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.
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 (2003; 2006).
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.