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.

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