Young children’s participation as a living right: an ethnographic study of an early learning and childcare setting
Blaisdell, Caralyn Beth
My doctoral research has explored how young children’s participation was put into practice—how it was ‘lived’ and negotiated—in the context of one early learning and childcare setting. The concept of children’s participation is rooted in large part in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which enshrines children’s right to express their views and have those views taken into account. However, young children’s participation rights are often overlooked. The more prominent discourse about young children has been one that focuses on early childhood as a preparatory period of life, in which adults must intervene and shape children’s development. My research has therefore focused on child-adult relationships within the early childhood setting, looking at how young children and early childhood practitioners ‘lived’ children’s participation and negotiated the tensions and challenges that arose for them. To carry out the research, I used an ethnographic methodology to study one fieldwork site in depth. ‘Castle Nursery’ was an early learning and childcare setting in Scotland, where practitioners professed to work in participatory ways with young children. The long-term nature of ethnography allowed me to observe how children’s participation was lived and negotiated at Castle Nursery over an eight-month period of fieldwork. The research found that practitioners challenged adult-led, ‘schoolified’ practices by foregrounding young children’s knowledge and contributions to the setting. Children’s participation was embedded into play-based pedagogy at Castle Nursery, with practitioners organising time and space to allow young children a great deal of influence over their daily experiences. Rather than planning adult-led learning activities, practitioners instead cultivated a rich learning environment for children to explore, through free-flow play. The thesis has also highlighted a variety of tensions and challenges that arose. Even at Castle Nursery, where practitioners were proud of the ways their work challenged conventional norms about young children, there were limits to how far practitioners would take a participatory approach. The thesis has particularly highlighted the importance of reflective practices about the ethical dimensions of early childhood practice. Uncertainty seemed to be an inevitable and enduring feature of living young children’s participation.