Curly questions about play

Curly questions about play

Children in the play corner An insightful blog post by Karen Hope challenged educators to think about the props and equipment that form part of the ‘vibrant and flexible spaces’ early childhood educators create. It generated quite a response last October and again, in a recent re-post. Beginning with hair straighteners and whether they belong in dramatic play, Hope explored children’s experiences and how educators can echo or construct them. Educators responded with comments about their own attitudes and practices at home and in early learning settings.

The original blog is well worth a read if you missed it first time. It’s worth a second read to see the comments from other early childhood professionals. (Find the original blog at ECA’s The Spoke.)

The ideas came to mind again last week during a visionary conference on the role of early childhood professionals in preventing and responding to family violence. The one-day conference brought together early childhood professionals, expertise in family violence and children’s trauma and was coordinated by Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria (DVRCV) and Community Child Care Association, with support from the Victoria State government and the Municipal Association of Victoria.

Some of the stories and statistics were staggering. There was much discussion and many moving presentations on recognising and responding to trauma in young children. We were reminded that for some young children, when home is unsafe, chaotic and unkind, the early childhood educator may, at times, provide them with the only secure source of attachment, enriched learning and support for becoming and belonging. So on the surface, it could seem like the kind of conference where children’s play and equipment were secondary considerations. And yet they were not.

Throughout the day one topic kept surfacing: the role of play in supporting children’s full participation in every area of life and how educators can support that. Lizzie Brown from Engineers Without Borders Australia gave early childhood professionals a chance to reflect on future possibilities for the current generation of preschoolers. Already working with primary schools and high schools, Lizzie reflected that the day made her want to start earlier, at the age where children use dramatic play to imagine their future self. She gave the workshop a chance to ponder the leadership, decision-making and capability that are possible for today’s young children when educators encourage them to participate fully in science and technology activities, to construct, calculate and create across all sorts of traditionally divided play.

‘What’s the harm in straighteners?’

Some discussion focused on how play equipment seems to have become more of an obstacle to this than it once was. Educators noticed equipment and toys seem increasingly gendered as toy manufacturers realise they can sell two of everything—a set of building blocks for boys and one for girls, where a family might once have bought one set, undistinguished by colour or gender. Even those chocolatey foiled-wrapped eggs, set at tempting eye height on shop counters, are colour coded to take the surprise out of the surprise inside.

What’s the harm in having straighteners? Sharon posted, in response to Karen Hope’s blog about hair straighteners in the play corner, before providing her own answer.  Others argue it’s less about the type of equipment that appears in the play corner or in the outside space and more about what we foster with it. What matters is to provide enriching opportunities for children, extending and opening up creative possibilities, questioning our own limited ways of thinking.

It’s all about the conversations that we have with children around gender specific play that is important and hair straighteners could be a stimulus to begin that conversation—Selma.

Educator reflection at the workshop and the comments triggered by Karen Hope’s blog post show that the debate is active about the spaces educators create for young children and the materials they make available. The EYLF encourages spaces, opportunities and materials in early childhood settings:

‘that are responsive to the interests and abilities of each child… [that] cater for different capacities and learning styles and invite children and families to contribute ideas, interests and questions. Materials enhance learning when they reflect what is naturel and familiar and also introduce novelty to provoke interest and more complex and increasingly abstract thinking’(EYLF, 2012, pp. 15 & 16).

That’s why the Victoria State Government’s new framework is a welcome contribution to early childhood practice. The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLD Framework) highlights and embeds what educators are already doing with young children and the role of respect in educational practice. Among its eight practice principles VEYLD Framework has a strong articulation of respectful relationships and responsive engagement. It emphasises warm and respectful relationships from birth, to support children in forming ‘strong bonds and friendships with others’ throughout life.

This is where play equipment and materials come in. ‘Educators have to decide “where to fix children’s gaze”,’ Dr Anne Kennedy offered online, quoting leading twentieth century educator and philosopher, John Dewey. ‘In other words educators are expected to make decisions every day about whether something is worth children knowing or doing, or not’ Dr Kennedy says, who with psychologist Dr Dianne Camilleri also presented at the conference.

‘The prop of a hair straightener may “seem” like a naïve piece of equipment to host in the home corner, in this day and age, but why is that so?’ Sandi commented on The Spoke. While Chris pondered whether a floral apron limits or extends possibilities for children’s play. Today’s young children are growing up in a world ‘very different from what we and the theorists have experienced’ suggests Chris. At the violence prevention conference one participant asked why do we call it the home corner? Isn’t it about creativity and imagination? Hence the term dramatic play.

A mirror on practice

What messages do we send when we include or ban some materials for dramatic play? Should we care? asks one blog contributor while others offered thanks for the chance to reflect.

And isn’t that what educators do best: engage, exchange and critically reflect on their educational practice and its impact on children’s behaviour, learning and development.

Karen Hope welcomes the critical reflection and the debate; that educators can both ‘agree but disagree with me at the same time!’

‘It is that critical reflection on practice’, Hope writes, ‘and why we do what we do, that is so I important … it is imperative that we continue to challenge our thinking. From that kind of provocation come[s] robust curriculum decisions’.

Learn more about the role of educators, play and fostering children’s relationship skills by clicking ECA’s free online modules: Start Early. Respectful relationships for life.