Children – where are their tribes?

No body likes

Everybody hates me

I think I’ll go and eat some worms

Fat ones skinny ones

Long ones short ones

Ones that squiggle and squirm

I’ll bite their heads off

Suck their guts out

And throw their skins away

Nobody knows how much I enjoy

Eating worms three times a day – (Unknown)

When I was a child there was nothing funnier than reciting the above verse. Even funnier when we all sang it. At school, at home, in the car, riding our bikes at break neck speed down the enormous hill near my home, no helmets, hair flying and screaming it out at the top of our lungs. The world over, children band together at very young ages on the lookout for mischief, trouble, risky scenarios, rude words, naughty rhymes. When children are able to participate in this type of play they are afforded the opportunity to create their own rules. The question is how do we support this necessary right of passage and the establishment of a “tribe” in our early learning care and education settings?

Contemporary children now experience age segregation in ways that are not reflected historically in how children have played and worked. The idea that a tribe, group or gang was formed seemingly by osmosis is not easy for modern children to replicate, and even less so for educators to support and encourage in early care and education settings.KH1

Current practice in many Australian ECEC settings is to segregate children according to age. Given that the spontaneously formed gang is typically disparate in structure, the age group setting is particularly problematic for the educator wishing to incorporate this very necessary type of play into the early childhood curriculum. In “The Benefits of Mixed Age Grouping (Katz, 1995), Katz is clear in her intent of what this means in the ECEC setting. She states, “Although humans are not usually born in litters, we seem to insist that they be educated in them”.

Children have always roamed the streets, playing games, reciting nonsense and getting up to mischief. They have always had secrets, code words, clapping games and rude words. In her book “Kith – The Riddle of the Childscape” Jay Griffiths states that:

“Children in the company of adults (no matter how kind) feel their impotence, and it hurts them. They have few rights and little money, power, acknowledgment, autonomy freedom or status. No wonder they want to live from time to time in the independent free state of childhood, which they know within their tribes, so, when they can, they subvert the status quo as carnival does, the topsy-turvy reversal of sense into nonsense, the small people overthrowing the big people, the lowerarchy overturning the higherarchy. In their own tribe, children can be the right size, but in the adult world they are miniatures, toys. Adults love the smallness of children: the very thing, which most children, most of the time, most want to get away from. They don’t want to be miniature and they are not toys so, in their own tribe, with their personhood fuller, they can be themselves at the scale they choose, epic and enormous” (Griffiths, 2013, p 184).

So how do we incorporate into our pedagogical decisions, capacity for children to engage in risky, unencumbered by adults, child led routines and rituals? How do we encourage children to have secrets, codes and a language that is only familiar to them? How do we support the nonsense rhymes, fart jokes and the need to escape adult scrutiny? The place we start is to listen, and to join our attention to children’s. Clark and Moss have developed a framework for listening that places its emphasis on knowledge creation rather than knowledge extraction. This framework focuses on children’s lived experiences. In this they suggest that we need to look further to not only the process of learning but also how educators see children. Listening to children is key to viewing children as active participants.  Vivian Paley describes this approach, as “I now wanted to hear the answers I could not invent myself” (Paley, 1986, p 125).

Contemporary early childhood sociology now has children placed front and centre, whereas historically they have been invisible.  While there are many and obvious benefits to this it has resulted in a more overt and prescriptive approach to parenting and early childhood education. The very activities and experiences that contain elements of “risk” for children, that encourage young children to develop skills in self-regulation, problem solving, decision making are not encouraged.

An early childhood environment that contains no elements of “trust” by the Educators towards the children creates very few opportunities for skill development. The Early Years Learning Framework Outcome 2: states “Children are connected with and contribute to their world ” (EYLF, 2009, P 25). Let’s aim to ensure we provide learning environments that contain elements of their choosing!

Katz, Lillian. (1995). The benefits of mixed-age grouping. ERIC Digest. Champaign, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.
Paley, V (1986) “On listening to what children have to say” Harvard Educational Review, 56, 2, 122-131.
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging. Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework.
Griffiths, Jay. (2013). KITH – THE RIDDLE OF THE CHILDSCAPE. Penguin Books

Karen Hope

Karen Hope Consulting was established in 2014 and provides a disruptive approach to professional development workshops and teaching that aims to challenge dominant discourses and taken for granted practices. Karen is an early childhood consultant, associate lecturer and freelance writer who has extensive experience in a broad range of services within the early childhood care and education context. Karen’s consultancy practice and writing is strongly influenced by the Reggio Emilia project and this is reflected in her work and writing as a point of reference, resource, inspiration and difference. Karen writes and delivers work that is specific to each individual service developed in consultation with you. The delivery of sustainable professional development that results in real change is a key feature of her work. She can be contacted by email or via her website at:

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