedagogical vagueness of our curriculum Te Whāriki, and the widespread confusion about implementing socio-constructivist practice. Vygotsky's socio-constructivist theories gets talked about a lot at university, but in my experience new graduates often lack a clear understanding of the actual teaching processes involved. Many (and I include myself here) who are introduced to Pikler/Gerber theory in infant papers are seduced by its apparent ease and quickly fall back to the default teaching methods of older colleagues. For instance I made it through my degree thinking that 'co-construction' referred to the fact that there were two people involved in creating new knowledge – a visibly stunned lecturer explained in our final weeks how wrong we were – it refers to the social and culture influences working together...

The rise of Pikler in infant care is having wide-spread implications – both positive and negative. On the downside, constructivism is re-emerging as an acceptable position for the teaching of older children – our traditional pedagogy is being validated by ‘cutting-edge pedagogy’ and many teachers feel that they are 'off the hook'. Professional development is big business and there is a surge in Pikler/constructivist orientated teaching/learning here in Aotearoa. 

One such workshop I attended was hosted by Pennie Brownlee and focused on art and creativity (Brownlee is the author of the very popular art education book 'Magic Places'). Brownlee's message is essentially constructivist – not (I must stress) a criticism of her personally as she is very highly regarded in New Zealand as an expert on infant-toddler care and has been instrumental in the up-take of Pikler philosophy in New Zealand centres. 

Now, Brownlee made a comment during the workshop that made me question her overall message: a centre she knew had yet to 'produce any significant art'. I also knew this centre and I could see how their constructivist approach to learning and the role of the teacher leaves the art area to 'free-play' where there is no adult involvement. I had already explored this situation with the teaching team about how the art space seemed 'lost', and that while we actively helped children decipher other symbol systems like letters and numbers, we had relegated art to the sphere of free-play – a place where we considered children brought all their experiences together to be something 'bigger'. At the time I asked: how do children get the practical skills and working theories to utilise this area of expression?

I left this workshop with more questions than answers so I went looking...

Susan Wright (Children, meaning making and the arts, 2003) confirmed to me how a laissez-faire approach to teaching art remains attractive to many teachers who believe that children should be provided with an attractive array of materials, and then allowed unfettered freedom to explore and express. Such a constructivist approach to learning is echoed in Pennie Brownlee's work despite vigorous critique from social and cultural perspectives that question the reality of learning in isolation. Wright asks how is it that freedom of the individual is equated with non-interventionist practices in art, but not in such learning areas as literacy or numeracy. As teachers we are successfully weaving an image of the child as an empowered competent learner with socio-constructivist theories of learning that sees children exposed to strategies of modelling, guidance, scaffolding and even moments of intentional teaching – yet art as a curriculum area is seemingly left behind to sink or swim according to 'natural development'.

Wright describes how in art children depict themselves or others, play out events from real or imagined worlds, and symbolically express emotional and aesthetic qualities. They need time to problem-solve in relation to their depiction of objects and events – both literally and metaphorically – and that this is often achieved alongside what Vygotsky terms the 'competent other'.

Here we have a child's peers or an adult acting as guide, facilitator, protagonist, co-artist, instructor, model, master, and apprentice (Wright, 2003).

Well that was a breath of fresh air.

Then I attended a lecture by renowned art educationalist Ann Pelo from the USA. She is a socio-constructivist through and through and had no time for 'a laissez-faire approach to teaching art'

According to Pelo, art is an expression of participation in life rather than product. As teachers it’s not a particular skill we teach, but the act of participating and engaging in the world. Thus art is not planned but a response to living - responsive and reflective teaching is now possible to open an inter-subjective space for co-construction.

The idea that art is a language resonates with Reggio Emilia teachings about the '100 languages of children'. From here it is easy to see the contradictions in our teaching of other 'languages' – be they spoken, written or symbol-based. As Wright (2003) states, we are happy to act as 'guide, facilitator, protagonist, co-artist, instructor, model, master, and apprentice' in helping to build a child's 'normal' language skills, so lets do the same to ensure children have the skills to utilise the language of art as a means of expression and meaning making.

For Pelo, practice looks like this:

  • Invite and build relationships with the various art mediums - this can be days or weeks... and should be ongoing.
  • Skill comes through practice which is often not the end result of play, but the product of teacher directed provocations.
  • Use art to explain our own actions and thoughts. Model and inspire.
  • Fit the medium to the question/idea - power...... use colours to express this concept?
  • Move between the mediums to advance ideas.
  • Honour the courage of creating.
  • Move from individual to collaborative work.

Here are some examples from my teaching journal to highlight this shift in my practice:


Inspired by Ann Pelo, today I engaged in deliberately inviting children to the art space and working closely with them in building a closer relationship with the materials and build a foundational skill level from which to develop meaning making.

