Being able to understand the child’s perspective

Written by: Dr. Verity Campbell-Barr associate Professor in Early Childhood Studies, University of Plymouth with Dr Jan Georgeson, Plymouth Institute of Education, Plymouth University
7 January 2019

Discover how a series of observations in international settings has enabled an exploration of the different ways in which educators enact child-centredness, and how this can support diverse groups.

What does child-centred approach to practice mean today?
What does child-centred approach to practice mean today?

Child-centredness is often highlighted as important for the provision of high quality, early childhood education and care (ECEC), often as a shorthand for what quality pedagogical practice might look like.

Principles of child-centred practice are deeply embedded in early childhood pedagogy, underpinning many national curricula and guidelines. However, there is relatively little known about how being child-centred is approached in initial training or ongoing professional development, and how it is enacted in practice, particularly in relation to supporting diverse groups of children.

Our own experience of ECEC pedagogical practice in international contexts has illustrated that it is a term that is variably (and subtly) interpreted (Campbell-Barr 2017; Georgeson et al. 2015). On closer inspection of the history of the term and wider literature, it is evident that child-centred does have different interpretations – to respond to children’s needs and interests, to support their development, and to offer children choice and agency.

Different interpretations
Initially associated with the work of Froebel, child-centred has come to symbolise a pedagogical practice that respects children for themselves and for what they will become, with play-based learning, where children can choose freely, and is identi ed as facilitating children’s autonomy and active participation. Embedded in this (perhaps ideological) interpretation are what Chung and Walsh (2000) identify as the three interrelated concepts of child-centredness: the child in the centre of the world, the child in the centre of learning and the child as a leader of his/her own learning.

However, there are potential tensions between the di erent interpretations of ‘child-centredness’ and what these mean for the support of children with di erent needs or from diverse backgrounds. Questions arise as to how, in reality, all children can be at the centre of pedagogical practice, how all children’s developmental needs can be supported and whether democratic approaches can be combined with a focus on tracking individuals’ progress against developmental milestones. Furthermore, in supporting the needs of children from communities towards the margins of society, there are strong arguments against adopting an approach centred exclusively on the child’s own interests or cultural background in favour of an approach that o ers the child and family a bridge between their home community and the mainstream society.


European projects
In our own encounters with child-centredness we noticed it was an approach that was widely advocated, but poorly articulated, and this led to the development of a European project to explore what child-centredness looks like in practice . e project involves both ECEC and university partners from Croatia, Denmark, Ireland, Italy, Spain and (of course) the UK. Its aim is to investigate ‘child- centredness’ as a component of high quality ECEC to support children’s development, particularly those from diverse backgrounds. e project began with a literature review (Bogatić et al. 2018) and an analysis of training needs among those working in ECEC in the participating countries, but here we focus on some of the observation data that we collected as ‘snippets’ of child-centredness.

Partners in the respective countries collected examples of what they thought was child-centred practice, using an observation framework that was developed following the literature review. e narrative observations captured examples of practice, while a series of prompts enabled those undertaking the observations to re ect on di erent concepts of child-centredness, often in discussion with the educators being observed. Here we draw on a small selection of these observations to discuss some of the features that we noted. e examples have been deliberately selected to demonstrate the di erent ways in which child- centredness is enacted, with a particular focus on the role of the educator (see Campbell-Barr et al. 2018 for further details). Throughout the observations, it was evident that those working in ECEC undertook many di erent roles both in constructing the learning environment and in pacing and sequencing the activities that were taking place – often taking on multiple roles at any one time. First, in considering the construction of the learning environment, it was evident that those working in ECEC provided a range of resources both to engage with children’s different interests and, also, to stimulate children at di erent stages of development.

There were some similarities in the structuring of the learning environments that we observed. Whether within one room or between several rooms, there were common elements: home corners, construction areas, reading and quiet spaces, craft tables and multi-purpose open spaces that children could use more freely and/or re ected a speci c current learning topic. Resources and furniture were frequently used as a way of providing children with signals as to how they might engage with di erent areas of the ECEC environment, such as reading areas including soft furnishings to signal a calm and relaxing space. While it was evident that it was the adults who had constructed the learning environment, conversations with sta alongside the observations demonstrated an openness to allowing children to access other resources that were not initially in the di erent areas. However, it should be noted that we were fortunate to observe well-resourced ECEC centres.

Intervening or stepping back?
Within the different areas of the ECEC environments, the staff took on multiple roles. At times sta would be embedded in an activity, while at others they would move between the children’s play intervening to a greater or lesser extent depending on the demands of the children. An example from Croatia illustrated how a member of sta adjusted their role over a period of time as the children developed an indoor game of golf:

Children are playing a game that is similar to golf, using paper rolls and a ladle. e children take turns, understanding the rules within their group.
The educator explains that the children were playing basketball and it was getting dangerous, so he found a different way for the children to play.
The educator explains the game has been around for a month and the children still nd new ways to develop it and keep it interesting.

