I recall a morning when I was teaching in a small rural South Canterbury early childhood centre. It was most likely autumn – the play of light was as warm as the westerly breeze – there were 30 children present aged between a few months and school age, along with 6 adults. We’d shared morning kai on the verandah, the usual honey, jam or vegemite sandwiches with fruit, milk or water; everyone had gravitated from there to play outside.
I looked up when I recognised an astounding feeling of calm and quiet had descended over the playground. Manaia, Beth, Sam and I were elbow deep in frothy water. Despite the fact we were sharing the space with 32 others it was as if we were totally on our own, occupying our own small island, with our play at centre stage, and our experience of it and each other to the fore.
Dotted about on similar isles were other small groups, each equally as immersed in their own discussions, explorations, and collaborations. So much busy play/work was going on. It felt calm, peaceful, and engaged. I stood up to stretch from my crouched position and to extend my gaze, “Yes!” I said to myself quietly smiling as I did so. “Yes, yes, yes. It is possible. This is what quality education and care looks, sounds, and feels like”.
It was one of the most profound moments of recognition I had experienced as a teacher. The meaning I made of the situation in that moment saw me sense that it had all come together: interested and wondering children, engaged adults, multiple trajectories of investigation, a warm and lively aesthetic, sufficient resources, and mutual engagement in various expressions of collaborative play.
This experience gave me a standard of quality education and care to pursue and one to share. It was an experience that I could draw upon on those other days when colleagues were ill, children were cranky, and the rain wouldn’t ease.
So, when I am asked, what is quality in early childhood education? I tend to respond with a ‘it depends’, preferring explanations that give voice to processes of meaning making and the pursuit of practices that work (in the moment) for all.
Quality early childhood education fixes on a continual and considered pursuit of practices that include. This is not quality as a state to be reached (I have ticked the box), rather it is quality as a process, characterised by deliberate inquiry (is this working for you?) and movement (what can we do better now?).
I do think that quality early childhood education exists within a purposefully designed structural context of strong curriculum policy, high adult:child ratios, small group sizes and qualified teachers. But these structures exist within a lived experience of positive relationships and reciprocity that result in inclusive and fair learning community. Drawing upon Moss & Dahlberg (2008) one’s interpretation of their experiences becomes an important feature of comprehending quality. No single perspective can be expected to provide an absolute and fixed measure of what counts as quality or not. Quality is understood to be situated and temporary – this is a view that attempts to work with a conception of quality as not only ‘what should be’, but also ‘what is’.
Moss, P. & Dahlberg, G. (2008). Beyond quality in early childhood education and care – languages of evaluation. New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ work, 5(1), 3-12
By Dr Alexandra Gunn
College of Education