I have had a concern that work with the clay had stalled - it was more often than not unattended - and that perhaps the children had gone as far as they could in a free-play exploratory stage.

With the toddlers we practised squashing, rolling, and poking holes into the clay. Together we sung a song to describe our actions that engaged all the children present and helped maintain a focus for a considerably long time. When I had to leave I noticed that the play quickly disintegrated with the children dispersing to other play.


Today I invited **** to come and paint with me. He agreed and we set up the water colours. We soon had company and together we explored a step-by-step process of washing our brushes, selecting a colour and painting before washing again....

This was a situation of endless repetition with very young children - some of whom got the sequence and others who would need more coaching. Pelo describes this foundational skill building as a prerequisite to using art as a language in meaning making.


When one of the children had stopped working on a picture and was making to leave the table, I asked if they were happy with what they had produced. Susan Wright (2003) writes how teachers should draw attention to the product as well as the process and that children can critically evaluate their work and explore if it expresses (or not) what they want. Teachers are then in a position to work with the child in either re-working the picture or planning for another one.

I inquire about naming the piece and placing it away to dry, but am told “I don't like it”.

I make a spontaneous decision to focus on the product rather than settle for process learning.

Why don't you like it?

I just don't.

Is it the way it looks? Are the colours not right?


You know we can change them by adding different colours?

The child returns to the picture and I help him add a dollop of white paint to the picture. He works this paint into the picture.

Do you like how it looks now?


Shall we save it?


Shall we write your name on it?


So for me the art space is no longer 'lost' to whims of free-play and the environment as the third teacher, but a site of intentional teaching with the goal of helping children develop foundational skills with which to use the art materials to express meaning.

And I'm pretty sure that these instances of intentional teaching remain true to the core principles of Pikler: respect, trust, empowerment, relationships...

What do you think?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Teachers getting close...

The teacher kisses the child goodbye at the end of her shift. Blowing kisses, maybe... but actively seeking out children to kiss them? My first reaction was almost anger, but in hindsight was probably jealousy – could I – a male teacher – safely kiss a child? Do I want to? How would such a desire sit with my professionalism? The code of ethics and adult initiated gratification?

So I pondered (and observed my kissing colleagues) and have made the decision to NOT kiss any children at my centre. Despite reading into the repositioning of love and care into our professional paradigm, as a male teacher, I think it's a bridge too far. I've also questioned the depth of my feelings – do I really feel love to the point of wanting to kiss? How I feel about my own children is vastly different from the feelings I have for the tamariki at work. It's hard to put into words, but the depth of my care for their well-being does not in my opinion move into 'love'. I know that love and care are words that have a lot of significance for early childhood teachers when they talk about their work – for many it's a central motivator for being in the profession: they love being with children.

At Carmen Dali's recent lecture here at Victoria University in Wellington she talked of re-conceptualising our ideas on love and care so they form the foundations of teaching in ECEC. She recognised the danger that our new professional discourse of teaching rather than mothering or caring for children “could end up valuing the brain over the heart, and knowledge above the care and love”. Was there a way to to rehabilitate love and care in our discourse about what we do, in a way that did not create a political bludgeon that detractors could use to diminish us with?

Welcome Lisa Goldstein. She suggests that the solution would be to develop an understanding of caring that not only positions it as a 'feeling' word but as rooted in theoretical framework which would overturn the historical 'hegemony of nice'. A way to do this would be to adopt a feminist moral theory perspective as the theoretical framework to teaching. The key principles would be the “unending obligation to meet the other as one-caring”. In other words:

  • with engrossment
  • with full attention
  • with receptivity to the other's perspective and situation
  • in a state of 'feeling-with' the cared for, not through a sense of projection but by reception, and thus being able to see and feel with the other
  • with motivational displacement: i.e. By giving primacy, even if momentarily, to the goals and needs of the other

Goldstein also argues that it is possible to see the care-orientation to teaching as complimentary to Vygotsky's model of cognitive development where the zone of proximal development is a shared intellectual space created by the adult and the child. She argues that this shared interpersonal space where adult and child co-construct knowledge can be separate into two parallel dimensions: the inter-psychological dimension and the inter-relational dimension with the latter being an affective/emotional/feeling space created when an adult and child interact. She argues that eh very first thing that begins in any teacher/learner type relationship is this inter-relational aspect. Goldstein suggests that both adult and child are motivated to enter into these learning relationships by the pleasure and satisfaction they get form the interpersonal connection, and she calls this 'the pedagogical power of caring'.

I know that all learning grows from a secure emotional base – that's basic Pikler/attachment theory 101 – but does this respect and care evolve into love and from there the physical expressions of such love?

