Rockabye baby: infants sleeping outdoors

Blog071119You may remember in a previous post we told you about some research we are involved in which focuses on young children’s engagement (ie 0-2s) with the outdoors. The project is funded by the Froebel Trust and you can read about it here. One of the interesting things we have discovered through our reading is that, although there is a wealth of literature on children’s engagement once they reach 2 and above, there is the very limited research literature on the younger age group. Another noteworthy discovery is how practice in Scandinavia has gone in a different direction to practice in many other parts of the English-speaking world. In part this is because practice in the early years setting often reflects cultural practices of the home.

One specific cultural practice where we have found a key difference is in the practice of putting babies to sleep outdoors. We imagine if we asked people of a particular generation within the UK context then they would recall how they were put at the bottom of the garden in a pram for their afternoon nap. They might have had a net to protect them from a friendly cat looking for a comfy place to sleep however they were considered to be perfectly safe. However, this practice seems to have died out in both the UK context and many others. In Scandinavian countries though, not only is it common practice, it is seem as part of being a good parent. Some have compared it to the discussions around breastfeeding that we have here in the UK, and that sometimes can make new mums feel guilty if they don’t join in the accepted cultural behaviour. A colleague told me recently about becoming a new mum whilst living in one of the Nordic countries and how her neighbours would come and knock on her door to ask why her baby wasn’t sleeping outside and stressing how important it was for the baby, almost making her feel guilty for not being a good mother.

It is interesting to question why this practice of putting babies to sleep outdoors has survived in some contexts (eg Norway) but not others (eg the UK) especially when we consider the link between practices in the home becoming part of practices in the setting. Indeed, Rameka et al.’s work (2017) in the New Zealand context, emphasises the importance of replicating family and community cultural practices in the early years setting as such pedagogies support young children in ‘developing a strong sense of themselves’ (p. 21). But could the early years be a good site to reintroduce forgotten or discarded practices with babies?

There are some settings in the UK which put babies outdoors for sleep but these are very few and far between. It seems quite obvious to state that there are many barriers to preventing this practice such as health and safety concerns, parental preferences or ratio implications. One barrier which does not stand up to scrutiny of course is the weather; in Scandinavia temperatures reach much lower than here in the UK however babies are still put outside to sleep as long as temperatures are above  -15C (Tourula, Isola & Hassi, 2008).

As usual it would be great to hear your thoughts on this whether you are a parent, practitioner or student. We are very keen to hear about what happens in practice.

Discovering the depth of children’s stories

StoryFactoryLast week we visited the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, London. It’s billed as “a place for children and their families to play, learn and create stories together”, comprising of two indoor “Story Worlds” and an outdoor “Story Garden” which are exploratory play spaces designed to promote children’s creativity, imagination and literacy. They give an opportunity for role-playing, make-believe and mark-making in a language-rich and story-rich environment. In addition to these, the centre also hosts special events and exhibitions. On our visit one of the events was an interactive multi-sensory storytelling session of You’re Safe With Me, written by Chitra Soundar. The story is about baby animals in the forest who can’t sleep due to the noise of a storm; the storyteller used props that were given to the children which illustrated the different features of a storm.

TigerBut for us the highlight of the day was an exhibition around the Tiger Who Came to Tea, written by Judith Kerr. The name of the exhibition is a little misleading – it focuses on Judith Kerr’s other texts too (including her famous series of Mog the Cat books). In fact, the word “exhibition” is slightly misleading as well and doesn’t accurately reflect the experience. It starts with an immersive storytelling of the Tiger Who Came to Tea. Then, the audience are invited to explore more of Kerr’s stories through a role-play town of locations featured in her books – the vet, the garden, the bedroom (with a crocodile under the bed) and the pond, amongst others.

