Friday, 26 August 2016

Teaching art to the early years?

When I visited Swedish kindergartens this year I was struck by the quality and depth of the children’s artistic expressions. This led me to ask questions about the work of the Atelierista in the school. An Atelierista is a teacher with a visual arts background who works with the other teachers and the children to develop arts-based projects to summarise children’s learning experiences. Each kindergarten had an atelier (workshop or studio area) with its tools and art materials and the children spend one day a week in the studio. Art is a vehicle for enquiry in the kindergartens and the learning taking place is very different to what I usually see in the UK. The children are taught to use art tools and are given the space to express themselves not for art’s sake but as a source of development. The adults help the children to express their ideas because they respect them as capable of artistic expression and they have respect for the young child. This got me wondering. Why in the UK we don’t hesitate to engage in direct instruction in the basic tools of literacy and numeracy, but not in using art tools? Part of this can be explained by the problematic relationship we have between the creative arts and education in the UK that starts in the nursery and this made me think about an experience I had recently when I visited a morning playgroup.

I joined the other adults accompanying the range of 1-4 year olds for the morning story. After the story the young woman running the group pointed us to the refreshments and the carousel of art and craft activities on offer. The theme of the morning was transport.

“Do you want to make a bus?” an enthusiastic young helper asked as she led children to a craft table and proceeded to guide them through the process. Each child was given a red paper plate and watched while she demonstrated how to find the pre-cut-out black circles she had placed on the table and attach them to represent wheels. Other pre-cut shapes were squares and rectangles for windows and the door. The children were encouraged to look for the “circles, squares and rectangles” (shape recognition is deemed to be an important learning outcome for 3-4 year olds and a recognized school-readiness skill). She demonstrated how to use a prit-stick (glue) to attach the shapes to the plate and – hey presto – a bus! The children were clearly used to this kind of craft activity and proceeded to pick up shapes and attach them randomly on the plate. The young woman came up to ‘help’ children get the right shapes in the right place, adjusting those they had already attached to the ‘correct’ position. Before it was finished many of the children were up and away.

The next port of call was a table where children were told they could make “traffic lights”. Here the children were shown how to attach one black rectangle to another longer and thinner rectangle and were given three coloured circles – you’ve guessed it – a red, orange and green circle to stick on the larger rectangle to represent traffic lights (knowing your colours is another important school-readiness skill). The model for the traffic lights had already been made and the children were encouraged to copy it. Some children were told gently they had the red and green in the wrong place, clearly the helper expected them to know that these shapes weren’t really coloured circles but traffic lights, and everyone knows that red comes first etc., etc. Some didn’t stay long enough to stick anything on to anything.

I watched as a child seeing a friend at an easel and went over and began to paint alongside him. There was no direction from helpers and paint, brushes and water were freely available. This held his attention for about 15 minutes and his painting was accompanied by descriptions of what he was doing to his friend. The mass of swirling colours certainly meant something to him and he wanted to take his painting home (there was no such enthusiasm for his bus). He then moved towards the blocks’ area to do some building and played happily for about 10 minutes, again without direction apart from some altercations with other children over who could use which blocks that was mediated by one of the helpers.

I reflected that my experience in this drafty church hall with around 30 children and their carers could probably be found in playgroup settings and nursery placements in many places in the UK.  But what is going on here? What does it tell us about adult ideas about children’s creativity?

Firstly, the activities reflected an adult-imposed agenda and a notion of what the age group is capable of doing. The product was clearly important to the organisers. The adults cared where the children stuck the ‘wheels, windows and door’ of the bus; they wanted to make sure the children got the traffic lights ‘in the right order’.  The process of creating definitely came second place to the product to be made. To be fair this was a drop-in playgroup, I know that in most nurseries the process is valued as well as the product, but that doesn’t stop them focusing on the product dictated by a calendar event: Easter, Christmas, Mothers’ Day, or time of year, Spring, Autumn etc. Or maybe inspired by a book; imagine what egg boxes and pipe cleaners have done for the sale of Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. And whilst the regular nursery teachers might be less concerned about getting the pipe-cleaner antennae attached in the right place, these craft activities are definitely products aimed at parents.