This link to Vygotsky's ZPD and the idea of intersubjective spaces excites me. It's a logical link really: we gather in learning environments because they satisfy us on so many levels. But the questions remain. Can this foundational 'love' translate into physical manifestations like kissing? Who holds the power in such as act? Is this ethical?

Personally, I'll be saving the kisses for my own kids.


Dali, C. (2006). Re-visioning love and care in early childhood: Constructing the future of our profession. The First Years Nga Tau Tuatahi. NZ Journal of Infant and Toddler Education. 8(1).

Goldstein, L. (1998). More than gentle smiles and warm hugs: applying the ethic of care to early childhood education. Journal of Research in Childhood Education. 12(2)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The evil reality of money...

There are many documented reasons why men are reluctant to become early childhood educators – some of them are very real and an ongoing concern such as the culture of sexual abuse we have created and maintain. Others, like how teacher training alienates men, or that the spectre of doing 'women's work' is too challenging for ones identity, are just bullshit in my opinion.

Let me help bust some myths:

  • Kids are fun to be around, the work is mentally challenging with endless variety and you will never get bored or old and grumpy. Do it.
  • University is cool. It's even cooler when you are more mature and not always on the piss and failing. Lecturers are awesome people full of radical ideas – the whole place is just a buzz. The downside is organising your finances to survive. Cut debt, cut costs, get a scholarship, and a part-time job. Study extramuraly if you can for more flexibility. Hard work but totally doable.
  • You can find centres and teams who trust you as a man to be around children. Refuse to work in a centre that will not allow you to touch, hug, hold, play, or change children. Break the cycle of misinformation and generalisations.
  • The money is great.

What am I saying? No, the money is shit actually, and if you are the primary breadwinner then things may get a little tough. ECE can quickly lose its appeal for a teacher who has a young family with their partner at home with baby or babies....

This is what I'm experiencing. Poverty to the point where we no longer buy fruit. I'm not bitching about no holidays or meals out, this is the gradual selling of our assets to met basic needs. When things break they just go in the cupboard. The car is on TradeMe and there are holes in my jeans that are getting a bit too big to pull off as 'cool'. When my colleagues invite me out - “it's just dinner” they don't get it. They don't get it as being in relationships with partners on incomes so large it relegates theirs (and mine) to be just spending money...

What does an industry eager to attract men do in a situation like this? Do we play along with the gender division game and its inequality? Should we give men more? Or are we to wait for a shift in the status of this 'women's work' so the remuneration fairly reflects the work?

Bit shit really eh?

And now we get to the vicious dog-eat-dog consumerist cycle I know a lot of my centre whānau are trapped in. They too need two incomes to survive. Stick the kid in childcare and use ¾ of the extra wage to pay the fees which leaves you treading water, but the mortgage gets paid and the cars on the road etc. Lifestyles are expensive. What we now consider basic needs – 2 cars, holiday home, overseas travel etc – really requires you to step away from raising your children yourself to paying a service provider to do it for you.

We are that service industry. We live in a service focused economy where a large proportion of the workers are meeting the needs of the rich. We feed them, build their houses, mow their lawns, walk their dogs and look after their kids. Real wages are no longer moving forward – my annual pay adjustment for inflation did not meet inflation.

Is there a solution? My woes are directly linked to the encroachment of the private sector which is driving down wages as they suck out profit... Kidicorp, Kindercare, ABC... the cancer has reached the lymph nodes of ECEC....

Put the baby into care?

Another man down?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Education is the lighting of a fire...

In bed sick and I'm reading Joel Bakan's Childhood Under Siege where he sums up the rationale behind the New Zealand National Governments eduction reforms:

"Education is bigger than defense."

Yep it's a goldmine. Public money generating private profit. And that's why, despite shitloads of international evidence that shows that applying a neoliberal business model to education spectacularly fails students and society, we are facing a massive shift in how we view and deliver education here in Aotearoa.

John Key and his cohort of ideological fools just keep on pushing despite this evidence because big business owns them, controls them, and doesn't really give a fuck what you or the experts think.

So a big welcome to public-private schools to be set up in poor areas by corporations. Hello to standardised testing regimes that narrow the focus of education to suit the needs of capitalism (and yeah, fuck art). A round of applause for teacher performance pay, fast-track teacher training (now anyone with a degree can teach in matter of weeks), increased classroom sizes, and media witch-hunts that paint teachers as the problem.

We can safely call this a clusterfuck with immense consequences. Of course we all know what the real problems are. As (the very much aligned) Ivan Snook has shown, educational achievement is directly linked to ones socio-economic status. Poor people fail a school system designed to stratifying workers - it reproduces class, it entrenches poverty - they are meant to fail as capitalism requires a desperate underclass happy to sell their labour for minimum wage. But inequality in New Zealand has blown out of control. There are a lot of hungry kids in our schools and they're not learning anything.