Within the prolonged game of golf, the educator illustrated how he changed from intervening, to stepping back and allowing the game to develop through the children’s ideas about what their rules of golf should be. e educator simultaneously supported the children’s needs and interests, while maintaining their choice and agency. However, the shifting role of an educator does not just occur over prolonged period, it can also happen in short periods of time. An example from the UK where the children are playing outside illustrates how an educator shifts her role between multiple games:

The staff member freezes. Both children laugh and run off. They approach another friend and hide behind her and then pretend to look around the corner. e sta member pretends to walk towards the children in a funny way (like an Egyptian mummy). e children scream and run o . e sta member calls the child’s name, while standing still and watching the children.
A different child then approaches the sta member with a ball and throws it to her. e sta member begins to throw the ball back and forth with the child a few times. The original children run past her and tap her. The staff member then returns to chasing them, before returning to throw the ball with the other child as well.

The educator illustrates how in a short space of time she is able to take on different roles within the different games that the children are playing – something that was common in our observations. e moving between groups and individual children illustrates how educators sought to address the challenge of how all children can be at the centre of pedagogical practice and how all children’s needs and interests can be supported, while maintaining agency.

The responsive professional
The shifting role of the educator illustrates how those working in ECEC respond to the needs and interests of the children that they work with. However, the observations illustrated how educators did not just respond to children, but adopted the perspective of a child or group of children to both facilitate the children’s participation, while also supporting the development of relationships between children in the group. In an observation from Denmark, where a new child was not participating in a game of chase, the educator took the child’s hand, looking at the situation from the child’s perspective of not being about the rules of the game:

The educators have decided that the children should play tag. An experienced male educator approaches a new boy and briefly  explains the rules of the game to him. en, the educators and the children gather around the two chasers and begin to repeat a rhyme. e end of the rhyme tacitly marks the beginning of the game. e chasers remain standing counting to 10, while the other children run away – many screaming – and all of them trying to create distance between themselves and the chasers as fast as possible. Only the new boy hesitates. For a moment, it is like he is considering whether or not he should participate. e male educator sees this. He grabs the boy’s hand and pulls him away from the chasers. Again and again, the educator looks back at the chasers while unreservedly yelling: ‘Oh no! Oh no! We have to get away’! is does not seem to be an expression of actual anxiety or fear for the chasers, but rather a deliberate attempt to imitate such experiences...

The boy continues to run and seems preoccupied with the game and with avoiding and escaping the chasers. Adopting the perspective of a child new to the group enabled their participation, the educator demonstrated careful observing and listening. The listening supports the building of relationships, both between the child and the educator, and the child and the wider group of children.the shared attention of the game provided an object of attention. Having a shared ‘object’ can enable a consideration of how another (in this case a child) sees the object and how the object is taking shape through re ection and action. e educator therefore seeks to share in the child’s meaning making by seeing the object (and the world) as the child does. The responsiveness of the educators we observed was more widely evident, demonstrating how they had both the immediate and long-standing future-orientated interests of the child(ren) in mind. e boy is supported in the immediate participation with the game of chase, alongside the development of relationships which will sustain his longer-term participation on the ECEC centre’s community. 

Useful resources
The observations undertaken as a part of this research project are informing three free online training courses that will be rolled out from mid-January 2019. The courses will focus on:

Doing child-centredness from an ‘embodied perspective
Child-centred documentation for the quality of early childhood education and care
The power of stories for child-centred practice in early childhood education and care

Those interested in the courses  register for an account here before searching for the courses. Further information about the content and registering will be available here

Bogatić, K., Visnjic Jevtic, A., Campbell-Barr, V., and Georgeson, J. (2018). Initial Literature Review – Interpreting Child- centredness to Support Quality and Diversity in Early Childhood Education and Care. Plymouth University, Plymouth: diversity-in-quality-early-childhood-education-and-care.

Campbell-Barr, V. (2017). “Interpretations of child centred practice in early childhood education and care.” Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 1-17.

Campbell-Barr, V., Georgeson, J., Adams, H., and Short, E. (2018). Child-Centredness in Practice Report on Output 2. Plymouth University, Plymouth.

Chung, S., and Walsh, D. J. (2000). “Unpacking child- centredness: A history of meanings.” Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32(2), 215-234.

Georgeson, J. (2018). “Ways of working with two-year-olds”, in J. Georgeson and V. Campbell-Barr, (eds.), Places For Two-Year- Olds. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 63-74.

Georgeson, J., Campbell-Barr, V., Bakosi, É., Nemes, M., Pál , S., and Sorzio, P. (2015). “Can we have an international approach to child-centred early childhood practice?” Early Child Development and Care, 1-18.

Georgeson, J., Payler, J., and Campbell-Barr, V. (2013). “ e importance of interntional perspectives “, in J. Georgeson and J. Payler, (eds.), International perspectives on early childhood education and care. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

The ‘Child-Centred Diversity in Quality Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) project has been funded under Key Action 2 of Erasmus+ (2017-1-UK01-KA201-036798). We would like to thank our collaborators: Helen Adams (Truro Nursery School), Katarina Bogatic (University of Osijek),
Ole Lund (VIA University), Federica Marani (Coopselios), Rita Melia (Early Childhood Ireland), Michal Pilgaard (VIA University), Concepción Sanchez-Blanco (University of Coruña), Emma Short (Camborne Nursery School), Paolo Sorzio (Trieste University), Kathleen Tuite (Early Childhood Ireland), Cathryn Teasley (University of Coruña) and Adrijana Visnjic Jevtic (University of Zagreb).


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