At a time when choice for children is highly valued no one was going to force a child to ‘make a bus’ and no one objected when children opted not to make a traffic light. No one came and interrupted the play at the blocks to come and complete a craft activity. Unfortunately, in my experience of nurseries this is often not the case, craft activities are carefully planned, with all the paraphernalia involved for the nursery assistant.  The assembling of materials, the cutting of shapes, the availability of glue etc. takes on a, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish” urgency as every child has to complete the task in an allotted timespan – “have you made your Easter chick yet?” ­– and it is not unusual for a child to be taken away from their play to “come and make a card for mummy” or “a pot for daddy”.

Reasons why staff are so keen to carry out these craft-orientated tasks are carefully explained by posting a set of learning outcomes on the door to the child’s room in the nursery so parents know what the child will be doing and why.  Staff monitor the targeted learning outcomes whilst the task is carried out, often by filling in pre-prepared tick-boxes. The tasks are time-driven – a whole term’s worth of tasks will have been planned and each one has to be finished in time for the next one to start. Getting all the children in the setting through the task is a triumph of time management. After all, who wants to complete a Christmas card in January?

The time factor also comes into play as children are doing the tasks and praise comes for children who can execute tasks quickly and produce something that resembles the model they are working towards. All the finished cards, pots, caterpillars etc. will be put on display with the child’s name so anxious parents can compare their child’s work with everyone else’s; if one of the children hasn’t completed the task parents will likely complain. It’s an elaborate fiction of course – parents know their child didn’t complete the beautiful snowman calendar by themselves, but that doesn’t stop them showing off their child’s work to admiring friends and family.  Nursery and preschool workers, especially in private day care, work hard to please parents and they expect to be judged by what the child produces to take home.

I have often thought the production of products by 2-4 year olds is an early version of an assembly line in a factory (although its unlikely any human will be carrying out repetitive line assembly tasks in the robotic age – so not work preparation then!) And to be fair in recent times quality control has lightened up and children have been given permission to deviate from the model presented to them, but the focus on making things in the name of art and craft is still strongly present in many nursery schools as attested by what is displayed on walls and surfaces. If there are 20 of anything that looks vaguely the same then alarm bells ring for me.

But in an era of tick box developmental outcomes how can we monitor the skills children must develop if such tasks are not planned against the required learning outcomes?

No-one but me was observing the child when he was painting, and as I watched I could see he was finding out about colour and shape as well as gaining fine motor control from holding the paintbrush. He learnt that too much water or too heavy pressure from the brush tore the paper (that caused tears); that too many colours on top of each other produced a sludgy grey (that produced puzzlement). But this task was just for ‘fun’, it hadn’t been designed as an assessment task so no one was ticking any learning outcome boxes. Instead I asked him to tell me about his painting and this invitation to be reflective gave me a chance to learn from him and have a conversation. And I thought at the time how important this kind of open-ended observation is and how much richer than a pencil hovered over a list of boxes to tick.

As I said my visit to Swedish kindergartens prompted this reflection. Here, rather than planned tasks with specific learning outcomes, the Swedish teachers observe and document the children’s interests and outcomes of their learning, or what they prefer to call ‘meaning making’. Portfolios containing photos, captions, transcriptions of children’s words, paintings and drawings are collected over the six years the child is in kindergarten as a record of what they are interested in, what they think about what they do and over time the portfolios provide an insight into a child’s progress. The portfolios are always available for children, parents and teachers to look at and talk about and so the portfolio is also a way of building relationships between the teachers, the children and the parents as they generate conversations together.

This brings me back to the bus activity. Had anything meaningful gone on in the execution of this activity? What did the person who had probably sat up for a couple of evenings cutting out the shapes and planning the task think it was for? What does it tell us about attitudes towards the children? Did it help the adults get to know the children better?

I have to conclude that these kinds of craft activities, which are on offer in many nursery and preschools, reflect a deficit model of the child, one that needs direct instruction to meet the learning outcomes of the early years curriculum. In contrast, teachers in the Swedish kindergarten see the child as intellectually capable and therefore deserving of a carefully prepared, enriching environment, where the art materials on offer invite open-ended responses, rather than the closed response of the bus and traffic lights activities.

In a previous blog on “Childhood and Play” I quoted psychologist Peter Gray who suggests our schools reflect the view that “children can only learn and progress if they are doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time”. I still largely agree with this, but my visit to Sweden has shown me the value of teaching children how to use art tools. Such instruction shows respect for their capability and enhances their creativity. And whilst I know that there are pioneering settings working towards this in the UK, the legacy of product-focused practice is alive and well in many places. In some settings the pendulum has swung to a focus on process giving complete freedom for the child. This isn’t sufficient either. Having observed the outcome of instruction in how to use art tools in Sweden I am re-thinking how we plan for art and craft in our early years’ settings.