In early childhood changes are also happening. Deregulation in the 90's saw the private sector explode to the point where we now have too many centres in wealthy areas, not enough in poorer communities, massive fee increases to counter government cuts, and no jobs.

To top off all this uncertainty in the sector the Government has announced that ECE will be compulsory for the children of beneficiaries.

Hmm, my centre charges $400 per week and there are no vacancies. So these kids will be going where? New corporate centres with guaranteed income of course! And we love ABC, Kidicorp, Kindercare etc with their minimum standards and homogenised environments.

Education is about lighting a fire, it's about the re-birthing of democracy, critical thinking and action. Now's the time folks. They can only do this if we let them.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Beyond Pikler...

My journey to better understand my role as a teacher in today's learning environment has led me to move beyond the learning principles of Emmi Pikler and seek a more social-constructivist interpretation. Following on from my thinking in 'Pikler and the Older Child', I'm looking at 'what's next'? Here I re-cap where I stand with Pikler and how I see myself moving forward in a way that retains the core of this philosophy - the image of the child - yet increases opportunities for learning.

The foundational principles of Pikler are not original, rather a convergence of ideas that draw from the theory and practice of Rousseau, Froebel, Tolstoy, and Francisco Ferrer's Modern School movement. Together these weave a pedagogical base that exemplifies best practice. Pikler's principles of learning can be extrapolated as:
  • an image of the child as a free and equal human being to be treated with dignity and respect.
  • following the primary care model to build a secure emotional base as the foundation for all learning.
  • play-based learning that is initiated and directed by the player.
  • elevation of the environment as the third teacher and the principle path of teaching.

A corner stone of Pikler philosophy is that teachers adopt a 'wants nothing' position (Gonzalez-Mena & Widmeyer Eyer, 2009) that allows the learner freedom to learn and develop at their own pace and direction. Teachers do not interfere in this process, but through observation and assessment are able to manipulate the learning environment to present ongoing learning challenges. It must be remembered that Pikler worked predominantly with traumatised and disabled infants in a residential institution. Through observation and reflection Pikler found that the unhindered development of gross and fine-motor skill development of infants in an environment of trust and respect, turned the lives of these children around. By allowing the children to achieve developmental goals in their way and in their time, dispositions for learning are then embedded for future learning it all its facets.

The pedagogy and practice that have come from the early childhood centres of Reggio Emilia mirror Pikler in considering children as capable, confident learners who have the right to initiate and direct their learning journey. The need for secure relationships is also recognised as is the care taken to create learning environments to satisfy children’s innate interest in same and different.

Where the two philosophies differ is in the role of the teacher. The Reggio Emilia approach to learning considers the role of a more skilled and knowledgeable teacher crucial as child-initiated projects are guided and developed in ways that far exceed that possible by the children alone. Co-constructive strategies such as gradual facilitation and scaffolding utilise intersubjective space to take learning in unique directions where new knowledge (for both child and adult) is constructed. That children are not passive receptors of teacher-generated knowledge, but are able to construct knowledge based on their experiences and interactions with others, is central to the Reggio Emilia approach. Teachers do not view themselves as leaders who are in front of the children, rather, they are with the children, exploring, discovering, and learning together.

Play-based learning.

Teachers with a constructivist orientation to learning such as that espoused by Pikler often hope that children will pick up knowledge and skills through free-play, but there are limitations to accessing knowledge outside ones lived environment (Wright, 2003). Lillemyr (2003) echoes this concern and identifies research that questions the level of learning happening in the free-play environment. They found that “sustained conversation, highly complex play, and purposeful involvement leading to creative, exciting discovery”, were rare in the free-play environment.

I consider play to be a human right, a cultural right and the right way to learn. When Hedges (2010) says that while free-play has the capacity to promote deeper learning, teachers must be actively involved for this to occur, as a neophyte teacher, I swing between the sacredness of free-play and knowing that deep, sustained inquiry within these environments is often lacking (Lillemyr, 2003).

A co-constructivist approach to learning such as that espoused by Reggio Emilia, places a great emphasis on culturally and socially mediated interactions. The role of teachers in children's learning lies within the zone of proximal development with learners collaborating with more knowledgeable peers or adults to construct new knowledge. Hedges (2010) describes this adult-child relationship as intersubjective, in that it has “a mutual or shared understanding, a sharing of purpose or focus,” that allows for constructing new knowledge not predetermined or defined.

As a teacher, both finding this intersubjective space and working within it, can be problematic.
Intentional teaching can be both planned and spontaneous, but it is within free-play that teacher involvement gets more complex if we are to honour the child's learning and refrain from taking control.

