Early childhood education: Questioning play and child-centred approaches


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Despite increasing awareness that culture and context shape our understandings and practices, there are still concepts in the early childhood discourse that we take for granted and don’t question as core tenets or principles. For example, we don’t generally interrogate or critique the idea that children learn through play, or the larger notion of ‘child-centered’ practice or curriculum.

Questioning Play

In some of the rural contexts of Pakistan where I have worked, the concept of pretend play is often non-existent. In fact, originally my research methodology for interviewing children (for my PhD research) involved puppets with whom the children could play and ‘talk’. Very early on in my fieldwork, I had to change this – because the children I was interviewing were having a hard time grasping the idea of ‘talking to’ an inanimate object. ‘Symbolic play’ did not play a significant role (or any role at all) in their home or school contexts. However, children were learning – through real activities rather than pretend activities. For example, they did not pretend play ‘house’ or play with toy/stuffed animals, but they were actually helping their parents and caregivers with caring for younger siblings, housework, and caring for livestock. Similarly, they did not pretend play ‘shopping’, but they were actually going to the market with or even on behalf of their parents to sell and buy merchandise.

In these contexts, play – particularly pretend play – is not an important vehicle for learning. The learning is still there, and likely more salient and meaningful in ‘real life’ than it might be if fostered through play. However, in the mainstream early childhood discourse (driven in large part by European/Western traditions but exported to many contexts beyond the European/Western world), what is valued and emphasized is learning through this decontextualized pretend play, with particular toys and materials, in a separate classroom space, isolated from the real world. Little attention and value, if any, is given to real life learning through which children are becoming contributing members of their families and communities.

The idea that children learn through play is one of many assumptions that we take for granted as core principles in the current early childhood education discourse. Other assumptions that generally remain unquestioned in the mainstream discourse include ideas of ‘child-centredness’, caregiver-child attachment, and child development being defined by biological age with corresponding developmental stages. Marilyn Fleer is one of the scholars who has interrogated the universality of some of these notions (20032006).

Questioning Child-Centredness

Fleer argues that ‘child-centredness’ is highly valued in European/Western societies which tend to see children as different from, and removed from, the adult world. We see this separation of children from the adult world in many facets of European/Western society – such as the separate menu choices for children at restaurants, and the cartoon-ified or Disney-fied bedsheets and pillowcases in children’s bedrooms. In many cultures around the world, children eat what adults eat, and sleep on bedding similar to others in the family – and often with others in the family rather than in a separate specially-decorated nursery.

This separation of children from the adult world is further emphasized in the standard (European/Western) approach to early childhood education. “In creating child-centred programs in our centres, we have further removed children from the day-to-day world and placed them in an artificial world – one geared to their needs, where they are central, but separated from the real world. We have created an artificial world – with child-sized furniture and home equipment, materials such as thick paint brushes, blocks and puzzles, and an outdoor area with carefully designed climbing equipment for safety.” (p. 66). Fleer refers to these as ‘isolationist practices’ and cites an argument by Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues that such ‘specialized child-focused situations’ were influenced by social needs due to factory work at a particular time in Western history.

Fleer contrasts this child-centred-but-separate-from-adults approach with societies in which children are integrated as central beings in the world of the family and community. “They are a part of all the activities of the community. They witness what takes place, they interact with community experiences and they are included within the day-to-day of the ‘adult world’.” (p. 66-67). Fleer argues that ‘child embeddedness’ may be richer and more sophisticated a concept than ‘child-centredness’. This relates back to my experiences in rural Pakistan, where children were integrally involved, in rich and meaningful ways, in the real worlds of their families and communities.

Fleer suggests that the Reggio Emilia approach and Froebel influences have contributed to reconsiderations of how early childhood spaces are organized in the European/Western world – in particular, starting to blur the boundaries between the early childhood ‘learning environment’ and the larger world. This includes children’s access to the community as well as to real equipment and materials, representing what is available in the adult world. (The Montessori approach similarly emphasizes work or ‘purposeful activity’ in early childhood settings.)

Advocates for early childhood programming who work with ‘low-income’ families and communities – particularly in the Majority world but also in the European/Western world – often promote the use of materials from the home and community to make ‘low-cost’ learning materials or toys (see here for example). The idea is that store-bought toys are not always necessary; materials from the home and community can be used. But these materials are still adapted to become specialized instruments for pre-set notions of ‘play’ or ‘learning’. For example, containers are filled with small pebbles to make ‘shakers’. Undoubtedly there is learning and pleasure to be derived from such toys. But, might not children gain learning and pleasure from using real world materials for their real world purposes as well?

On that note, Fleer also questions the assumption that children should learn by doing, “through the manipulation of concrete materials” (p.68) – a notion informed by Foebel, Montessori, and Piaget, among others. She cites Rogoff’s descriptions of cultures where adults and children learn by observation – cultures that stress children’s responsibility for learning through active observation (in contrast to European/Western educational perspectives which tend to view observation as a passive approach to learning). “Since children are embedded within the community, they have numerous opportunities to observe the real-world activities that are important in that community” (p. 70), and they join in or take on tasks when they are (deemed) ready. In this sense, ‘child development’ is not seen as biological-age-dependent, but rather as a gradual integration into family and community activities (Fleer). In fact, age-dependent educational practices are relatively recent even in the European/Western world: Rogoff (cited by Fleer) has argued that it was industrialization which resulted in the systemization of people into institutions according to age in the European/Western world.