As we’ve talked about in a previous blog post, sometimes children’s picture books are overlooked because of their supposed simplicity. Whilst The Tiger Who Came To Tea is simplistic in language (Kerr was inspired by Dr Seuss and intended that her stories should have language that children should be able to follow for themselves to help them learn to read), they are not simplistic in execution or message. As one example, perhaps at odds with many reading scheme books, is that Kerr had a policy to “never to put anything into words that children could work out from the pictures: it was, she said, a waste of energy for children learning to read to spend time to decipher the words only to discover it was something they already knew”. As another example, on face-value the story of a tiger coming to tea reads as a funny, if not somewhat unnerving tale of a tiger making an unannounced visit at dinner time and emptying the house of all food and water. Yet we can read the story on another level. Sylvester has considered it in light of Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, which documents how Kerr was a German Jewish refugee who fled Germany the day before the election in which Hitler came to power. She says “Unspoken in [the] text is… the particular threat of the knock at the door experienced by Jews in Europe during the Second World War”. The story tells of a huge predator unexpectedly coming in, quickly losing their manners, depleting all the supplies, destroying their surroundings and then leaving, as suddenly as they’d arrived. For this reason Beardsley-Murray argues that “the Tiger really is not really a tiger”, and instead what appears on first glance to be a simple children’s story is a deeper tale of “danger, desire and pleasure.”

If you’ve got young children, we’d definitely recommend a visit to the Discover Children’s Story Centre. The Tiger Who Came to Tea exhibition is on until 5th January 2020. Then from 15th February 2020 a Fairy Tales exhibition will be taking place. And if you go (or have already been) we’d love to know your thoughts.

Research big and small

We always get really excited by research and we know that some of you now will be thinking about designing studies for dissertations. In the past, we’ve always had to encourage students not to think ‘too big’ in terms of research, however it is always interesting to hear about what big research teams are doing to find out about children. Catching up with the weekend newspapers, we noticed there were some interesting articles about Jean Golding and her work with ALSPAC; but what is ALSPAC exactly? Some of you may never have even heard of it even though its work has been so important.

The title ALSPAC stands for the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children; this was a research study set up to track the lives of children born in the Bristol area between April 1991 and December 1992; it also included their parents in this tracking. The sample included 14, 000 pregnant women, any children they gave birth to and any partners of these women. Golding’s intention was to collect as much data as she could and to make the data available to other researchers in order to increase the potential of interesting and useful findings. It was intended that the findings could then influence policy.

Jean Golding’s discipline is epidemiology; an epidemiologist is a person who studies health issues and the spread of disease in specific populations. As such, she was interested in how both the environment and a child’s genes might impact on a child’s health; to put it simply, she was interested in questions of nature AND nurture and how they relate to children’s health. Furthermore, she was interested in how knowledge gained could influence practice. So how did she, and her team, go about designing the research?

As you can imagine, such a large-scale piece of longitudinal research, with such a considerable sample, has a complex and extensive methodology. A mixed methods approach has been adopted which includes questionnaires, medical and educational records, environmental measures, interviews and biological samples such as blood tests. Golding and her team state that the research has been designed in such a way ‘to determine how the individual genotype combines with environmental pressures to influence health and development’ (Golding et al., 2001, p. 75). So, what have they found out so far?

Certainly, many things that are of interest to those of us who work with or study young children and certainly too many things to list here. For example if you look at the research’s news page you will see that in 2019 findings established links between anxious mothers to be and hyperactive teens, in 2018 links between trauma in childhood and later psychotic experiences, then back in 2013 links between premature birth and low achievement at school. This is just a tiny snap shot of work they have done, it is such an interesting read we would really encourage you to have a look.

You might get some ideas for your own research however small scale that is going to be. We’d love to hear from those of you undertaking a research study and the ideas you have. Remember also to look at our book for inspiration; do let us know!