Gonzalez-Mena & Widmeyer Eyer expand on their default (Pikler-inspired) teacher role of 'wants nothing, but is available', to include strategies of selective intervention that supports problem solving. It could be argued that 'problem solving' is the core of all learning and that through supported struggle we become masters.

Tina Bruce (1999) looks closer at these moments where an empowered learner briefly invites the participation of an adult. Bruce identifies these areas as:

  • Periods of practice
  • Manipulation of resources
  • Problem solving and the process of struggle
  • Representation - the producing of a 'product' that is presented for comment
  • Games with rules
  • Discovery and inquiry – the child as scientist

These all present instances where teachers can scaffold the building of social, emotional, physical, and cognitive skills and introduce concepts and ideas that are outside the child's immediate world. However, in becoming involved in free-play we must be aware of cutting into play texts in order to teach a concept out of the play context or 'reality'- to count, label, or offer the 'correct' information etc. This incidental teaching devalues play, renders it useless by dragging the children back into a reality constructed by the adult. Rarely is this intervention to do with the suspended reality of free-play – more likely it is socialisation, discipline or cognitive development within a specific curriculum area.

To summarise my understandings:

Moments of intentional teaching seem to be more implicit within the Pikler philosophy. The close relationship between teacher and learner means that while infants are essentially left to learn at a pace and direction that reflects their individual needs, problem solving and struggle is supported, and the environment is utilised as the third teacher.

Reggio Emilia retains the core of Pikler's learning principles in that children are respected as equals to initiate and direct their learning, but promotes a more co-constructivist approach to this learning with extended projects developed that better suits the more socially and culturally mediated learning of older children.

The Role of the Teacher

Anne Epstein (2011) offers this as a starting point in framing the curriculum:

A consistent daily routine should provide a variety of child-initiated and adult-initiated activities that offer opportunities for children to work on their own, with one or two peers, in small groups, and in large groups. Free play (choice time) should occupy the majority of the program day. Children should be able to choose and carry out activities that interest them with diverse materials. There should also be short small-group times and large-group times that are planned by adults with specific learning goals in mind (e.g., in mathematics, literacy, science, motor skills, creative arts). However, even during these adult-initiated times, children should be free to use materials and interact with others in their own way. Moreover, whether an activity is initiated by children or adults, teachers should be intentional in scaffolding (supporting and gently extending) children’s learning.

Working from the information gathered (and the authors cited), I have developed a working guide for my intentional teaching, whether it be spontaneous or planned. While I consider the list to be evolving as I critically reflect on my practice, I feel it that it is foundered on best practice as promoted by leading contemporary educational practitioners and thus is a strong starting point to exploring my intentional teaching.

As teachers we step back when children:
  • Investigate how things work by actively exploring materials, actions, and ideas
  • Establish relationships on their own
  • Turn to one another for assistance
  • Are motivated to solve problems on their own
  • Are so focused that adult intervention would interrupt them
  • Challenge themselves and one another to master new skills
  • Apply and extend existing knowledge in new ways

Planned or spontaneous moments of intentional 

teaching present themselves when children.

  • Are unaware their actions may be unsafe or hurtful
  • Have not encountered materials or experiences elsewhere
  • Cannot create systems of knowledge - eg letter names
  • Are not aware of something likely to interest them – eg the smell of flowers
  • Do not engage with something they need for further learning – eg shape names in geometry
  • Ask for information or help, especially after trying unsuccessful solutions of their own
  • They can be present without being intrusive in order to sustain learning (introduce a resource etc)
  • Can be challenged over actions, ideas etc in a way to foster constructive debate
  • Invite us into the play space with a defined role
  • Respond to fundamental questions; help formulate hypotheses, asking what they need – even when you know a particular approach is not ‘correct’
  • Become the children’s partner, offering assistance, resources, strategies etc when they are encountering difficulties and frustration may create negative learning experiences.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Pikler and the Older Child

This is an old post that I'm revisiting as my thinking around the relevance of Pikler's principles of learning in the context of older children continue to change. A lot has changed.

To refresh: the theories of Emmi Pikler are not original, but rather a convergence of principles that together weave a pedagogical base that exemplifies best practice. These theories can be extrapolated as:

  • an image of child as a free and equal human being to be treated with dignity and respect
  • attachment or primary care - a secure emotional base is the foundation for all learning
  • play-based learning that is initiated and directed by the player
  • elevation of the environment as the third teacher and the principle path of teaching
In transitioning from an infant care model that incorporates these principles to an older age group we must look at each thread.

Image of the child.

