White Western ways of thinking can give a one sided view and provide stereotypical expectations of the ways we think and act. This is particularly important as 2020 has witnessed political, social, health and economic upheaval which has impacted many. From a social justice perspective, the impact of this turmoil has further marginalized those at the intersections of race, gender, social class, sexuality and (dis)ability.

My research looks at how research practices can allow for different perspectives on lived experiences in Early Years settings, accounting for life at these intersections. Early Years settings are very different to schools – this research explores how Early Years practitioners work with young children by focussing on how space, place and resources might influence practice.

Indigenous Scholars from North America, Australia and New Zealand have been considering the question “what might we expect to see in the spaces and places of children's worlds?” In indigenous societies children are part of, rather than separate from, their environment. Being connected in this way sees children develop a sense of belonging where they understand their relationship with each other, their environment and the resources available to them. 

Walking-with methodologies

Thinking back to your childhood, you probably remember the spaces and places in which you played, learnt and shared family time. A walking-with methodology is a way of researching which highlights how space and place have meaning for children, in ways which are shaped by culture and identity. ‘Walking with’ means exactly what it says: we walk together, and talk about the places and things we see, listening to what they mean to the other person. Children’s lives and communities are shaped by our history, linking back to the British Empire, and researchers recognise that white Western ways of thinking can give a one sided view and provide stereotypical expectations of ways we think and act (see the work of Tuck and McKenzie and Cannella and Viruru).

Inspired by the work of Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman I used a walking practice to connect lived experiences to a person's location and environment. Walking with people gives a more relaxed and informal opportunity to talk to them about their experiences. It helps us notice the ways some people can be marginalised in both public and private spaces, such as Black and Brown children, children with special educational needs and disabilities, or people living in areas of economic deprivation. 

To understand how spaces, places and objects were used in settings, I: 

  • Visited ten Early Years settings, ranging in size, location, numbers of children and staff;
  • Took part in a walking ‘tour’ of the Early Years settings (indoors and outdoors) to discuss the places, spaces and things and how they were used; 
  • Observed what was happening and drew maps of staff and children as they moved through the setting;
  • Took photographs of the indoors and outdoors to remind me about my visit; 
  • Interviewed the each Early Years practitioner where I asked them to bring object(s) that reflected their work with children. 

Putting the needs of children first

By walking with Early Years practitioners, I found spaces and objects in classroom settings orient bodies to behave in certain ways (see Sara Ahmed). 

When I visited settings located in areas of social deprivation I was struck by how warm, welcoming and child-friendly the spaces were. It made me think about how the negative portrayal of people and communities seems to tarnish the work done to raise aspiration, achievement and self-esteem.

One setting in the most economically deprived area had tailored their offer to parents’ work commitments to ensure the families could benefit from the Government Subsidy for Early Years attendance. They also supported children with a range of complex needs and their curriculum catered for this in multiple ways.

Bringing indigenous ideas into my thinking about young children’s experiences of spaces and places allowed me to go beyond the obvious and to be more aware of the connections between people and their environments. I saw how the same space is often experienced differently by different people, and that their own life experience shapes this. My research also showed that settings have a variety of different ways to implement the curriculum and that their teaching is based on local needs and experiences.

It was heartening to see that the child was always the central focus for the practitioners and that spaces, places and objects were used in novel and unique ways to support children to learn and enjoy their early years.

Nikki Fairchild is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Sociology at the University of Portsmouth.