Tackling children’s knife crime

KnifeAngelThis week we went to see The National Monument against Violence and Aggression, better known as The Knife Angel. It’s a 20ft high sculpture of an angel made from 100,000 knives either seized or surrendered as part of amnesties. It’s touring round cathedrals in England and is in Rochester until Sunday 29th September 2019. When we were there we spoke to one of the cathedral volunteers about the piece. We asked whether they had an intended audience for the installation. The volunteer said that all schools in the area were being offered free transport to attend a one-hour session to see the Knife Angel and learn more about knife crime, and in particular targeted Year 6 and Year 7 children (i.e. those between the ages of 10-12) were being targeted. Whilst there they can sign a “pledge book” and pledge not to carry a knife.

You might be thinking that these children seem young to be receiving knife crime intervention. But recent research using data from the Millennium Cohort Study, published by the Home Office (2019:14) found that 3.5% of children had used or carried a knife at age 14. The Children’s Commissioner’s Manifesto for Children, which we spoke about in last week’s post, said that “573 children were admitted to hospital last year with stab wounds” (2019: 11). Whilst a recent report from Ofsted (2019: 4) states that “data from 21 police forces in England and Wales obtained through a freedom of information request showed that 363 sharp instruments were found on school property in 2017–18”. That’s about 10 a week, over the course of an academic year.

So perhaps that suggests that targeting children in Year 6 and Year 7 is a sensible move, and we hope that the Knife Angel plays a role in discouraging people from carrying knives. When reading about knife crime and children something that has resonated with us is a headline from academics Case and Haines (2019) who suggest that “children are not the problem, they are part of the solution” when it comes to knife crime, and engaging them in positive, nurturing relationships can be beneficial in reducing criminal outcomes. They argue that responses to knife crime “must involve partnerships between a variety of children’s services, such as youth offending teams and youth work, and other relevant organisations such as police, schools, and housing authorities. This echoes Ofsted (2019: 3) who stress that although schools can teach about knife-related dangers and can protect children whilst they are on the premise, they can “only do so much… children need everyone in society – the police, LAs, health, youth services, welfare services, housing services, local communities, their parents, social media providers and so on – to work together and to put children first and protect them from county lines, gangs, knives, drugs and from adults who pose a risk to them.”

If you have the chance to go and see the Knife Angel, then do. And also take some time to reflect on the issue of knife crime in the UK, and what you think could be beneficial in encourage children to pledge to remain knife-free. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Manifesto for young children: We will……

Did you get chance to read the recent children’s manifesto, Guess how much we love you:  Why politicians urgently need to help our children,  ? It was published by the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield. In it she sets out the commitment that all political parties need to make to children to ensure they can enjoy their childhood, achieve and have success in life. She also emphasises how important this is, not only for children themselves, but for society as a whole. For example, in her introduction she writes: ‘…it’s critical for this country’s prospects. Today’s children are our future economic prosperity, our tax payers and wealth producers, our support in our own old ages. But this generation will also need to change the world – to tackle the challenges of environmental degradation, to shape the opportunities of the digital era, and to address global complexity around citizenship, immigration and employment. There is a clear economic and social imperative to do the very best we can by the next generation’ (p. 1).

Although we agree that it is highly important to raise awareness for politicians about their responsibilities towards children, this quotation from the manifesto does seem to lay a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of children. This made us wonder what a really selfless manifesto would look like, particularly in terms of younger children. What promises should we be making to children, not based on what they can do for us in the furture, but purely in terms of what we can do for them. Ideally we should really be asking children, they might have very different ideas to ours. However in the meantime we have come up with a list of our own…..

The Contemplating Childhood’s Manifesto for young children

  1. We will respect play as a key way that you learn, grow, develop and be happy.
  2. We will listen to you.
  3. We will let you be outdoors as much as you need to be.
  4. We will let you get dirty and messy.
  5. We will read you lovely stories so that you grow up to love reading and books.
  6. We will make sure you are safe and that you can keep yourself safe.
  7. We will make sure you can meet and play with children from a diverse range of backgrounds and cultures.
  8. We will model kindness
  9. We will care about your parents.
  10. We will make sure you have enough good food to eat.

There was much more we could have added but thought we should stick to the first 10 that came to mind. But what about you? What would be on your list? Have we missed something really important? What promises do you think we should make to young children – we’d love to know what you think?