As I said earlier, our image of children and childhood reflects both our own journey and contemporary discourses. Pikler (and other philosophies such as Reggio Emilia and Anarchist) considers the child as a free and equal human being, but it's easy to see how these rights can quickly erode as the child approaches formal education. There is significant downward pressure from the primary school sector to 'prepare' children for school – essentially to make their job easier, so we get lots of mat-time and literacy / numeracy lessons. In the minds of politicians, many teachers and parents, ECEC is essentially 'pre-school' where children are in a state of preparation for their adult roles as economically viable workers. ECEC is seen as an investment and the true purpose and intent of the education system - homogeneity, social reproduction, obedience etc - is beginning to rear its ugly head.

Too often children move from a position of being trusted, respected and valued as an autonomous individual in the infant years, to being disempowered and forced to succumb to an adult agenda of 'education'. Can we maintain the trust that a child can initiate, control, develop, and succeed in learning challenges that are authentic, meaningful, and contextual? Of course.

I continue to feel that this is the core principle of Pikler and one shared by many others. Is there any reason to abandon such ideals? No.

Routine becomes Ritual

Many infant programs have been based on a model of care and education that aligns with an institutional version of attachment theory where a primary caregiver is critical for emotional stability - the foundation for all learning. While older children still need security and predictability, they are not in the beginning stages of developing basic trust and a sense of self as are infants and toddlers.

The concept of continuity of care refers to the practice of assigning a primary infant care teacher to an infant and (ideally) continuing this relationship until the child is three years old or leaves the program. Many centres find this model unworkable as the child gets older and 'the group' become increasingly mobile and disperse about the centre. Despite this, maintaining a strong relationship with children remains crucial – as all of you know!

Pikler positions the building of a secure emotional base during caregiving moments such as toileting, feeding and sleeping where close one-on-one interaction occurs, but as these times diminish with the increasing independence of the child, there is a need to look to other ways to create space for this relationship building.

This is where we witness the transformation of other daily routines into rituals that allow for the continuation of this relationship process. Routines can be described as an obligation, a job or chore where we do things 'to' a child rather than 'with'. A routine is often not considered a period of learning, but an interruption and can be seen occurring throughout a typical Kindergarten day.

On the other hand, a ritual conjures images of passion, love, willingness, extraordinary, creative and caring. In a ritual you are present, giving full attention with the 'head, heart and hands'. The ritual continues to have the structure we associate with routine, but its purpose takes on new meaning as rather than a chore to be gotten through, it is the base for the building of secure relationships.

Routines that come become rituals in the centre include periods of relaxation, group gatherings, and mealtimes. Thus ritual becomes the heart of a child's day and provides the children with structure and stability with play the space for exploring the unknown as the child's confidence in briefly leaving the 'safe spaces' grows. In the ritual we have rhythm and predictability, we have space for rich authentic relationships that feed the soul and leave an emotional imprint.

The time I spend with the children in my primary care reduces as they grow older. I still assist in toileting some, I sometimes find myself at the kai table with them, I check in throughout the day to see what they are up too, and I try to create instances of intentional teaching that specifically target them. I closely follow their learning progress and liaise with parents.... yes the links are there, but they are getting more difficult to maintain from a practical perspective: they are more mobile and their learning journeys are more individualised - and of course I'm stuck in other places, not strictly bound by staff rostering but still often unable to move freely to follow 'my' children.


Play-based learning and the role of the teacher:

The social-constructivist argument for increased teacher involvement in children's learning is a central tenet of contemporary teacher training. Rather than planned outcomes, teachers embrace the uncertainty of allowing children to lead the learning process with the teacher repositioned as a co-constructor with access to resources, skills, ideas etc. Yes a teaching agenda exists. Knowledge has been chosen as of having value and worthy of children learning. We seek to enhance numeracy, literacy, mathematical, socialisation skills and knowledge through strategies such as open ended questioning, co-construction, scaffolding and manipulation of the environment.

I agree with this position and this is where I find myself abandoning Pikler.

Pikler is an infant model focused primarily on physical development and aligns perfectly with Piaget's developmentally-inspired constructivism where the teacherwants-nothing, a reference to the need to let play develop from within the child, to having no set outcomes or agendas which turn play into an 'activity'. We 'teach'' through the environment alone by providing ongoing challenges. Through secure relationships we build trust, security, safety and a deeper connection with the child that allows to better support their learning.

Yet things change as the child grows. They can run, climb and jump. They feel secure, have a good self-esteem and love learning. Yet now this learning is more conceptual, more about ideas, the world about them, fundamental questions arise about life...

Research shows that the learning of language, mathematics, music, science, art etc can stall without more expert input than that of a child's peers. Lillemyr (2003) identifies research that questions the level of learning happening in the free-play environment. They found that “sustained conversation or play, highly complex play, and purposeful involvement leading to creative, exciting discovery”, were rare in the free-play environment. So how children can access more advanced knowledge and skills if restricted to only learning amongst their immediate peers?

