What does place mean for early childhood policy and practice? How does place shape children and how do children shape place here? And now?

This week I am in Tromso, Arctic Norway, collaborating with Anne Myrstad and her colleagues at UiT The Arctic University of Norway, as part of the KINDKnow project. Our strand of the project aims to explore the potentials of a ‘place related methodology’, examining how culture, local life, environment, materiality, the weather, place, past and so many other things play a role in research in early childhood education.

The first contact I had with Anne and her colleague Toril Sverdrup was in 2016, when they got in touch having read a paper I wrote about young children as wayfarers, drawing on Ingold’s (2007) theories of wayfaring and lines. Anne, too, had been writing for several years (in Norwegian) about young children’s movement, also drawing on Ingold’s work to think about the entanglements between place, feet, bodies, and the real and metaphorical lines that this continuous movement between human and non human creates. I made a visit to Tromso to talk about my research, and the next year I wrote a chapter for Anne and Toril’s edited book, Barn skaper sted – sted skaper barn. (Children create place – place creates children). The chapter is only available in Norwegian, so in this blog post, I want to reproduce and play with some of the ideas I explored in that chapter.

What does it mean that we are in the north? This was a question that came up again and again when I met with some of the authors and contributors of this book at a workshop at University of Tromso. Surrounded by mountains and the sea, searching the sky each evening for the Northern Lights, the data shared during this workshop was replete with snow piles, forests, and reindeer. As we shared and discussed this data in this particular place, the group asked each other “what does it mean that we are in the north?” Taking this question back with me to my own place in the world, northern England, I continued to wonder, what does place mean for early childhood education practice and policy? The place I live has a rich industrial heritage, of coal and steel, shaped itself by the geology and geography of this part of the world. This industrial past has deep running implications in the present day for culture, economy and identity. Most of my research is with children who live in northern English town and cities, which are built up and architecturally complex, with older industrial buildings repurposed for new uses. England is an intensely seasonal place, with cold winters, warmer summers and, as I write in Autumn, thick layers of multi coloured leaves carpeting the ground, which will slowly turn to a thick brown sludge over the pavements as Autumn turns to winter.

Hackett, 2018

 

What then, does the northern lights in the Tromso night sky or the autumn leaves slowly turning to sludge on the pavements of Sheffield have to do with early childhood education? These aspects of place, their specificity, become more relevant when we start with children’s movement through place in order to understand how children experience and make meaning in the world.

An insistence on the specificity of place and the particularity of experience, is political. Notions of knowledge or learning as universal, generalizable or capable of transcending place, are grounded in a specific Western ontology that can trace its roots back to the Enlightenment period. Once we understand this, we need to ask, whose knowledge, expertise, lived experience counts and why, with regards to what very young children require in their daily lives? As Hodkins (2019, p.6) writes “It matters which stories we tell” because the stories we tell and the voices we foreground is always a political decision, in which we are always implicated.

One way to problematize taken-for-granted ‘truths’ and the affective and material actualisations of these in everyday life might be to “immerse ourselves more fully in the intensities, flows, rhythms, affects and forces of children’s entanglements with space, place and materiality” (Osgood and Robinson, p.8). An insistence on returning to the sludge of the autumn leaves in the UK or the gradually melting piles of snow of Norway, is an insistence on attending to that which is not merely functional, that which cannot be easily and obviously appropriated for human convenience, to that which cannot be mapped to curriculum or learning outcomes. As Rautio (2013) points out “carrying stones is political” (p.12). That is, the kinds of moving with or intra acting with, the material world that are not efficient (such as picking up stones for no apparent reason), that represent no discernible benefits in terms of economy or production, represent a resistance to neoliberalism.

A slow and careful tuning in to aspects of human and environmental history might reveal what is in danger of being overlooked or erased by a dominant narrative of child development and quality. Early childhood education can have a tendency to present itself as neutral, apolitical (Millei and Kallio, 2018), in some way sanitised and detached from the struggles of the world outside. Yet early childhood education is never neutral or universal, but always political and situated (Osgood and Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2019). In one example of this, Nxumalo et al. (2011) describe the thick geographical, social and cultural meanings and contexts that shape lunchtime in a childcare centre in Nunavik. By laying the history of repression of Inuit identities, which has included the pathologisation of eating ‘country food’, alongside the materiality of children sitting in yellow plastic chairs as food is spooned into their mouths, they show pedagogical practices “building silently on the structural conditions of racism while evaporating the very categories of their recognisability” (p.216).

