One of the most painful life lessons we learn as we grow is that while we are free to choose our actions, we are not free from the consequences of them. How can early childhood professionals foster environments where children are encouraged and supported to make meaningful and significant choices and be agents for real impact?
“We foster a child’s sense of agency here! Of course we do – red plate or blue Sam? Shall we use the brushes or the feathers to paint today? Look how much choice the children have!”
Looking deeper, is this really agency? Do we define a child’s sense of agency simply as the capacity to choose from a series of options, all of which are equally palatable to us as educators, and of little lasting consequence for a child? Or is there more to it than that?
Children learn, grow and develop through active interactions with others, and meaningful participation with their environment. Research demonstrating the influential role of agency and interactions in shaping neurological functioning provides particularly strong empirical support for this (e.g. Bandura, 1997; 2001; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). What does this meaningful participation look like? I’d proffer that there is more to it than choosing between plates of red and plates of blue.
Element 1.1.6: ‘Each child’s agency is promoted, enabling them to make choices and decisions and influence events in their world’ – children need to see, hear and feel that their choices are respected, heard and considered. In order to feel their power as influencers, children need to see their influence reflected in their world – be that on a local or global level.
What are some practical suggestions for supporting children’s sense of agency within our services?
Respond to children based on your knowledge of them: relationship, relationship, relationship
The more deeply you know your children and families, the more authentic your responses to children will be. What can you do in your service to know the children in your care more deeply? The same thing you do when building a relationship with anyone – talk, share, be mindful of the give and take, listen, respond with care and empathy. Above all else? Spend time. Time sitting and absorbing and doing things together, and “getting to know”
Once educators deeply know the children in their care, it becomes easier for them to provide children with opportunities to embrace their own agency. Knowing which opportunity for which child at which time makes an enormous in road into truly embedding agency within the service.
Finding out what has value in your environment for the children
What experiences are revisited repeatedly by children in your spaces? Where do the children congregate? How much impact do children have over the set-up of the environment? Which spaces are fixed and which spaces are transient? Who decides what items are displayed, and what goes within spaces?
When educators reflect deeply on the items, places and spaces which have value for the children in the spaces where they work, sleep and play, opportunities for agency become clear, as well as gaps in engagement and availability.
Providing children with opportunities to engage with their world in a meaningful way
When you’re choosing new equipment for your spaces, is there a reason the children can’t be involved? What about when planning the menu? Or thinking of how to store the hats? Or wondering what to do with the area of yard where the grass just won’t grow?
Starting in the spaces where children occupy their days, agency and impact can be seen, in the every day. When children are involved in solving a problem or exploring an issue from the word go, and see their ideas, thoughts and opinions embedded in the solution, they learn that they have a voice, and that the voice they have is powerful.
Reflection on the role of the educators
What is your function within the space? Do the educators within the service exist to entertain? Function as security and crowd control? Do the educators see themselves as transmitters of knowledge, as co-creators with the children, as learners alongside?
Once educators reflect on their role, it opens space to think more deeply about how they can support children to take on ownership of space and issues relevant to them and their becoming.
Power and control
As educators, we sometimes feel powerless – as though we are at the mercy of policy and leadership and politics – imagine, then, how much less powerful the children in our care feel – at the mercy of rosters and leave, parental comings and goings, educators who are instrumental in establishing the physical and emotional rhythms of the day.
What opportunities exist in your service for children to feel powerful?
When educators provide children with real choices, they empower children to take some ownership, modelling the serenity to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
So who’s with me? No more one plate, two plate, red plate, blue plate – just real opportunities for children to be active participants in shaping their world.