In previous blogs I have written about children’s creativity, particularly around storytelling and creative play. What I have gained from my visit to Sweden is the importance of taking children’s artistic expression seriously as well. I have seen what young children are capable of when they are offered a wide range of creative materials and experiences to help them express their learning. However, I have to acknowledge that this doesn’t just happen, children need access to an adult who can teach art skills and they need time to explore materials and pursue their own ideas, time to think, to plan, to design, construct and experiment. And all this needs to be supported by conversations with interested adults, ideally someone who has a visual arts background.

We have all sorts of specialists come into our schools; I think the time has come to acknowledge and appreciate the contribution someone with an arts background could make to our 2-4 year olds.  If our young people are to discover, engage with and participate in the arts we need to start by getting our youngest citizens actively involved. The arts have been sidelined in state schools as a disposable extra rather than taking its proper role as part of a well-balanced education. If we take this seriously we could create jobs for artists in education in the early years and ensure that all who work with our youngest children have training in art skills. If we do who knows what creativity could be unleashed.

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Marshmallow Test and Imagination

There can be few teachers or for that matter parents who haven’t heard of or seen a version of the marshmallow test. In a famous and much repeated experiment carried out by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 70s, and most recently replicated on TV by Sir Robert Winston, four year olds are placed in a room by themselves with a favourite treat (originally a marshmallow), and asked to choose between eating the sweet straight away or waiting for 10-15 minutes to get two sweets. Subsequently the children are videod to see what happens.  Some unable to defer gratification eat the sweets straight away whilst others try various ways of distracting themselves – singing songs, telling stories, covering their eyes, turning their back on the sweet etc. It is a hard exercise designed to measure a child’s ability to delay gratification, an ability seen as highly desirable as an indicator of future success. And indeed, those who could resist temptation were shown in follow ups to the original study to be statistically more liable to achieve higher SAT scores, higher educational qualifications, earn more money and even have a lower body mass index. But recently a further study has lead to some new and interesting information.

Part of the original experiment included interviews with successful children to ask them how they had resisted temptation. Mischel found that many children deployed their imagination by imagining the sweet was a cloud or just a picture of a marshmallow instead of an actual edible treat.

Recently Mischel decided to repeat the test but with a difference. He decided to capitalize on the strategies that successful children had used and told the children that they could try and resist the marshmallow by using their imaginations, by pretending it wasn’t there. Low and behold most of the children were able to resist temptation and wait the required 10 minutes to get the reward of 2 marshmallows.

So what can we learn from this? Unlike the first and subsequent experiments, this time children were told to use their imaginations. Successful children did that without being told, but all children are capable of doing so. I have been banging the drum of imagination for a long time. I have argued that the young child’s imagination is the most powerful learning tool we have in the early years-7 classroom. When we use imaginative, play-based approaches in our classrooms, drawing especially on storytelling and fantasy play, children respond eagerly and naturally. If we focus our attention on the power of childrens imaginations we find the children can fully immerse in the abstractions of the fantasy world to the benefit of their development.

Rather than trying to induct children into adult ways of learning which children frequently experience as drudgery, if we allow and encourage children to use their imagination and give it free reign, the classroom is transformed into a place of deep learning arising from powerful experiences created from the children’s own ideas. Who would even dream of telling children under 7 that Father Christmas doesn’t exist? Who isn’t happy to encourage children to believe in the tooth fairy? Who hasn’t noticed that young children delight in make-believe, in fantasy, super-heroes, fairies, witches, dragons and so on. By bringing the power of the imagination into the classroom children can achieve so much more – it goes with the grain of the brain! By listening to the children who were successful at his test and applying this to all the children Mischel has at last shown us that all children are capable of finding ways to defer gratification by using their imaginations. So we don’t we adopt imaginative approaches to learning and teaching? Answers below please.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Reflections on Swedish preschools

Reflections on Swedish Kindergartens.