What does it mean to be ready for school?

This week we seem to have been talking to lots of people who are experiencing (or whose children are experiencing) transitions – into nurseries, childminders’ settings, primary schools, secondary schools and universities. Transitions can be an unsettling and uncertain time – taking on a new challenge, meeting a lot of new people and absorbing a lot of new information. Several of our guest posters have wrote about this topic before; Karen Matthews has reflected on how children transition into primary school from her perspective as an early years practitioner. Caroline Lampard-Shedden has thought about how the child’s voice is considered when making the transition to school. And Kerry Holman has thought about whether the transition between the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 (and from a play-based to a formal curriculum) is being overlooked.

One phrase often used when talking about how to support children with school transitions is “school readiness”. But what does this mean? Definitions are widespread, often combining two main elements of (1) ensuring that young children beginning school have some basic skills and (2) that transitions for children into school are smooth and well-prepared (OECD, 2006).  This description of school readiness, the OECD believes, most commonly fits with how children are supported to start school in France and the English-speaking world, where significance is placed on children to develop academic skills, and acquiring “a range of knowledge, skills and dispositions that children should develop as a result of classroom experiences” (2006:65).  It’s described by the OECD a “pre-primary approach” or a “readiness for school approach” (2006:57).

However, this interpretation of what it means to be ready for school is at odds with that of Scandinavian countries, which are described by the OECD as having a “social pedagogy” approach to early education. In this approach children are provided with “excellent results in terms of readiness for school” (2006:63) as a result of their holistic approach to early education that focuses on preparing the child for life by learning through play, encouraging personal interests and social interaction. The Scandinavian approach to early education and care differs vastly in their aims to that of France and the English-speaking world, with the former aiming more to support the family unit and the development of young children, whereas the latter has a stronger focus on the “schoolification” (2006:62) of early education. This schoolification approach more explicitly promotes academic readiness for school, valuing more school-like areas of development, such as mathematics, language and literacy (2006:64). We can see the difference between the “readiness for school approach” and “social pedagogy approach” through looking at ECEC curricula –whilst the UK’s EYFS (2017: 5) claims that it “gives children the broad range of knowledge and skills that provide the right foundation for good future progress through school and life” (our emphasis), Sweden’s pre-primary curriculum – The Curriculum for the Pre-School Lpfö 98 (2010: 4) states that preschool education must “lay the foundations for lifelong learning”.

We’d be interested to know what you think. What does “school readiness” mean to you? And what advice would you give to those starting new places (whether it’s nursery, school or university) at the moment?

Summer’s over: How are children socialised to keep themselves safe?

la Rochelle
Le vieux port La Rochelle

Welcome back to the start of the new academic year; we hope you had a lovely summer and managed to have a little rest and recuperation time. One positive about taking a little time out, is that it gives you chance to put your brain in a different gear and reflect on life in a different way. If you are lucky enough to be able to do this in a different environment ie go on holiday, then all the better.

One of us was able to take a train trip to France and spend a few restful days in La Rochelle, a beautiful bustling port town on the Atlantic coast. The town centre is built around the old harbour full of cafes, shops and ice cream stalls. It seemed such a family friendly place and therefore the perfect place to contemplate childhood. What really struck us as we watched even very young children, running, jumping, peddling and scooting around the edge of the harbour, was the apparent lack of concern from parents about the fact that their children might be at risk from hurtling into the deep water below; there was no wall, fence, railings, just a sheer drop – not even a life ring. We spent the week waiting for an accident to happen but of course it never did.

There is a whole genre of anecdotal writing that compares the British and the French way of bringing up their children but our observations in La Rochelle made us wonder if there was any research evidence. And then, naturally, our thoughts turned to risk taking possibilities and issues for our very youngest children including what is written about this in different cultural contexts.

