A year ago I wrote a blog piece called “Hair straighteners in the home corner. Is this what Froebel intended?” This piece was published on Early Childhood Australia’s blog The Spoke on October 14, 2015.
When I was thinking of contributing to this forum I noted that the blog guidelines for contributors stated that: “opinion pieces and blogs must aim to be provocative or informative in a way that initiates public debate” (The Spoke). As I had seen some fairly interesting dramatic play environments in an early learning service that I had recently visited, the idea for this piece took hold and I decided to write a provocation: “What is the value, if any, of these items in dramatic play environments?”
To put the piece into context, the dramatic play area that provoked this blog included three items that piqued my interest. These were:
- Hair straighteners with the cords cut off, for safety reasons, with some remnants of hair from their previous owners still in them.
- Empty nail polish bottles and wooden emery boards to replicate a nail bar.
- Dolls heads, with hairdressing props, like the one pictured.
I could have written the piece about any one of those things but settled on hair straighteners. The hair straighteners are not really the main protagonists here. They are a metaphor. They became representative and symbolic of something else. They ask us to consider whether the everyday authentic tools that we provide to children reflect race, culture, gender, class, aesthetics, wonder, curiosity and challenge. Do the materials encourage us to challenge everyday stereotypes?
There were two themes in this blog piece. The first was the “hidden curriculum” that can be present in many of the curriculum decisions that we make, and when you consider that early childhood educators make 936 curriculum decisions in a 6 hour day (EYLF, p12) you would have to expect that this is present. The second was the aesthetical considerations that go into creating engaging learning spaces for young children.
I teach critical theory to first and second year early childhood students. I think that critical reflection is perhaps the only tool that early childhood educators really have at their disposal to challenge the norms and assumptions that sometimes are the dominant voice in the discussion on best practice. I think it is important that pre-service early childhood educators know how to do this.
“Critical theories invite early childhood educators to challenge assumptions about curriculum and consider how their decisions may affect children differently” (EYLF p11).
I don’t know whether hair straighteners, nail bars and hairdressing dolls heads, belong in dramatic play areas or not, but I do know that it is important to think about our curriculum decisions and challenge previously held assumptions.
It is also ok to not know whether they belong or not. When you do not know something you want to find the answer, the solution or an alternative. It can actually be a good thing to experience feelings of doubt or uncertainty. In Reggio Emilia the educators think of this in the following way:
“Doubt, uncertainty and feelings of crisis are seen as resources and qualities to value and offer, conditions for openness and listening, as requirements for creating new thinking and perspectives” (Rinaldi, 2006, p 18)
If you are a critical theorist you take time to really reflect on your program and practice. You ask questions about why you do what you do. You adopt a critical inquiry model in determining programming decisions, and you rethink and challenge the status quo. Paulo Freire, a leading advocate of critical pedagogy encourages us to challenge our “taken for granted” practices and assumptions.
The hidden curriculum is a good provocation here. It can be the environment, materials, messages and the examples that can be set by the perspectives, attitudes, behaviours and stereotypes of educators. This type of curriculum can communicate powerful messages to children.
Aesthetics within early learning environments is something that matters to me. When I enter an early learning space and see beautiful, carefully curated spaces that encourage wonder, exploration, curiosity and deep sustained engagement, it says to me: “This place matters”. I suspect it also says that to children. We need early childhood spaces that reflect great attention to detail. Learning spaces that communicate deliberate and thoughtful attention. Why? Because early learning spaces are aligned to critical pedagogy.
My pedagogical beliefs are strongly influenced by the environments of Reggio Emilia. Beyond the light boxes and clay sculptures the Reggio Emilia approach reminds us that early learning environments are not just any place, but a particular place. The environment reflects a pedagogical value.
What values does your place reveal?
Central to this provocation is the relationship between the quality of the space and the quality of the learning. There is a deep relationship between these two. Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilia philosophy said that children have the right to a quality environment. He described this as:
“The right to an environment, to beauty, the right to contribute to the construction of this environment and this idea of beauty, a shared aesthetic” (Rinaldi, 2006, p 78)
At times I lament the lack of robust, fierce, non-judgmental, critical reflection that is needed in the early childhood sector. I am heartened by the strong responses that the hair straightener’s blog generated, and have received emails from some fairly far off places about it. This piece has travelled far. Most mornings when I check my email there are at least 2 emails in the junk folder from hair straightening suppliers in China peddling their products. They clearly did not read it first!
Unusually, I provide a response to some of the feedback I have received on this blog piece.
- I really do like hairdressers. A lot. They bring colour to the world.
- I have no problem with people using hair straighteners and once, in another life, used one myself to iron my shirt.
- I really like the fact that so many early childhood educators have told me they use hair straighteners and change their hairstyles and hair colour on a regular basis. Life is often not perfect, but your hair can be!
Finally, we should not criticise our colleagues who question, rather we should be concerned by our colleagues who don’t.