In June, I joined a group of nursery managers, teachers and an inspector to visit three Swedish pre-schools organised by Tracy Seed[1], and on returning home I have been reflecting on my experiences. The practice of early childhood education (1-6 years) in Sweden embodies different ways of engaging with children in educational contexts when compared with the UK. How adults plan and construct experiences for children is a complex business that can reveal much about who we think the child in front of us is, and by implication, who we think the adult organizing those experiences is and what is the relationship between them. I have therefore been thinking about the practices of the pre-schools and reflecting on the theoretical frameworks that seem to inform how they organize and manage the settings. I hope to raise some issues that everyone involved in providing educational experiences for young children will be interested in. Recently I have been working with settings that support 1-4 year olds and we have explored our thinking about child and childhood and acknowledged how this influences our interactions with children and shapes the experiences we make available to them. In light of this I was particularly interested in finding out how the adults in the Ängbybarnens Preschools in Stockholm talked about the concept of child.

Before I go on to discuss what I observed and talked about, it is important to say something about my own thinking about child and childhood. This is important because the lens that we use to look at practice will shape our interpretation of what we see. I bring to my observations the idea that there is not a thing called childhood that all human beings experience, but rather many different childhoods. My own experience of childhood is very different from those of the Swedish pedagogues, partly because of differences in where, when and with whom our childhoods took place. Our individual experiences influence how we look at childhood from our adult perspectives, and at the child inside us all. Childhood also varies according to historical time as well as geographical place, which in turn are influenced by social, political and economic circumstances.

Childhood is therefore a socially constructed phenomena and I am interested to reflect on how ‘child’ is constructed in the Swedish context and the impact this construction has on the practices in the preschools, and on the relationships between adults and the 1-6 year olds they interact with, whilst being aware that my own lens of experience influences my interpretation of what I see. As a teacher, academic, educator, mother and grandmother, I also bring theoretical and practical ways of looking at the world and this influences how I interpret the settings I have visited. In the Swedish preschools we discussed the theory that informs their practice and those discussions also influenced how I interpreted what I saw as I tried to see things through their eyes. Having said this, my reflections are my own, and this is not an attempt to provide a truthful or accurate account of what goes on in Swedish preschools from the snapshot I was privileged enough to experience.   

Feeling inspired!

The first thing that struck me was the outdoor areas of the schools. They were much bigger than anything I have seen in the UK, (not surprising as the Swedish government mandates 7 square metres per child (almost double the amount the UK government requires) and the overall teacher-child ratio is 1-5. Children are taught in age-groups, and each group is led by a teacher who has a BA/BSc degree plus a childcare qualification that involves a further three years study. I was slightly surprised at this kind of grouping, it suggests that the pedagogues work with a developmental model of childhood linked to ages. It influences what activities are available to the children and impacts on the kinds of interactions they can have.

Empathic communication

How adults and children interact with each other is central to how relationships are constructed in the schools and this is certainly the case here, the communicative and relational approach followed in Angbybarners is based on empathic communication. This means focusing on listening to the child’s experiences rather than making assumptions about a child’s meaning.

“By using an empathic approach inspired by Nonviolent Communication, we increase the possibility of meeting each other with respect, understanding different needs and desires, and interacting in a way that leads to a shared development”. Preschool Brochure.

The staff assume that children want to cooperate and be part of the community. When they ask the children to do something, they tell them why so that it feels meaningful for them. They want the children to feel free when they play and create, and not be hindered by the fear of failing. Staff also express genuine appreciation for whom the children are and for the things they do in order to build their self-esteem and self-confidence. The staff do not assess or judge the children against pre-determined criteria or compliment them on their achievements as they believe this can block their ability to evaluate their experiences themselves. They want them to be independent and not dependent on other people’s approval, to feel good about themselves and their behavior.

This vision of the preschools is driven by a commitment to strengthen children’s self-esteem so that the children have the self-confidence to be happy with their actions. Empathic communication informs all interactions and structures the relationships not only between children and adults, but between the adults and between the children. The decision to follow this approach comes from a commitment to non-violent communication as important for achieving the lofty goal of world peace. Staff are all trained in empathic communication and this influences how they theorize their role as pedagogues.  They are concerned to hear the child’s voice and time is always found to listen to the children and their ideas, aiming to be response-able in their communications with children and in their recording of the pedagogical practice. I have deliberately hyphenated ‘response-able’ to emphasis that not all adults are able to respond to children empathetically and staff here all has training.

The leader of the schools explained that empathic communication works in a cycle. First of all the adult is concerned to make a connection with the child. The underlying expectation is that the child wants to cooperate and wants to be helpful. When they enter into dialogue with a child they begin by observing what the child is doing and describe what they see without feeling or judgement. They then try to recognize and connect with the feelings of the child and from this consider what the need of the child is in order to meet those needs by helping the child make a request to indicate what they want.