In my own research also, I am trying to begin with the specificity of place, the particularity of children moving and living and making sense of their lives at this time, in this place. Increasingly I notice glimmers and flashes of how past political decisions, inscriptions of power relations, community losses and trauma, environmental change, geology and geography, and much more, shape how children make place, how place makes children, even in these seemingly neutral spaces in which daily life seems at first glance to be so exclusively concerned with the minutia of here and now.

When we accept that children make place, through their intra actions with the world, this theoretical frame disrupts assumptions about the way in which children have been placed (Fog Olwin and Gullov, 2003) or categorised within the world as part of the enlightenment project (Blaise, 2016). This understanding of place created through movement and entanglement, then, is not to accord children the kinds of powers of domination and colonisation that the humanist project has accorded to adults (Braidotti, 2013), but to understand all people, including children, as participants in the emergence of the world. Movement through place is a central aspect of this. In this way, perhaps attending to what happens between children and place would help researchers and teachers to attune to “something more, uncontrollable, indescribable, in excess, something we can taste yet always beyond whatever we might know, perceive, or ever hope to imagine” (Holmes and Jones, 2013, p.358).

Hackett, 2018

 

Places are experienced in the here and now, as the snow falls or melts, or the sun shines, or the northern lights glow or not. Yet there are also historical trajectories and meanings attached to place and experience over time. As Massey (2005) would put it, we are all “negotiating a here-and-now (itself drawing on a history and a geography of thens and theres)” (p.140). The connecting thread between past and present experiences in place is movement. As Ingold (2007) writes, life can be conceptualised as lines of movement, because “as walking, talking and gesticulating creatures, human beings generate lines wherever they go” (p.1). Wherever we are in the world, as researchers and teachers, we can ask, what does this place mean for early childhood policy and practice? How does place shape children and how do children shape place here? And now?

 

References

Blaise, M. (2016) Fabricated childhoods: uncanny encounters with the more-than-human, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(5), pp.617-626.

Braidotii R (2013) The Posthuman. Polity Press.

Fog Olwin, K. And Gullov, E. (2003). Towards an anthropology of children and place. In K. Fog Olwin and Gullov, E. (eds.). Children’s Places. Cross-cultural perspectives. New York: Routledge.

Hackett, A. (2016) Young children as wayfarers: learning about place by moving through it. Children and Society 30(3): 169-179.

Hackett, A. 2018, Barn, sted, tid, bevegelse: på sporet av litteratur om romlig teori og dens relevans for små barn (Children, place, time, movement: tracing the literature on spatial theories and their relevance for young children). In: A. Myrstad and T. Sverdrup Barn skaper sted – sted skaper barn. (Children create place – place creates children).. Bergen: Fagbokforlaget.

Holmes, R. and Jones, L. (2013) Flesh, Wax, Horse Skin, and Hair: The Many Intensities of Data Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 13(4) 357–372.

Ingold, T. (2007) Lines. A Brief History. London: Routledge.

Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: Sage.

Millei, Z. and Kallio, K. (2018) Recognizing politics in the nursery: Early childhood education institutions as sites of mundane politics, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood ,19(1), 31–47.

Myrstad, A., Sverdrup, T. & Helgesen, M.B. (2018) Barn skaper sted – sted skaper barn. (Children create place – place creates children). Bergen: Fagbokforlaget 2018.

Nxumalo, F. Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. and Rowan, M. C. (2011) Lunch Time at the Child Care Centre: Neoliberal Assemblages in Early Childhood Education, Journal of Pedagogy 2 (2): 195-223.

Osgood, J. and Robinson, K. (2019) Feminists Researching Gendered Childhoods. Generative Entanglements. Bloomsbury

Osgood, J. and Pacini-Ketchabaw, V. (2019) Feminist Thought in Childhood Research. Series Editors’ Introduction. In J. Osgood and K. Robinson (Eds) Feminists Researching Gendered Childhoods. Generative Entanglements. Bloomsbury.

Rautio, P. (2013) Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life, Children’s Geographies.

 

 

 

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