We can critique the types of play we are witnessing and find those moments when an empowered child briefly invites the participation of an adult: periods of practice, manipulation, supported struggle, representation, discovery and inquiry, all present moments where teachers can introduce concepts and ideas that are outside the child's immediate world.

And so we arrive at co-construction – the central teaching strategy of social-constructivism and a long way from Pikler. Here the expert is working alongside the child to construct new knowledge. There is another post that looks into this in detail. You can find a link on the right hand list.

This is a fundamental departure from Pikler. Yes we maintain our image of the child, but no longer is learning an individual journey.

Environment as the Third Teacher

This role of the teacher remains important even though it is no longer the principle path of teaching that it once was with infants.

An environmental structure – be it resources, vegetation, sand, water, places to hide etc, need not have negative connotations of being prescriptive and the result of choosing 'correct' knowledge, they can be sources of infinite possibilities if we keep their purpose open-ended with the ability to become more complex. A well planned environment can incorporate concepts of mathematics, science, art, language etc in ways that inspire questioning from the children.

If we are now following this type of programme, can we still refer to it as Pikler? We could also ask why? If we consider the context of Pikler's original working environment – a state orphanage filled with disabled infants – should we really use this title? Sure we may be based on Pikler's learning principles, but we are developing a local context that reflects our need to honour the ongoing pedagogical research and practice.

Emmi Pikler picked the best of contemporary practice – we are doing the same.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Imminent death

Is not a nice reality in any context. Working with a young child who has a dying relative is not something any teacher wants, but it happens, often.

Mainly it's confusion that they are experiencing. They see the worry and fear on the faces of those they love; routines are disrupted – time off work, Nana in hospital and not at usual her place... all scary stuff to a three-year-old.

Talking about death freaks many teachers out. It goes way over into the personal values territory and requires a deeper commitment to both the child and their family than is often the norm. What do you believe? God, fairies, re-incarnation, worm-food, nothing? Do we keep it fluffy? Pass the buck? Does death scare you?

It scares me. I've watched my Grandparents and Father die and I don't really want to go there. I could cry watching the news some nights.

Death in the context of ECEC is a different kettle of fish with no direct emotional connection with (in this instance) the person who is dying. Yet my role is primarily one of being a child's emotional base – primary care is integral to Pikler and (in my opinion) best practice. There is no denying that we have a special relationship, but I'm not Mum or Dad. I hold children, cuddle them if needed, but I don't kiss them and the 'love' I feel for them is vastly different than that I feel for my own children.

Over the years I've collected a few children's books on death. Wolf Erlbruch's Duck, Death and the Tulip is probably my favourite, but not one I read to/with young children as it's a little too abstract on one hand, but blunt on the other – plus the pictures are a touch scary. I do however recommend Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes in Between by Bryan Mellonie and Robert Ingpen, and Old Hu-Hu by Kyle Mewburn. Both are brilliant in different ways – fiction and non-fiction are obvious distinctions. Old Hu-Hu has a dry humour throughout as our hero journeys through confusion, loss and sadness to realising that Old Hu-Hu is with him forever inside. Very easy to identify with. Beginnings and Endings is very matter-of-fact, but in a gentle poetic way: we all live lives, some are short like butterfly's, while some, like trees, can be for a very long time.

These two books are new favourites here. Mum has bought copies for home. I hope they help. I hope the pedagogical focus we have on building strong relationships above any 'teaching' provides just that little bit more support for this child - and those that will inevitably follow.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Just a quick continuation on the topic of free-play...

Richard Louv discusses in Last Child in the Woods how the rise of living as secondary experience where everything is filtered through visual and audio technology is creating a situation where children essentially do not learn anything of genuine substance.

Here he quotes Robin Moore of North Carolina State University:

Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child's exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective world. Since the natural world is the principle source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development of an interior life. This type of self-activated autonomous interaction is what we call free-play. Individual children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential and reconstructing human culture. The content of the environment is a critical factor in this process. A rich open environment will continuously present alternative choices for creative engagement.

Another voice with a fresh perspective on why free-play is a critical component of curriculum!

Monday, April 16, 2012

Let the children play...

I'm reading Berk and Winsler's (1995) Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and ECE, to gain a better understanding of the process of co-construction. However, before I delve back into that topic again, I want to briefly look at the play that is occurring on the other side of the fencethat is, the play we do not get involved with as teachers: free- play.

