Guest Post: ‘Picking up the Pieces’: Where to Next in terms of Listening to Young Children?
This blog post by Dr Alison Clark is based on her PED Talk (Pedagogical Short Talk) delivered at EECERA 2018 in Budapest on 31st Aug 2018.
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November 2019 will mark the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This seems like an important moment to stop and reflect on what has been learnt about childhood and children’s lives. There is a specific challenge for the field of early childhood research and practice. What new understandings have been gained but also what questions have been raised by taking seriously young children’s views and experiences in line with Article 12 of the UNCRC, and also Article 13 that emphasises the right of children to both receive information and communicate their own ideas using a range of different means of expression.
Taking up the Challenge
I have begun to reflect on the research studies I have been involved in over the past almost two decades, to consider what have been the main surprises for me in listening to young children’s perspectives about their early childhood environments? Where have been the gaps?
Surprises happen when expected patterns are disrupted. When adults with different academic and professional backgrounds engage with young children, a certain set of expectations come into play. This has been the case in my own engagement with children. Two themes leap out at me where the expected pattern of what I thought young children could do or how they were likely to react was challenged. These themes relate to young children’s sense of time and sense of place.
Colin, one of the four-year-olds in the Spaces to Play study (Clark, 2017), took me on a tour of the outdoor play space at his preschool and took photographs of what was important to him. One of the photographs he chose to take was a small empty piece of tarmac. Later, when Colin was making a map using his photographs, he explained how this was where the show had happened: ‘Sylvester and Tweety Pie’ (2017: 95). It was only after talking with practitioners at the preschool that I found out there had been a puppet show that had taken place on that site 15 months earlier. This moment challenged my understanding and reading about young children’s memories and sense of time. It wasn’t that young children were so absorbed in the moment that they didn’t have developed memories, but was perhaps more a case of a ‘concertinaed past squashed together but nonetheless capable of intense memories’ (Clark, 2010:125).
A Sense of Place
Young children’s sense of place has been a recurrent theme across several research studies I’ve been engaged in working with the Mosaic approach in the UK and Denmark. The strength of this connection, that young children have conveyed through their words and images, has surprised me. This sense of place and belonging has become most apparent when children have identified the importance of personal markers: children’s own names and own artwork in particular. This raises a significant question though about what does this mean for young children who don’t find themselves represented in their learning environment? How does this impact on the children? Do they feel ‘invisible’?
Freedom of expression: Living Spaces study 2006. Photograph: Alison Clark
Listening to Young Children
I have also been surprised by the reaction from other adults about listening to young children’s views and perspectives. One example of this came from a Headteacher I worked with in the Living Spaces study (Clark, 2010). When explaining the research approach I referred to the now often quoted phrase ‘young children as experts in their own lives’. I first came across this way of thinking about the unique contribution young children can make to thinking about their lived experience in the work of the Danish sociologist Ole Langsted. The Headteacher explained how he had never before thought of the children in his school as being experts in their own lives.
The 30th anniversary of the UNCRC presents an opportunity to bring together some of the common threads and possible contradictions that have emerged from the numerous studies that have been undertaken with young children about their lived experience. One of the challenges in doing so is the fragmented nature of this knowledge. What might be the reasons for this fragmentation? This fragmentation can be understood to be both methodological and political.
Listening to young children’s views and experiences is complex and time-consuming. Methodologically this has led to numerous small-scale studies that can mean that the new understandings and questions remain isolated in individual publications and presentations. Large cross-national studies such as the Children Crossing Borders study (Bertram and Pascal, 2007) have been the exception.
Fragmentation at a political level has occurred at a national and international level as well as within higher education. Taking the UK as an example, political interest in considering children’s rights and perspectives has moved in and out of fashion. There was a moment in the early 2000s when central government support was given to voluntary sector initiatives around listening to young children, for example, the Young Children’s Voices Network coordinated by the Early Childhood Unit of the National Children’s Bureau. This political interest has waned and together with increasing budget restraints funding has been removed and as a consequence, some of the mechanisms for bringing together research and practice around listening to young children has been harder to achieve.
Within Higher Education, this fragmentation may relate to the particular framing of academic research. There has been an increasing number of MA and PhD studies in the field of Early Childhood over the past twenty years that have conducted research around young children’s views and experiences. There is a requirement, however, in Doctorate studies in particular, to make an original contribution to knowledge. This combined with the methodological issues about researching with young children has perhaps contributed to the emphasis on creating more innovative research that in the main has been small scale rather than studies to piece together knowledge gained. The very structure of the UNCRC, divided into 54 articles can also be seen to fragment childhood rather than present a holistic picture of lives lived.
Against this background, the 30th anniversary celebrations could be the opportunity for critical reflection. This could involve finding new ways to piece together insights from young children as well as to be mindful of the gaps. What voices and experiences have been underrepresented or become hidden and how could this be redressed? Collaborating on special issues and edited books are one way to counter this scattered knowledge but also in dialogue across research and practice. Most important of all is the need to examine what difference has listening made to the way we work with, engage and provide for young children now and in the future?
Bertram, T. and Pascal, C. (2007) ‘Children crossing borders: enhancing the inclusion of children in pre-school settings’, Childcare in Europe, May.
Clark, A. (2017) Listening to young children: a guide to understanding and using the Mosaic approach. Expanded 3rd edition. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishing.
Clark, A. (2010) Transforming Children’s Spaces: children’s and adults’ participation in designing learning environments. London: Routledge.
UNCRC (1989) United Nations Treaty Collection, CHAPTER IV: HUMAN RIGHTS, 11. Convention on the Rights of the Child. New York, 20 November 1989
About the Author
Dr Alison Clark is a visiting Research Associate at UCL Institute of Education, London and adjunct Associate Professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway and at OsloMet, Norway. Alison is an academic and an artist who developed the Mosaic approach with Professor Peter Moss (first published in 2001) and is the co-founder or the EECERA Children’s Perspectives SIG. She co-edited Understanding Research with Children and Young People (Clark, Flewitt, Hammersley and Robb, 2014) whilst teaching and researching at The Open University. Her most recent book ‘Listening to young children: a guide to understanding the Mosaic approach’ was published in 2017. Alison’s current research interests include young children’s rights, early childhood environments and pedagogical and participatory documentation.