Teachers practice responsive listening by asking themselves, “What is she experiencing? What do I think she feels and needs right now?” They believe the children learn about consequences of actions when shown care and understanding, and they use rational authority to explain why they want a child to do something, for example, a child hits another child who is playing with a car.

T: You can be angry, but you mustn’t hit people because it hurts. Did you also want to play with the car? You can try saying, “Can I have the car when you’ve finished playing with it.”’

If a child is doing something they consider dangerous the staff use rational authority to explain why they want the child to do something else. In this scenario a child is climbing on a tall stool:
T: Do you find climbing exciting?
C: Yes!
T: You can hurt yourself and I don’t want that to happen.
Child cries
T: Come! Let’s find somewhere else where you can climb.
The above illustrates how staff pay attention to children’s experiences, to show them that they see and understand what they are doing and seek to understand why. Empathic communication requires them to connect with the child and acknowledge their feelings before they offer advice or teaching and in this way they show respect for the learning process and reduce the risk of hindering the children’s curiosity to learn.

Reggio Emilia inspired practice

The preschools are inspired by the practice of the early education approach from Italy that is frequently referred to as ‘Reggio’. Like Lorus Malaguzzi, the founder of Reggio, the teachers see their settings as a place for democratic practices and conversations. Following the ideas of Reggio Emilia and the idea of the 100 languages of children, the school places great emphasis on the arts and its capacity to promote creative learning. The physical space, both indoors and outdoors is a place that is expected to promote thought and action in children through play. The indoor physical space makes careful use of light and colour augmented by light boxes, projectors, cameras, and all kinds of artist materials to support curiosity and imaginative learning. The adults seek to be present for the children, they listen and connect with the children’s needs and take an active part in the exploratory learning of the children. To support their creative endeavors, one day a week all the children spend the day with a trained arts and craft specialist.
Talking to staff about day-to-day practice we were told that the environment is planned so that the children have the chance to do things themselves and use their abilities and skills as much as possible. They want the children to get the chance to practice thinking and choosing for themselves within limited and safe boundaries. There was an underlying expectation that the children’s thinking would develop automatically and naturally as they engaged with the materials and experiences on offer. Teachers I spoke to described children as naturally curious and questioning, filled with the desire to learn, to find out and to explore the world. Choice is important here; teachers believe children grow when they get to choose what they like and what helps them develop.  This extends to eating. Children from two years old can decide to go on playing at lunchtime or go and eat in the dining room. They serve themselves lunch and therefore choose what they want to eat from the buffet and then choose where they want to sit. Even very young children poured their own water from large water jugs
The Reggio approach was also evident in the pedagogic documentation that is used to track each child’s journey into meaning-making. The photographs and commentaries accompanying children’s drawings, paintings and three-dimensional constructions were used to document each child’s activities and provided insight into their interests and learning pathways. The child’s interests were of paramount importance; we were also told that children continue with whatever they are interested in as long as it holds their interest without adult interference. The children’s work was visible around the school as ‘work in progress’. Everything the child did was valued; there was no emphasis on displaying excellence that is a common practice in UK nurseries and preschools, children’s experimentation with all sorts of materials was visible for all to see.

Learning outside

In Sweden there is a huge emphasis on learning out-of-doors through children’s engagement with natural materials and with living nature. As well as the outdoor areas around the schools, children regularly visit the forest regardless of the weather. As we observed the children playing outdoors and in the forest all of us from the UK were struck by the apparent lack of attention to health and safety and risk-taking. Discussing this with staff it became clear that the model of child held by the pedagogues was of a robust child who needed to take risks and explore, who might get hurt, but that was expected as part of the rough and tumble of growing up and necessary for their development. The adults trusted that children were capable of assessing risk for themselves and would learn from their experiences. The early years practitioners from the UK liked what they saw and were critical of our system with its preoccupation with health and safety which impacts on where children are allowed to go in school settings and often results in children being indoors for most of the time and wherever they are, always in sight of an adult. We saw many things going on in the Swedish context that would have required complex risk assessment if they were taking place in the UK.

