Early childhood is an undeniably critical life stage. Decades of research and neuroscience supports this and the knowledge that quality early education and care (ECEC) programs are beneficial for children’s learning and development (OECD, 2017; Shonkoff, 2010). We also know that, alongside academics, we can (and should) be working towards wellbeing outcomes for children in their early years (AGDE, 2022; OECD, 2017). Wellbeing science shows that wellbeing skills can be taught, enhancing both children’s wellbeing and academic performance (Adler & Seligman, 2016). Increasingly in recent years, we acknowledge that children need to develop not only academic, literacy and numeracy skills for functioning in the world, but the skills to feel good and function well within themselves.
Child wellbeing and literacy
Both wellbeing and literacy skills are mandated in early childhood curriculums, guiding documents and regulations around the world, including our own Australian Early Years Learning Framework (AGDE, 2022; Baker et al., 2021). In ECEC we understand and value these two important areas for children. The EYLF (2022) offers separate related outcomes– that children have a strong sense of wellbeing (Outcome 3) and that children are effective communicators (Outcome 5). But how often do we think of them together? Of child wellbeing and literacy as one? Do they go hand in hand and how can we facilitate this?
The EYLF (2022) describes literacy as the “capacity, confidence and disposition to use language in all its forms” (p. 57) including reading and writing, talking and listening, viewing, and the multiple modes of music, movement, gesture, storytelling, dance, etc. As early childhood professionals, we see this every day and want children to be effective communicators and literate in many areas. So why not literacy about wellbeing? Given we know how crucial child wellbeing is, how can we prioritise wellbeing literacy?
Wellbeing literacy is the ability to communicate intentionally about wellbeing. It involves wellbeing vocabulary and knowledge, receptive and expressive wellbeing language, and being able to purposefully use this for the wellbeing of ourselves, others and/or the planet (Baker, et al., 2021; Hou et al., 2021). Excitingly, how wellbeing literacy can be applied to ECEC practice in Australia is being researched with help from ECEC teachers. (If you are an ECT in Victoria, you can be a part of this PhD research here during October https://melbourneuni.au1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_01XwBcPY7JRT9m6).
Wellbeing exists in our conversations, not just in our minds. A wellbeing literate person (which can be a child!) knows some words and basic facts about wellbeing (such as words to describe feelings or knowledge about how to calm their body) and can use receptive and expressive language to feel good or help others do well. They may read books or listen to music about feeling alone or being resilient. They may use drawing, painting or dance to express their emotions, to connect with others or to regulate their thinking. As wellbeing literacy increases, these wellbeing related words, knowledge and language skills can be used in different places (perhaps from home to education to other contexts) and employed mindfully to improve the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us (Baker, et al., 2021; Hou et al., 2021).
Sound somewhat familiar? Because, in early childhood education and care, it is!
Building wellbeing literacy in ECEC
Time in quality ECEC settings builds children’s wellbeing literacy. We use singing, dancing, painting, storytelling, listening and visual cues used to help children understand their own wellbeing, express it successfully and grow in the knowledge of how they can function well in a changing world. These valued ECEC practices support children to communicate about and for their wellbeing (Baker, et al., 2021). They promote a literacy that could be argued as more relevant, authentic and vital for children in early childhood than ‘traditional’ literacies of reading and writing. While being able to write letters or count to double figures can be seen as important and preparing children for a globally competitive life (Razfar & Gutierrez, 2003), this need not be the only literacy we promote or value.
The following questions, as wellbeing literacy capabilities, are useful to ponder when setting intentions for children and planning daily practice:
- Do children have words they can use, and that other people understand, about their wellbeing and to help themselves and/or others feel good and function well?
- Can children hear, see, read and understand ways to feel good and contribute to others wellbeing?
- Can they write, draw, make, create and talk about things to help themselves feel good and function well?
- Do they have language (through, listening, viewing, speaking, writing, drawing and/or creating) that they can purposefully for their own or other’s wellbeing?
In ECEC practice, experiences to build these capabilities might look like children being offered painting, drawing, or playdough as avenues to communication about their emotions, ways they can manage them, and/or to represent items/people that help them feel connected and happy. It may be providing images of faces as visual cues for children to label, register and regulate emotions. Or when we read children stories about mindfulness to build their knowledge that breathing techniques can help them generate a sense of calm (you can find out more here Wellbeing Literacy and Positive Education | SpringerLink). It is unlikely to look like stencils, tracing letters, rote name writing, letter of the week or other formal activities we may feel external pressure to follow in the name of literacy.
Let us continue, as we are skilled at doing in ECEC pedagogy and practice, to critically reflect on what we do and why. Asking, how does this benefit children’s wellbeing? And what literacies are most vital, authentic and relevant for children in their rapidly changing and uncertain world? Maybe it’s wellbeing literacy.
Adler, A., & Seligman, M. E. (2016). Using wellbeing for public policy: Theory, measurement, and recommendations. International journal of wellbeing, 6(1).
Australian Government Department of Education [AGDE] (2022). Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (V2.0). Australian Government Department of Education for the Ministerial Council.
Baker, L. M., Oades, L. G., & Raban, B. (2021). Wellbeing literacy and early childhood education. New Zealand International Research In Early Childhood Education, 23(2), 4-19.
Hou, H., Chin, T.C., Slemp, G.R. & Oades, L.G. (2021). Wellbeing literacy: Conceptualisation, measurement and preliminary empirical findings from students, parents and staff. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(4), 1485. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18041485.
OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). (2017). Starting Strong 2017: Key OECD Indicators on Early Childhood Education and Care. OECD Publishing: http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264276116-en
Razfar, A., & Gutiérrez, K. (2003). Reconceptualizing early childhood literacy: The sociocultural influence. Handbook of early childhood literacy, 34-47.
Shonkoff, J.P., (2010). Building a New Biodevelopmental Framework to Guide the Future of Early Childhood Policy Child Development, Volume 81, Number 1, Pages 357–367