What if?

Since the introduction of the EYLF intentional teaching has become one of our professional buzzwords. While the idea that we might have an active role to play in children’s learning is not a new one, the term has helped us to see that our intentions matter – both to us and to the children we work with. Often though when we think about our intentions they are geared towards children’s learning in an academic or intellectual sense. We actively promote children’s thinking by extending on ideas, asking questions and provoking deeper thought. All of which is valuable and important. But at the same time as we foster intellectual growth we don’t always give the same support and attention to children’s social development.

Social relationships tend to be one of those things that we assume will “just happen”. Certainly for many children friendships develop easily. Watch children playing at a park and see how quickly strangers fall into playing together. Or consider the classroom where a shared interest is often enough to spark a budding friendship into being.

Yet, true as this is, it is not the case for all. For some children friendships and relationships are hard. And even for those who find friendship comes quickly, it can also quickly become “political”. There is power in being popular and play is not always the innocent and sunny experience that we can assume it is. Struggles over who is “in” or “out”; who can play or not; and who gets to make those decisions play out each day in classrooms and playgrounds, often with devastating consequences for the rejected parties. The irony of which is that those children who struggle to make friends are probably those who would most benefit from the simple joy of friendship.

As Vivian Paley observes in her classic study of social inclusion, “You Can’t Say You Can’t Play”, what makes this most painful is that the social hierarchy, once established quickly becomes permanent:

“Certain children will have the right to limit the social experiences of their classmates. Henceforth a ruling class will notify others of their acceptability, and the outsiders learn to anticipate the sting of rejection” (p.3)

What then if, as Paley documents in her work, we took a stand against such exclusion, and actively (intentionally!) sought to shape and guide the social relationships occurring before us, just as clearly and strongly as we seek to shape the other kinds of learning that happen in our settings everyday?

What if being part of a “community of learners” was as much about the community as the learning?

What if we prioritised relationships as central to our curriculum, not just in the usual way of thinking about our relationships with children but in terms of the relationships between children?

What would happen, for example, if we started with the premise everyone needs a friend?

What might we do differently? How might the focus of our curriculum decisions change? Would activities matter less and relationships matter more?

And, most importantly, how might children’s experience change too?

This blog was originally posted on Early Years Connect.


Paley, V. G. (1992). You can’t say you can’t play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dr Luke Touhill

Dr Luke Touhill has worked in early childhood education and care (ECEC) for over twenty years, as a teacher, director, manager, trainer and lecturer. He earned a PhD from Macquarie University through research that investigated the design of children’s services in Australia. He strongly believes that a well organised and well-resourced physical environment is a key factor in the quality of ECEC practice. Luke’s PhD thesis, Designing for children, explored the history, development and design of early childhood environments in Australia from the first free-kindergartens in the 1890s to the present. Luke was the co-host of ECA’s Environment makeover documentary and has written and spoken widely on the topic of early childhood learning environments.

3 thoughts on “What if?”

    Amanda NIland says:

    Great post, thank you Luke. It leads into an even deeper discussion as to how we actually do shape and guide social relationships among children. The all too common ‘Everyone is your friend’ is perhaps simplistic and not always helpful. It would be great to read more of your thoughts on this aspect of community building in early childhood settings.

    Michelle says:

    I absolutely agree with your premise around the importance of intentionally teaching social skills in early childhood settings.

    Dee Olver says:

    Thanks Luke for this very interesting post. I would only add the question “What if ..the seeds of the bullying behaviours that we see in the primary and later years are sown right here in the early years?” How we answer that question will suggest our obligations and responsibilities as early childhood educators.

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