In the course of my work I am often in a wide variety of early learning care and education services and I am generally in awe of the ways that Educators reflect in their curriculum designs, many of the founding theories and tenets that we hold to be true and are still reflected in contemporary practice everyday.
Recently however I have had my own biases about what constitutes enriching learning environments challenged by the addition of hair straighteners into the dramatic play environment, which I have now observed on three different occasions. Is this what Fredrick Froebel, the founder of the Kindergarten, intended when he encouraged Educators to use real and authentic tools?
Early learning environments are reflective of philosophies, values and beliefs and these ultimately convey key messages to children and families. So what messages to the inclusion of these types of props into dramatic play spaces give?
In the book Progressive Kindergarten Methods by Mary Lush, published in 1926 she states:
“Real experiences are the subject matter of the Kindergarten curriculum. The teacher must select experiences which are worth while in making life richer here and now, and which lead somewhere” (Lush, 1926, p 9).
So if we knew this in 1926 what are we doing now?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the “hidden curriculum” that are present in many of the curriculum decisions we make in our early learning settings every day, and the covert messages they give to children. If we are to think of the early learning environment as the third teacher, what is it that we are expecting young children to learn from the addition of such props? Are they different to hair dryers? (which have regular appearances in dramatic play spaces across the country).
I recently had a conversation with a colleague and asked her this question. She stated that they are different as one has the function of drying wet hair and the other is used for cosmetic purposes. She went on to add, that if she were honest she didn’t support the wide proliferation of “hairdressing” as a construct in the dramatic play environment either, as in her experience props were generally of poor quality, having been brought in from home after use, and the play did not provide children with multiple modes of engagement. Makes you think! Are we heading towards plastic surgery corner?
A Froebelian approach offers children a wide variety of genuine and relevant experiences and authentic tools, and while these items may be present in children’s homes I am not convinced that hair straighteners and the like, meet the purpose that Froebel intended, essentially that the early learning experiences as a whole, not isolated skills and tools, resulted in the creation of inquisitive children who had dispositions of curiosity, respect and wonder.
My concern centers largely around dominant gender norms being reinforced and the inclusion of such props should raise equity alerts. These norms can be powerful and Educators need to do more than model equitable gender behaviors they must also present curriculum materials that provide positive and alternate messages. Elliot said that:
“In order to provide positive role models for young children we must be seen by children as performing a wide variety of roles… Always be cautious when choosing curriculum materials to ensure they depict an approximately equal quantitative representation of male and female characters” (Elliot, 1984, pp20-21)
Hair straighteners change how you look. They make curly hair straight. By the inclusion of these types of props into children’s learning spaces are we not saying “You should change how you look?” and is this type of play and our intent behind it any different to children putting on a cape and mask and equally being transformative?
The Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) describes environments that support learning as:
“vibrant and flexible spaces that are responsive to the interests and abilities of each child. They cater for different capacities and learning styles and invite children and families to contribute ideas, interests and questions. Materials enhance learning when they reflect what is naturel and familiar and also introduce novelty to provoke interest and more complex and increasingly abstract thinking” (EYLF, 2012, pp. 15 & 16)
Consideration given to providing children with rich, relevant and purposeful tools and materials ultimately creates a community of learners who can engage with experiences in multiple ways. We cannot underestimate the value of aesthetics and creative engaging learning environments on the developing child.
We need no further evidence to support this contention than to consider Frank Lloyd Wright, the prolific American architect who designed more than 1.000 structures. Wright believed in designing buildings that were in harmony with humanity and the environment. Lloyd Wright developed an early interest in architecture after his mother purchased him a set of Froebel Kindergarten blocks. Frank would later say about these blocks:
“The maple wood blocks are in my fingers to this day! That early kindergarten experience with the straight line, the flat plane; the square; the triangle; the circle! If I wanted more, the square modified by the triangle gave the hexagon; the circle modified by the straight line would give the octagon” (www.froebelweb.org)
When children are offered on a daily basis, beautiful, authentic and open-ended materials you are providing them with powerful opportunities to support and extend their learning and development. But more importantly, by giving careful consideration to the types of learning spaces you create and the materials you place within them you are saying to children – This place matters!
Elliot, A. (1984) Creating non-sexist day care environments, Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 9 (2): 18-23
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging. Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework.
Lush, Mary. (1926) Progressive Kindergarten Methods. Taylor and Son, Manton Lane Melbourne