Of course, we are definitely not saying that those parents we observed weren’t concerned with the risk of the sheer drop into deep water; but something had happened in the way that they had socialised their children so far, so that the children were both kept safe and also knew how to keep themselves safe by not going right to the edge (although we did see a family with young children with their legs dangling over the side). Kleppe (2018),writing about the risk taking of 1-3 years olds in the Norwegian context, would suggest that ‘children’s ability to assess risks is developed by approaching and handling, gradually, more realistic risks’ (p.259). We would love to have observed how a gradual approach had worked in this particular context.

We talk a lot about risky play in ECEC but these children, enjoying their holiday, weren’t necessarily engaging in play; rather they were spending time interacting with their families, going about their business. Which begs the question, have they learnt about keeping themselves safe through risky play in an educational setting, through parenting or a combination of both? One thing we do know is that cultural practices from the home setting are mirrored in the ECEC setting particularly as far as the youngest children are concerned.

We’d really like to know what you think, particularly in terms of cultural practices around children learning to be safe – both in the home and in the ECEC setting. Good to chat again; have a great year!

The power of the picture

A future illustrator in the making?

We’ve been enjoying the summer so far; both of us have recently had the chance to get away from our computer screens and explore some of the UK. Polly went to Newcastle last week and visited The National Centre for Children’s Books, Seven Stories. The museum aims to “collect, champion and celebrate” children’s literature, and to “make a real difference to the children and families living nearby [because] early experience of books and stories is vital to childhood development and raising aspiration”. As well as story time sessions, areas for playing, exploring and, of course, reading books, there are also exhibitions featuring manuscripts and illustrations that form part of the museum’s collection.

Until May 2020 one of Seven Stories’ exhibitions is Elmer and Friends: The Colourful World of David McKee. It celebrates the stories and illustrations of David McKee, who you might know as the author of Elmer, Not Now, Bernard and Two Can Toucan, amongst others. Not Now, Bernard is one of our particular favourites. If you haven’t read it, do. It’s been described as “a tragic contemporary tale in which nobody lives happily ever after” by Taransaud (2016, p.70), who draws parallels between the way Bernard is ignored by his parents to Tronick’s (2007) ‘Still Face’ experiment. For a book that The Book Trust recommend for children aged three and above, the messages are rather deep, which is an especially remarkable feat as (as the exhibition states) it contains just 115 words and 25 illustrations. The powerful illustrations are what make the book so superb; they visually narrate Bernard’s desperation for his parents’ attention, which Taransaud (2016, p.71) suggests “lies at the heart of every picture”.

The power of the picture is the focus of one of the museum’s other current exhibitions, Drawing Worlds. The exhibition focuses on ten contemporary illustrators and is curated by Lauren Child. She states at the start of the exhibition that “as infants we have an amazing ability to decipher the visual world, to recognise expressions, body language, and interpret symbols, signs and images. However, we seem to quickly overlook the wonder of this universal language, neglecting the importance of visual literacy and the power it represents. Illustrated books are similarly regarded as something to grow out of as if a ‘picture’ amid the text is inherently childish.” We are reminded of Loris Malguzzi’s The Hundred Languages of Children poem, which stresses how children have a multitude of ways of expressing themselves but these are suppressed by “school and culture” who “tell the children to discover the world already there.” Child tells us how children’s ability to “read” picture books is stripped of them by adults, who view them as babyish rather than, she suggests, like poetry in the way “a piece that can be looked at over and over and interpreted differently each time.”

If you have the opportunity to head to Newcastle to visit Seven Stories then we’d highly recommend it. If not, you might find that some of the museum’s exhibitions are touring closer to you. And whether you are able to visit the exhibitions or not, we’d still encourage you to reflect upon how you see children’s picture books – are they something to “grow out of” as children’s literacy develops? If not, what can we do to ensure they aren’t simply seen as childish?

We are going to have another break from our computer screens over the summer and grab a chance to recuperate and relax (and finish writing our next book!) before the next academic year starts. We’ll be back in September and will share what we’ve been up to over the next few weeks then. We hope you have a chance to have some rest and relaxation of your own.

