You’ve heard it a million times before.
“Children are like sponges. They just soak up every drop of information.”
Recent social research shows that the sponge or ‘fill it up’ theory is actually a widely held view in the general public about child development in Australia (Frameworks Institute, 2014, p.20).
It’s what anthropologists from the Frameworks Institute call a ‘cultural model’ (Frameworks Institute, 2014, p.5):
Cultural models can be seen as systems of consistently implied relationships, propositions and assumptions that are applied to make sense of and organize the information and experiences that individuals confront.
The sponge or ‘fill it up’ cultural model is fantastically unproductive. Here’s why:
The Fill It Up model limits thinking about development as an interactive and active process. The Fill It Up model limits public understanding on two levels:
(1) when development is seen as a “start from scratch” process (children come “empty”), it is difficult to communicate about the ways in which a child’s experiences interact with biological and constitutional factors to shape outcomes;
(2) when development is seen as parents “pouring” knowledge and experiences into children, the interactive nature through which key systems are built, and later outcomes shaped, easily drops out of consideration. (Frameworks Institute, 2014, p.22)
Early childhood professionals know that children have agency; that children don’t learn passively, but do so actively engaging with their world, a process driven by the ‘serve and return’ interactions with parents, educators, teachers and their environment.
The ‘fill it up’ model almost totally removes early childhood educators and teachers from the equation.
It goes some way towards explaining prevailing lack of appreciation for early childhood professionals; Why do you need educators if children just soak everything up? Why not just leave the child by themselves all day watching Sponge Bob? They can get all the information they need about living on the sea floor by quite literally soaking up the gamma rays from the TV screen.
If we as a sector or profession are serious about advocating for children’s rights and for programs that we know from evidence support early childhood development, and advocating to enhance the status of the profession, then we need the tools to turn the conversation into something more productive.
And we need to do it without vilifying the innocents who revert to sponge theory, because it is all they know.
ECA is currently developing some evidence based tools to support you more effectively communicate with families, and the general public about early childhood development, for release in 2016.
Whatever you do, don’t try and myth-bust
Research shows that myth-busting can actually reinforce the myths you are trying to bust (Frameworks Institute, 2007):
- People misremember the myths as true
- It gets worse over time
- False information can be attributed to the person or organisation ‘busting the myth’
Organisations still using ‘mythbusting’ formats would do well to view this research.
So I guess that after reading my mythbusting article you are probably thinking that children really are sponges, right?
Except they are so much more.
Which is why we need to communicate effectively about the how quality ‘serve and return’ interactions between young children and educators can unleash a lifetime of potential.
Nathaniel Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland (2013) Modernity, Morals and More Information: Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Early Child Development in Australia (Frameworks Institute) [Accessed18 December 2015] http://www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccch/CCCH_FrameWorks_Mapping-the-Gaps_Report_Feb-2013.pdf
Diane Benjamin (2007) A FrameWorks Institute FrameByte Order Matters (Frameworks Institute) [Accessed18 December 2015] http://www.frameworksinstitute.org/assets/files/framebytes/framebyte_order.pdf