Theoretical frameworks

My discussions with the teachers suggests they were influenced by constructivist theories of child development and Piaget was mentioned several times. Piaget saw children as ‘little scientists’, discovering the world for themselves through exploration and experiment. However, this naturalist model of the child who unfolds naturally according to a biological blueprint if in the right environment is not the only model that influences practice. Staff are also influenced by the social-constructivism associated with Vygotsky. This is apparent in their emphasis on empathic communication which depends on the belief that a young child is capable of empathy. Such a view is a direct challenge to Piaget’s conclusion that the young child is unable to empathise with other points of view. At the heart of the interactions between the staff and the children is the desire to support the children to explore and to understand different points of view and ways of seeing the world. The children are given opportunities to practice empathy in situations that make sense to them because they arise either from their own experience or vicariously through story. From what I observed and from conversations with staff, it seems that the child is primarily seen as a social child embedded in social relationships that are of central importance to the pedagogic practices of the preschools.

The model of child is of a competent and active meaning-maker with a voice of their own that needs to be taken seriously and a 100 languages. Teachers had clearly embraced the Reggio model of the child as rich, resilient and resourceful. In their engagement with the children the adults told us they treated children as active and collaborative partners, as subjects acting in the world. The rights of the child were respected, their views were sought and taken seriously and this was expressed through staff commitment to ensuring children’s rights to freedom of expression, which is placed at the heart of what goes on each day.  Each child is valued as an individual with their own capacities that needs time for exploration with the right to play, make choices and participate. Despite this emphasis on the rights of the individual, the need for rights to be exercised in relationship with others also underpins the empathic communication approach, showing consideration to others is expected. Empathic thinking is encouraged not just in the ways adults relate to the children, it is also modeled through the use of puppets with an emphasis on feelings. To assist this with pre-verbal children the staff use feelings emoticons that depict key emotions: sad, happy, angry, grumpy, scared and proud. The role of language in communication is so important to the staff that the children are taught sign language as soon as they join the kindergarten at one year old. They are introduced to signs to express feelings and children quickly learn how to sign to each other and the teachers. This helps them to express their needs, e.g. feeling hungry or tired, or their wants, e.g. food, to sleep, or their emotions, e.g. sad, angry or happy. Expression of needs and emotions provides the basis of empathic communication. The feelings cards and signs also accompany stories that are shared with the children. In this way they give the children a chance to acknowledge and identify the actions and emotions of story characters.

Language however, is not the only medium for communication or knowledge construction. There are many opportunities for children to communicate through play, through manipulating materials, through interaction with the environment, through arrangements of artefacts. It was not just language and the social that was important, but the material. I was particularly struck by what I immediately thought of as an installation created by a group of children who were thinking about travel. Following up on children’s expressed interests the teachers had provided artefacts that could be associated with travel including suitcases, shoes and clothing. The children had laid out fabric that appeared to represent a road and placed pairs of shoes to indicate travel. This appeared to be an example of children using one of their 100 languages to express the concept of travel, of movement, of direction. I don’t know which children created this representation as they had left the room for lunch and had not been supervised during its creation. I was struck by how their representation made their ideas visible to us as we passed through the room. I think this indicates children who are confident in their own ability to make sense of the world and to share this with others. Empathic communication requires adults to look at children’s creations and think about what they might be expressing, whether it be through body language in their play or through the artefacts they create. The teachers we spoke to fully expected to learn from the children, as much, if not more than they expected to teach them. The important thing was to follow the children’s interests. Opportunities for this to happen abounded in the schools.

Looking at the pedagogical documentation we were shown and observing the children engaged in various representations of their thinking through a wide range of artist and natural materials it was clear that the children’s own creations were valued as part of their meaning-making processes. The creation of opportunities for visual representation of their thinking and seeing what they produced as a window into the meaning-making process was at the heart of what goes on here.

Things that surprised me

I turn now to reflect on things that surprised me. Top of this list is the lack of storybooks and of the poor quality of picture books available to the children. Perhaps this is not surprising considering there are much less that a million children under six in Sweden so the audience for Swedish language books is small – not a lot of profit for publishers here. This goes some way to explain why the libraries in the kindergartens were not inviting and didn’t seem to attract the children. During the three days I only saw one child sitting outside with books and no children looking at books. That doesn’t mean children don’t engage with story, there were story boxes with puppets and artefacts that teachers used to tell stories to the children. I wondered if the fact that formal literacy in Sweden doesn’t begin until children start school at age seven might explain why there was no apparent emphasis on using books to promote literacy.

