Written by: Lynne Reside
One of the biggest changes I have seen in the early care and learning sector over a long career has been the increasing focus on children’s autonomy, agency and efficacy. When I took my training, we thought a lot about the importance of children’s learning and readiness for school, we appreciated the importance of a solid foundation in the early years, and we understood how important it was to care for and nurture children’s development. We put a lot of emphasis on developmentally appropriate practice but generally we planned and implemented programming that we thought was what children needed to learn. Having being trained as a Montessori ECE, I believe that I was lucky to have training with the “image of the child” in mind as Montessori was very visionary in that regard. There was often a feeling of push and pull between the writings and methods of Maria Montessori and what I was learning in my ECE courses. In my time spent with children over the course of raising my own children, in my career, and in my reading and professional development since I became an ECE, I have increasingly been both fascinated and concerned about the concept of child citizenship. As a frequent user of social media, I am particularly interested in the many posts that are shared regarding children’s accomplishments, children’s voices, and children’s participation as citizens of the world. These are often posted by people who are amazed by their accomplishments in the arts, sports, social activism and more - not necessarily researchers, academics or those working directly with children, but by ordinary adult citizens who are often in disbelief at their accomplishments or ability to understand, undertake and accomplish what we tend to consider more adult pursuits.
But is this disbelief and elevating of particular children’s accomplishments a reflection of society’s more generalized image of the child as an incomplete adult with much to learn, as those particular children as prodigies, anomalies rather than just examples of the unfolding of children’s true natural instincts, their creativity, their sense of justice? Those of us who have worked with children and sought to understand their nature, to seek to support their inherent developmental and maturational drive through educating our selves and observing children in healthy nurturing environments, often become advocates for better training, better programs, better support for families because we have come to understand the depth of their abilities and potential and the need to embed quality opportunities into their life experiences. Dr. Montessori was not a proponent of praising children for their accomplishments but rather supporting them in the natural development of their own autonomy using the environment as the teacher. She saw children as capable and that their sense of agency was internalized through their own discoveries and theories about the world around them and did not require adults to elevate, confirm and praise what they did.
Like many on the social media sites I visit, I am also in awe when I hear a young child singing a perfect pitched and emotional rendition of a song on a TV show, masterfully playing a piano at the age of 5, standing up to world governments to advocate for social justice, education, or a meaningful response to the threat of climate change. As a grandmother whose grandsons have a passion for music, I am still surprised to see the way they relentlessly pursues knowledge about music composition, about instruments, about famous musicians. We know that children have a huge capacity to learn when they are pursuing their interests and passions.
Children think deeply, they pursue knowledge passionately, they feel injustice with intensity, they are philosophical seekers. Most of us read Lord of the Flies as a requirement in school, but is this really how a society would devolve if left to children? I would like to think that it could go a very different way. I once read about a children’s community, I believe it was in one of the Nordic countries where they created a democracy run by children with no adults involved. The children inherently understood the importance of equity and equality and formed their own “government” model for decision-making. I wonder what our world would be like if we gave young children true citizenship – greater input, greater decision-making, the vote?? Currently, we are seeing an increase in youth (usually teens) being included on city council, or other decision-making bodies. What would our world be like if even younger children had increased autonomy; greater agency; had a bigger voice in decisions that will impact them for years to come?
Are our programs true democracies for young children, or are they more like benevolent dictatorships? Years ago, when I was working as a preschool teacher, I had the experience of attending a week- long symposium that hosted two outstanding presenters from Reggio Emilia. It changed my practice forever. As often happens when we go for training, I came back to my centre determined to make changes. For my co-workers who had not attended the symposium it was too much! I learned that I needed to make gradual small changes for both my co-workers and for the children. We all sat down together and decided that we would not be having circle time anymore but we would have meetings with the staff and children. The children had seen the educators occasionally having meetings where we sat around in a circle. They decided we needed chairs and paper. We agreed to that and every day, the children would set up the meeting- bringing the chairs, paper, writing materials. Their excitement was amazing. They set the agenda and we all discussed it. That one small change from having a circle time led by the educators, to having a meeting set by the children, completely changed our program. The children addressed problems in the program, they made decisions about what they wanted to do and they were very engaged and thoughtful.
I will continue to be in awe of the Malalas, the Gretas, the amazing performers on American Idol, but I am trying not to be surprised by their capabilities, but rather to recognize that potential in every child citizen.
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