5 yo picks strawberries, puts them in a bowl, takes them out one by one and either eats them or shares them with me. Some are left for a while, and then she requests a knife, which she uses to chop the rest up. They are left in the bowl, and eventually (when they are inedibly squashy), she returns to them and feeds them (at my suggestion) to the garden chickens.
It is an idyllic scene in a garden in June. The child is engaged, her 2yo little sister too (see the drawing below), and there are plenty of opportunities for maths and science and language development – a real “understanding of the world,” if we remove that term from the curriculum straight-jacket. It would be very tempting to say that “every child should have the chance to pick strawberries.”
That’s the phrase that needs unravelling: it brings with it assumptions about class, expectations, entitlement and the unattended questions about who decides on a child’s experiences.
This is all taking place in a lawned, private garden with chickens. We may not be talking an estate, but equally the incident is not one on a subsistence farm; we are talking, in current property terms, about a dwelling firmly in the middle classes. So the expectation itself that this is a valuable experience is already close to the idea of comfortable living. The “gaze about the multiplicity of who a child might be and how she might understand her world” (MacNaughton 2005:143) has been blinkered from the start by an unexplored attitude about the normalcy of middle class in the UK.
The “should” is itself therefore problematic. The work of Tina Miller on fathers (see previous blog post) suggests that just as fathering is part of/arises from a set of views about “embodied selves and structural histories,” (Miller 2010:38) so too do the practices of Northern-European childhoods. The “should” that may suggest fathers behave in certain ways also acts in a number of ways in the case of children. Proposals of “what children need” pepper Early Education books, and it is right that we have inspiration, leadership, direction – but the “should” is sometimes unexplored, and very often uncontested. A child “should” be outside because of the tradition of children (particularly boys) being outside to play:
Let the amusements of a child be as much as possible out of doors; let him spend the greater part of every day in the open air; let him exert himself as much as he please, his feelings will tell him when to restand when to begin again; let him be what Nature intended him to be–a happy, laughing, joyous child. Do not let him be always poring over books (1878: 179)
This “nursery inheritance” (cf Brooker 2005: 117ff) brings with it a moral imperative that is likewise unchallenged. When we talk about entitlement – and we should – what are we using as a yardstick? Do we see strawberry picking as valuable experiential learning about healthy eating? Or as another step in the induction into the middle class? Or an understanding of life processes? Or a replication of a dimly remembered rural past?
Let’s suppose this experience is viewed by someone – well-meaning and powerful – as a key experience for children. On what basis have they decided this? How do they implement it?
- Is this the practitioner who sees a child enjoying strawberries and thinks about replicating this next year?
- Is it the parent (or grandparent) who enjoys the time with a child and thinks “this is worth doing”?
- What would it be like if the Secretary of State were to see the strawberry incident and say
“Every child should have the opportunity to pick and eat strawberries”?
This is not so far-fetched, even though the vision of government-regulated (and measured) strawberry-picking is a reductio ad absurdum.
How does a new project get off the ground? What criteria decide that this or that phonics scheme, or behaviour management approach “works” – and works for whom? This appears to be at the heart of a new book out of the IoE, which I look forward to reading.
To go back to the strawberries, we might ask (and in particular ask our students to enquire of their own experiences)
- what makes this valuable?
- what criteria do I use to give this value?
- how do I communicate its value to the child, to the child’s parents, to managers and policy makers?
How am I an effective advocate for children, not just someone who sees a bandwagon and jumps on it?
Brooker, L (2005) “Learning to be a Child: cultural diversity and early years ideology” in N Yelland (ed) Critical Issues in Early Childhood Education. Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Chavasse, P (1878, 13th Ed) Advice to a Mother on the Management of her Children. Birmingham. available online http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6595/pg6595.html
Mac Naugton, G (2005) Doing Foucault in Early Childhood Studies. Abingdon:Routledge
Miller, T (2010) Making Sense of Fatherhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wyse, D et al (2015) Exploring Education and Childhood: From current certainties to new visions. Abingdon:Routledge