Teachers I asked gave different reasons for using books and this was mainly to support their commitment to empathic communication. Stories were used to help children reflect on the feelings of characters. Teachers use story boxes to tell traditional stories and then ask the children to consider the behavior of characters, to think about the needs of characters that behaved badly. The troll for example, in ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ was ‘probably hungry’ and ‘had a need for food’. The teacher explained she would ask the children how being hungry would make them feel. As far as I could see the main purpose of books was to support teachers who were concerned to develop children’s self-esteem and extend their understanding of emotions and needs and the role they play in behavior. It is this that they primarily considered to be worthwhile learning when using books.

A second area I found surprising was the lack of intervention in children’s play and activities. I observed in one kindergarten in particular a lot of segregated children’s play. Boys dominated in the Lego area and in some of the outside areas, but teachers didn’t want to interfere with their choices. More girls were engaged with craft activities indoors than boys and there was little evidence of mixed gender play. I discussed the issue with staff and got the impression that they didn’t see their role extending to challenging systemic issues like gender inequality.

What would I do differently?

A very important aspect of this visit has been my reflections on what I would want to see introduced into the schools, what I would do differently. Top of my list would be greater attention to story-telling, role-play and imaginative responses to story. There was some evidence that this was taking place in one classroom where children, aged 5-6 had created a world of imaginary people that lived complex lives, where all sorts of unexpected issues cropped up and were resolved. The teacher, Veronica told me that each day the children come up with more characters, more settings and more problems to be solved. With her encouragement they created a miniature world in a fish tank and many characters and artefacts they have drawn and made using a variety of materials as the photographs show.

Such worlds of play can give rise to philosophical questioning and I would love to see a community of philosophical enquiry established in the pre-schools so the children can explore conceptual ideas together. Teachers in Sweden observe children in play and have the opportunity to listen in order to identify the philosophical and then plan a pedagogical intervention to facilitate children’s thinking. In Veronica’s classroom the children are naturally theorizing about the world they have created, it is a short step for the teacher to open up new ideas and themes arising from their story-making and creating to facilitate further meaning-making.

I have argued elsewhere as follows:

1: Narrative understanding is the primary meaning-making tool.  

2: Human beings make sense of experience by imposing story structure on it and in fact narrative is our way of experiencing, acting, living and dealing with time.

3: Story has a unique power to engage all human beings both emotionally and cognitively. Unless there is emotional engagement there will be no cognitive development.

4: Narrative Understanding depends on our imagination. Children live in their imaginations.

If all these premises are true then the implications are clear: we must create a curriculum that is shaped by narratives and use story to engage children in learning. My research has been interested in finding out what happens when children are immersed in stories – where their imaginations drive the curriculum they create for themselves. Part and parcel of this approach is the use of philosophy with children to support their play and meaning-making. In a recent chapter my colleague Sara Stanley and I have argued that it is through play that children experience in an embodied way concepts that are recognized as philosophical problems. Furthermore, as children give shape to their selves in the aesthetic space of play they can explore their moral selves.

In my practice and work with schools I use story to work with children’s imagination, to promote emotional engagement and inspire fantasy play. Drama and role-play provide further opportunities for children’s meaning-making and in the process they explore concepts that abound in children’s stories, for example, fear, anger, love, friendship, jealousy, kindness, cruelty, struggle, loneliness, deprivation, courage, determination, persistence, triumph and so on. The concepts are reflected in their play and Sara Stanley has identified a number those that frequently arise in the early years classroom:
It’s my turn (fairness)
You’re not my friend any more (friendship)
Not now (time)
No that toy is mine (ownership)
You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad)
You’re not sharing (sharing)
Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friends do (friendship)
The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof)
That’s going to be impossible (possibilities)
The dragon is going to get you back (revenge)
Only girls can play this game (gender)

These are philosophical concepts and when teachers are trained to work philosophically with children it has the potential to enhance the work that is already being done in Swedish pre-schools. Staff are already very attentive to the children and their needs, this could be extended to encouraging them to play the stories they are told, to create their own stories and help them to build on and develop them. Staff now are concerned to really listen to children and to respect their ideas. I think this could be extended to include their stories and exploration of the abstract concepts that are embedded in them.

We all know that the actions of adults shape the lives of children in preschool; the space that is created for the children in Ängbybarnens is one committed to the child’s interests and seeks to bring each child’s unique being into the world. I think this practice could be further enhanced with more use of story, supporting play arising from story and through philosophizing with the adults around the concepts that rise from the children’s story-play.