The importance given to play as the leading factor in learning and development owes much to developmental psychology: Vygotsky considers play to be the space where children operate at their highest level of functioning and where they apply all they have experiencedtheir working theories, their funds of knowledge. According to Tina Bruce (Time to play in ECE, 1991), what we broadly refer to as 'play' is actually an inter-connected process with foundational learning processes like struggle, manipulation, exploration, and discovery leading to competence and a sense of control. This control builds self-confidence, autonomy, intrinsic motivation, the desire to have a go, to takes risks and solve problems. Isenberg and Quisenberry (2002) describe play as a means for children to facilitate the understanding of skills and concepts, and to take ownership of new knowledge, that it is both a process and a product. Thus, rich and varied experience is a prerequisite to play where wallowing in ideas, experiences, feelings, and relationships, transforms the actual into the possible with new, meaningful knowledge the result (Bruce, 1991).

In revealing the inter-related processes occurring within the play 'framework, we are able to identify periods where more direct support is needed and where opportunities for co-construction present themselves. It also revels the space were our input is not requiredand can in fact be detrimental to children's learning: that is within free-play, (also known as socio-dramatic play, ludic, free-flow etc).

To help identify free-play, Bruce (1991) draws on theory developed by Piaget, Vygotsky, Brunner, Froebel, Isaacs, Dewey and many others to present 12 features:

  • it is an active process without a product
  • it is intrinsically motivated
  • it succumbs to no external pressure to conform to rules, pressures, goals, tasks or definite direction
  • it is about possible, alternative worlds, which involve 'supposing' and 'as if', which lifts the player to their highest levels of functioning. This involves being imaginative, creative, original and innovative
  • it is about wallowing in ideas, feelings and relationships. It involves reflection about what we know
  • it actively uses previous first hand experience
  • It is sustained, and when in full flow, helps us function in advance of what we can actually do in our real lives
  • during free-play we use technical prowess, mastery and competence we have previously developed and so can be in control
  • it can be solitary
  • it can be in partnerships, or groups of adults and/or children who will be sensitive to each other
  • it is an integrating mechanism, which brings together everything we learn, know, feel and understand.

In shorthand this translates as:

"Free-play = wallowing in ideas, feelings and relationships + application of developed competence, mastery and control." It is the place where children learn best.

Vygotsky notes that this type of play generally arrives when the child is beginning realise that instant gratification of impulses doesn't usually happen and that some desires will remain unsatisfied. So is imaginary play just about the satisfying of desires they cannot satisfy in real life?

The short answer is no. As children develop they learn to separate thinking, or the meaning of words, from the objects to which they refer – from about 2 years you can see how play becomes more detached from real-life situation with props no longer needing to be replica objects. Vygotsky argued that this type of socio-dramatic play serves as vital preparation for the much later development of abstract and imaginative thinking in which symbols are manipulated and propositions evaluated without referring to the real world.

Berk and Winsler (1995) stress the importance of free-play in learning where, as a result of rich social collaboration, free-play directly contributes to cognitive development, social skills, memory, language competence, the capacity to reason theoretically, creativity, the differentiation of appearance and reality, and the stream of verbal narrative that assists us to get through our daily lives. Additionally, free-play is not as 'free' as we like to think for it generally contains a plethora of social rules – an interesting paradox! These rules see children acting against their impulses – they are practising self-restraint as they willingly follow social rules. Over time we can see how rules begin to overshadow the imaginative side of play. No breaking the rules!

In his book In Defence of Childhood, Mercogliano talks about how children are increasingly denied the time, space and right to play. The wilderness is gone, child-killers roam the streets, the electrical outlets are inside anyway, and really, where is the time with ballet, voice, and swim lessons? Micro-managed play-dates?

And in our centres – is there time to play? There is pressure – schoolification, academically focused parents etc – on the position of play in the curriculum. We must fight for the right to play from a learning perspective, as well as cultural and rights perspectives. However, Berk & Winsler warn how adults walk a fine line in their involvement with play. We are often too intrusive and try to steer play into our idea of correct 'learning' that often draws the child back to reality with our out-of-context blah blah blah – “Oh shall we count the boxes then? ... Tahi, rua, toru...”

It's not a fucking box! Pop that bubble!

Wait until the child invites you in, or they return to reality to offer a representation of the play (a picture, or a cup of tea etc), or ask a question, request a resource etc. Accept that more often than not, you are just too real for this kind of play :)

There is research discussed by Berk & Winsler that shows the variances in imaginative play and the socio-economic status of a child with those in poverty engaging less in free-play. Should make-believe play be taught to children? Definitely. And get parents engaged in spending time playing with their children. One teacher I knew made a point of each week presenting a piece of process drama to the children. After dressing up, using props and acting out a story, she would leave all the props out to be used by the children. They loved seeing an adult doing 'make-believe' in a way that was purely fun with no hidden messages about been good friends or whatever. Mrs Wishy Washy anyone?

Process drama is a valuable tool for introducing the concept of imagination, but there is a lot of do's and don'ts with process drama so I might return to it in a future post.

Now go play – or rather, let the children play.