Young children’s participation as a living right: an ethnographic study of an early learning and childcare setting

Doctoral research 2012-2016 carried out by former Cowgate staff member Cara Blaisdell

My doctoral research explored how young children’s participation was put into practice — how it was ‘lived’ and negotiated —i n the context of one early learning and childcare setting.

Overview and methods: 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.

Key findings:

  • Children’s participation was not a tick box activity. Instead it was a core value, embedded into daily life at Castle Nursery.
  • Practitioners organised 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.
  • Age-based hierarchies were challenged at the nursery. For example, practitioners took pains to include very young children in the nursery’s ethos of rich, free-flow play.
  • Greater chronological age did not mean higher status. Instead, practitioners demonstrated their belief in young children’s capabilities, contribution and strengths.
  • Practitioners challenged adult-led, ‘schoolified’ practices by foregrounding young children’s knowledge and engaging in dialogue (verbal and non-verbal) with young children. Relationships were key, rather than a ‘transmission’ of knowledge. The practitioners refused to use tick-box assessments of young children’s learning.

The thesis has also highlighted a variety of tensions and challenges that arose:

  • Children’s play could be annoying, destructive, or even harmful to others. It was in these situations that practitioners sometimes struggled with living their participatory values, at times resorting to strategies of control.
  • There were also challenges when the nursery had contact with other institutions—schools, the local authority, quality inspectors. For example, during the inspection, one practitioner said that ‘the wolves would be at the door’ should Castle Nursery have a lowered inspection score, and that the ‘door would be open to meddling’ from the local authority. Some practitioners at Castle Nursery worried that by being quite vocally different within the sector, the nursery had become a target.
  • Uncertainty was an inevitable and enduring feature of young children’s participation at Castle Nursery. An ethos of reflective practice and learning seemed to help practitioners to be more comfortable with the uncertainties they encountered, as they lived their participatory values with young children.

Cara Blaisdell left Cowgate to take up the post of early years lecturer at Strathclyde University, Glasgow. Cara continues to support the nursery by contibuting to the Research and Learning section of our website.