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Challenge to early childhood educators

Challenge to early childhood educators to transform thinking

Some early childhood services in New Zealand have a tendency to cocoon children in a warm fuzzy world and are reluctant to face up to social and cultural realities, says Diti Hill, a senior lecturer in professional inquiry in the Faculty of Education, University of Auckland.

Scheduled to speak at the inaugural Reggio Emilia conference in Auckland from 12 to 15 July attended by over 200 early childhood educators, Ms Hill will urge those present to adopt a more ‘socio-cultural’ view of early childhood education.

“We all need to recognise that early childhood education is part of the real world, in the way schools are, and not persist in closing the gate on ‘adult’ issues like violence and prejudice. It is time to move beyond the zero-tolerance policies many centres adopt on things like guns and barbie dolls and have more open discussions about what those things symbolise.

“Zero tolerance policies are the redemptive approach to education –you put a lid on adult concepts because you don’t want children to grow up like adults. The children are therefore seen as redeemers in this approach. However this is a naïve view and history shows it doesn’t work. There are always children who come from homes filled with the violence and injustices that exist in the real world. Refusing to address those things for children results in confusion, aggression and inappropriate labels like ‘naughty’ put on non-peaceful behaviour.”

Ms Hill says that early childhood educators in New Zealand are quite accepting of regulation, which results in a watering down of values and beliefs in practice. In the Reggio Emilia early childhood movement – which has a huge following in Europe, Asia and America – services seem to be better at staying true to their vision for children and working politically to achieve their goals.

At the heart of the Reggio Emilia approach, originating in Italy, is the concept of the child as a powerful and competent learner versus a needy and passive one; and an engaged and respected citizen of the world. While New Zealand subscribes to this philosophy there is still some way to go to view the teacher-child relationship as equal, says Diti Hill. “Reggio Emilia pushes the pedagogy of listening to children right to the hilt. Some do that here in New Zealand but many services still pursue the didactic approach in which teachers ‘do unto’ children. So long as children are seen as lesser and needing development, the power relationship will be out of balance.”

Environments in early childhood centres can typify this lack of balance, she says. Assumptions that children like bright colours can result in ‘over-disneyfication’. “The bright plastic-fantastic can be taken to extremes. Often the environment is not subtle or respectful of children.”

Contributors at the Reggio Emilia conference next week will provoke and challenge practices in New Zealand on all levels. Ms Hill will present a challenge to one of New Zealand’s sacred cows – the ‘areas of play’, in which separate activities - water, dough, carpentry, family corners - are set up each day. The rules around this play – for example, not taking dough outside - not having glass jars etc - can prevent children working in multi-purpose and lateral ways. “We can get too hung up on environments, protection and structuring in areas of play, and that blocks the ability to make fundamental mind-shifts about the relationship between teacher and learner.”

The international interest in the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy was stimulated by the Diana infant toddler centre and preschool in Reggio Emilia, Italy, being named as the most avant-garde early childhood institution in the world by Newsweek magazine in 1991.

The current pedagogical consultant to Reggio Emilia and internationally respected early childhood educator Professor Carlina Rinaldi from the University of Modena will attend the conference and present on how to put vision into effect, and the pedagogy of listening.

Presenters from Australia and the United States will also attend the three day conference: Provoking Encounters:Transforming Thought, Kei te Whakapiripiri ki te Wero: Hiringa i te Mahara held at St Cuthberts College.

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