Looking after the earth

Screenshot 2019-07-01 at 19.08.49


We are starting off with an apology this week; our regular readers will have noticed that we have missed a few posts recently. Mostly this is because life has caught up with us and we are furiously focused on meeting the deadline for our next book Understanding Gender and Early Childhood: An introduction to the key debates (working title) which we need to have finished by August 31st. Thank you for not deserting us! We did take time out at the weekend though to watch a bit of Glastonbury (although one of us was more interested in the Spice Girls Reunion Tour!) and enjoy the sunshine. The Glastonbury Festival has of course taken the major step of banning single use plastic bottles and David Attenborough took to the stage to remind the crowds of what an important step this was and our collective duty to care for the earth.

Of course, environmental issues are everywhere in the media at the moment. As I was reading around these ideas, and how they related young children, I came across a lovely quotation in a paper by Hall et al (2014) entitled ‘What can we learn through careful observation of infants and toddlers in nature?’ They cite David Sobel (1998) who reminds us we must teach children ‘to love the earth before we ask them to save it’ (p. 195). But we know that, despite all the initiatives in formal settings such as beautiful outdoor learning environments, forest schools and outdoor nurseries, children are having fewer and fewer opportunities to engage with the outdoors. Last year’s Children’s Commissioner report ‘Playing Out’ (2018) set out the issues plainly:

‘children now spend just four hours a week playing out…The area around the home where children are allowed to go unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 70s. And the problem now gets worse during school holidays. Research from ukactive suggests that children return to school in September less fit than when they broke up in July, with children from poorer areas worse affected’ (p. 2).

It stands to reason that if children are inside then they are not engaging with nature first-hand and therefore learning to love it.

It might be sensible to suggest that if we want to encourage a love of nature in young children then we should start as young as possible. There is plenty of research which focuses on the benefits of the outdoors for young children although surprisingly very little of this discusses what happens with the 0-2s. We have recently received funding from the Froebel Trust to investigate this gap in our knowledge. You can read about it here and we will update you as we progress with this work.

We know already that there are particular barriers with this age group to do with weather, keeping warm, safety and staff ratios. But some of these barriers seem to be particularly English ones that in other cultures they manage to circumvent. There has to be a will to get this younger age group outside for the sake of children’s health and well-being on the one hand and, perhaps,  the needs of the planet on the other. In this way we could support children to develop as those with agency who not only enjoy being in nature but who want to protect it.

Some suggest it may be too late now to take small steps in protecting nature, big gestures may be needed instead – but please let us know about your small steps. What are you doing with young children to address issues around caring for the earth?

Celebrating Children’s Day in Poland

Last Saturday (1st June) we were wished a Happy Children’s Day by one of our Polish friends. Whilst in the UK we celebrate Universal Children’s Day on 20th November (which we’ve considered in a previous post), in Poland (along with almost 50 other countries) the dedicated day for celebrating children is 1st June. Our friend said that it’s a big occasion in her home country, with lots of ways that children are made special. She says that towns organise family fun days with concerts, shows, competitions and cultural events so that “almost every park or amphitheatre has something going on”. Parents and family members give children treats and take them out, almost like a birthday celebration. She remembered that when she was at school instead of lessons on Children’s Day there was a sports day with games and races instead. She was proud to tell us that children are the focus even in parliament, with children taking over and debating children-related topics on this day every year since 1994. To mark the day this year the Polish Statistical Information Centre released an infographic which demonstrates how although the percentage of the population in Poland that are children has remained almost static since 2014 (15.3% of the population, just slightly lower than the EU average of 15.6%), there is evidence that children are becoming more valued and visible in everyday life, for instance the number of playgrounds in tourist accommodation has almost tripled since 2009.

We think it’s wonderful that Polish culture celebrates children in this way, in particular how children’s competencies and capabilities are recognised in their chance to contribute to Polish Parliament. We’d be interested in hearing more about how the day is marked around the world – what are your experiences of celebrating Children’s Day, in Poland and beyond?