I’ve been thinking a lot over the past while about slow, relational pedagogy. I was at a conference in University College Cork (UCC) a few weeks ago, held to mark 25 years of the Early Childhood degree programme there. Dr Geraldine French, Head of School at the School of Language, Literacy and Early Childhood Education in Dublin City University was one of the speakers. She outlined the key highlights of the Literature Review carried out by Dublin City University to underpin the ongoing process of updating Aistear by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA). She spoke about the importance of effective care and education for babies and toddlers.
My colleague Kathleen Tuite wrote two Scéalta blog posts at that time (which you can read here and here) about supporting babies’ emotional development and I happened to be reading a book called Reclaiming Childhood (2003), by William Crain. In this book he talks about how some children are rushed through childhood to stimulate their brains in the mistaken belief that this will enable them to achieve more academically in the future. But, he says, ‘When we focus too intently on what children need for their future, we rob them of the chance to develop their capacities at their current stage’.
The value of relationships in Early Years
Geraldine French, in her presentation at UCC, spoke about the significance of relationships for young children. She said that responsive relationships are both expected and essential and that their absence is a ‘double whammy’. In her paper on babies and toddlers, written for the NCCA in October 2019, she outlines the value of babies and toddlers experiencing secure, consistent relationships with the adults in their lives. This is especially important in centre-based care. Consistency is particularly important. If a baby is cared for by several educators, albeit caring, responsive people, that baby has to make sense of several different ways of being held, soothed, helped to sleep, for example. If these interactions are limited to a small number of educators, the baby gets familiar and comfortable with these rituals and a sense of security develops.
Building relationships takes time
But the other key aspect to building relationships is time. In January 2021, Geraldine was a guest on Early Childhood Ireland’s podcast. In that episode she discussed the concept of slow relational pedagogy. She outlines why we need to calm everything down. And when we think of it, isn’t that how all the relationships in our lives thrive? We need time to get to know someone, time to feel comfortable in their company, time for mutual trust to build, time to feel in tune with that person.
And the time aspect relates to how children learn too. The Froebel Trust website has details of various projects, including Professor Alison Clark’s research which explores how slowing down our approach to early childhood education can make a huge difference for children. It mentions factors such as being in the moment, enabling children to revisit ideas, and encouraging unhurried care routines that build in time for wonder.
We all, I think, need time to figure things out. We think about what we see, hear, experience, and discover. That reflection can give us “ah-ha” moments when something that seemed to make no sense suddenly becomes clear. Bear in mind that as adults, we have life experience to help us figure things out. Imagine being a year or two old and having just your curiosity to help you make sense of the world? Of course responsive adults or peers play a huge role in supporting you to navigate the big, exciting world, but it takes time.
Slowing down social interaction
Sitting on the floor playing with a baby or toddler is not a waste of time. Slowing down nappy changing and feeding routines to narrate what the child is seeing or doing is part of how they learn. As well as learning language, they are learning so much more. They’re interacting with someone who cares for them, who wants to ensure they feel safe, secure and loved. That does only good things for their brain development.
In her book ‘Why Love Matters’ (2004), Sue Gerhardt says ‘the kind of brain a baby develops is the brain that comes out of his or her experiences with people.’ She goes on to say that the human baby has to be invited to participate in human culture by trying to get the baby ‘hooked on social interaction’. If the experiences a baby or toddler has when interacting with adults tend to be largely swift, functional and silent, the child cannot become hooked on social interaction.
So, in the busy day, make time to have warm, slow caring interactions with babies and toddlers. There is nothing more valuable that you could do.