Core assumptions of the early childhood discourse are increasingly being interrogated. Often these critiques remain unnoticed or disregarded by the mainstream. However, innovative, contextually-grounded approaches to early childhood education – such as the Te Whariki curriculum in New Zealand – are emerging, and perhaps, slowly, changing the direction of the mainstream discourse as well. This dialogue is important and necessary. As diverse cultures and contexts in the world interact, multi-directional and respectful dialogue enables us not only to value different perspectives and approaches, but also to start ‘decentre-ing the centre’ – shifting from the bias towards European/Western values to a more pluralistic and rich approach to early childhood.

Sadaf Shallwani

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14 thoughts on “Early childhood education: Questioning play and child-centred approaches

  1. This is a very thought provoking article. It reminded me of oan observation a colleague made when visiting the schools in Reggio. She was amazed to find the children climbing onto huge chairs and sitting at adult sized tables. This was brought back into practice in the UK and we encouraged settings to install sofas and real furniture in nurseries to give it a homely feel and provide challenge.

    I think one point that could come from this is that it shows the merits of good home based childcare and education. I have always chosen home based childcare for my children as they have the chance to do all the real life things (cooking, pegging the washing out, going shopping) that they would do with me at home.

    For me child centredness is not about we seeing the world through the eyes of all children but in how we tailor our teaching to the needs and interests of the individual child.

  2. Pingback: Do Children Need Toys? | rightfromthestart

  3. Pingback: Early childhood education: Questioning play and child-centred approaches | Autisme et méthode par le jeu | Scoop.it

  4. Love this perspective and this post! #Kinderchat would love to hear more of this if you are ever available to talk more can you let us know? We are a global community of Early Childhood Educators. Please contact @hechternacht on twitter or email heidiechternacht@gmail.com if you would be interested in engaging in further discussion on this topic!
    Thanks so much!

  5. Pingback: Early childhood education: Questioning play and child-centred approaches | DCDSB Full Day Kindergarten | Scoop.it

  6. Good to see this Sadaf! This is very interesting – but are you also saying that ‘play’ is not something that children do naturally even in non-western contexts?
    Hope you are doing well!

    • Dear Sughra, So nice to hear from you! And thanks for your comment.

      If we define play generally as spontaneous activity which is enjoyed by those engaging in it, then I would say that some form of play probably exists in most or all human cultures. What I am questioning is the role of specific types of play for particular learning outcomes. For example, in the West, there is a great deal of emphasis on pretend play or symbolic play. I did not see this in rural Sindh, but felt that children were more meaningfully engaged in the social structures of their families and communities than they might be in the West. So, as I describe above, children weren’t playing ‘house’ with dolls, but they were actually helping their mothers care for their younger siblings. So, in both pretend play and real-life contexts, the child is learning about and practicing certain skills. And I am arguing that the real-life learning is equally valid and perhaps more salient than the pretend-play learning.

      I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

      Hope you are well as well. 🙂

      • Yes, I think your point is important, especially if anyone is saying that children should not be involved in real life activities and should be ‘playing’ in a formal educational context. I think one needs to look at what play children engage in before and at the same time as being engaged in real life activities. This does also question the whole concept of ‘childhood’ as many children in developing country contexts may not have the luxury of a ‘carefree childhood’ in which they predominantly ‘play’. They are, of course, learning all the time and can often seem to be ‘mini-adults, such as 6 year old girls with scarves wound around like their mums, brushing the courtyard etc.

        I left as CEO AKES,P in 2011 and spent concentrated time to complete my EdD, research being on primary teachers’ concept of ‘feeling valued’ in Gilgit-Baltistan. I’ve now graduated and am taking a break.
        Seems like you are doing well.
        Take care

      • Hi, I am an educationist from Mumbai India.. the real education is being i receptive to the norms and culture rather than following calf path.I value your experiences. It makes me ponder on many such school of thoughts that we just get awed and apply without understanding the ground reality..do keep sharing.

      • Hi Sadaf,
        Thanks for your post. I agree that so much of children’s learning happens while observing and participating in productive domestic and agricultural duties, where children are embedded in everyday activities amongst different generations. Nonetheless, in rural villages of Odisha, India where I spent time exploring children’s peer play, children did engage in symbolic play with dolls and small animals they made themselves out of clay that they got from the bottom of the village pond. Village dramas (especially Chau dance drama) are a big part of cultural life and children were frequently creating their own versions of comedic make-believe dramas amongst their peers, which included simple props and cross-dressing roles. Their other forms of hanging out together and mucking around together were also valuable spaces of making sense of the dilemmas that they face as generational peers. I do value this general move though, towards integration in our thinking about children and adults. Yet middle-adult-centrism is still a position worth critiquing and children and the elderly can be marginalised rather than integrated if we assume the concerns and preoccupations of middle adulthood are the norm that all need to be integrated into. Warm regards,
        Zazie Bowen

      • Thanks Zazie for your insightful comments. Over the years, my thinking has evolved on these topics – I think you are right that there are likely other forms of symbolic play that children are engaging in – perhaps in settings other than the ones in which I interacted with them. And yes, my main point here is to ‘question’ or ‘critique’ the basic assumptions we make – that we assume to be universal truths but that may be fundamentally biased in Western / Global North middle class experiences. Thanks again for reading and engaging with this post.

  7. Pingback: Early childhood education: Questioning play and child-centred approaches « Sadaf Shallwani – Early Education | Ismailimail

  8. Ah wow … I left a comment moments ago on finding info on ‘learning development’ and this article could have not been any more perfect !!!

    It is amazing how influential western cultures can be around the world and I am so suprised that ‘pretend play and talk’ were seen as being weird by these children. The maturity levels would be absolutely amazing if you would compare a westernized child against the other. !

    Great stuff !

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