The Educator’s Image of the Child as a Learner

This blog is written by the Museum’s Education Team member, Dr Rita Melia, to coincide with Children’s Workshops – Childhood Services Week 2024 – National Childhood Network (NCN). Encouraging Creativity – Igniting Joy. The blog considers what influences the educator’s image of the child as a learner.

The theory of the looking glass self, first identified in 1902 by Charles Cooley, is based on the idea that we form opinions about ourselves based on how we think other people see us.  As such our self-concept or what we think about ourselves is influenced by our perception of how others see and evaluate us. Young children are very perceptive, they can see it in the educator’s eyes, facial expression, and body language, The educator’s image of the child as a learner is also evident in her / his pedagogical approach and the learning environments and opportunities that educators provide for young children.

Providing early years environments which encourage creativity and ignite joy, suggests that the educators image of the child is that of a competent, capable, curious, imaginative child, a child with rights to quality early childhood education and care experiences. I am sure that we will see lots of joyful creative play in early childhood education and care settings for Children’s Services week 2024.

Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the infant toddler centres and preschools of Reggio Emilia Italy, suggests that children are born with a Hundred Languages a metaphor for the hundred ways children have of listening and of marvelling, a hundred worlds to discover and a hundred ways to invent and indeed a hundred, hundred, hundred more. Equally, Howard Gardner’s book; Frames of Mind posits a theory of Multiple Intelligences in which individuals have many intelligences such as linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, special, bodily-kinaesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic.  By recognising these multiple intelligences, he suggests we can come to a greater understanding of the potential of human capacity. This is the image of the child that I hold, based on lots of reading and the many experiences I have had the honour and pleasure of working and playing with young children, they never cease to surprise me with their competencies, 100 languages and multiple intelligences.

What or how is our image of the child constructed in early childhood?

There are many understandings of children and childhood, which can be traced through the historical literature and changing societal beliefs. From a personal perspective as adults, we have all been children and can hopefully remember some of our childhood experiences. These experiences of childhood together with the historical, social, cultural, and ideological views of childhood have and continue to influence our beliefs about children and childhood. These beliefs can be either consciously or subconsciously created. However, if we want to understand how we have formed our own image of the child, it might be useful to reflect on the various discourses of childhood available to us through historical literature and memories of our own and others childhood experiences.

Philippe Aries suggests that childhood is not a natural phenomenon, but a time and context bound invention of modernity which started with the gradual institutionalisation of specific children’s needs such as compulsory schooling and health care. The institutionalisation of education and care contributed to a view of children as innocent, vulnerable and needing adult protection. As a result, the role of the adult was to care for, protect and manage children until they reached maturity.

Taking a guide from the historical literature, children are presented in two ways, the Dionysian (evil image) and the Apollonian child (innocent image). The Dionysian child was considered basically, evil and in need of constraint. This portrayal of the Dionysian child assumes that evil and corruption, are primary elements in the makeup of ‘the child.’ As a result, there was a belief that children needed to be managed through discipline and punishment for their own good and the good of society. It was considered also that rods should not be spared to save the evil child. The model of child-rearing and education was based on controlling children to conform and be compliant, which extended into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Apollonian child, in contrast, provides an image of the child as innocent, angelic and carefree, . needing protection by adults to preserve their innocence. However, this image of the child as innocent does not consider the competencies and potential of young children. The image of an innocent, angelic child portrays the child as being weak and in need of adult supervision and guidance. We see this image of the child depicted in postcards and posters with young children being photographed looking “cute” sitting in pots of flowers, etc.

Starting with the educator’s image of the child as a learner, Malaguzzi says we have an ethical and moral responsibility to make explicit our image of the child as a learner.  Through critical reflection on our practice, we will identify if / how our espoused image of the child is reflected in our pedagogical approach and consider how our pedagogical approach supports children’s holistic wellbeing.

What do we know about children and childhood, and how do we construct our image of the child?

We know that children’s childhood experiences are constructed by adults, based on what adults think and believe these experiences should be. We see in the literature, historical and current, photos and film, the many ways in which children are represented . We see children as mini adults, as workers, in war and conflict, as entertainment in beauty pageants, as cute  in postcards and posters, as consumers, in advertisements, as possessions, winners of the bonny baby competition, to decide who had the bonniest baby!!

As educators in the early childhood education and care sector in Ireland our image of the child is constantly changing. Having an image of the child who is capable and competent, a holder of rights who is an active agent and participant (as per Laura Lundy) in his or her own learning is the image of the child which underpins current policy. Learning environments where children and educators learn together is the basis and underpinning values and principles of the Early Childhood Education and Care practice frameworks, Aistear, Siolta and First 5.

My own PhD research confirms that if our image of the child is that of a competent child we will provide ‘rich’ learning environments where children have autonomy, competence, and relatedness and subsequently children will have high levels of wellbeing and involvement in their play and meaning making processes. When we recognise children as rights holders as being competent, we will provide environments which encourages creativity and ignites joy.

This blog provided an overview of how our image of the child is influenced through history, media, society, and culture. I am calling on educators across the educational spectrum: let us make explicit our image of the child as a learner. As Malaguzzi said ‘Your image of the child is where teaching begins.’ For more see my podcast.

 What is your image of the child?”

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Dr Rita Melia is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care at Atlantic Technological University Galway and Mayo.