I recently came across a piece of research linked to the concept of “power” within our relationships with children, and especially within the context of faith developing in children. Annemie Dillen (1) suggests that looking at the Christian tradition of developing faith in young children reveals a “complex interplay” between the power of children and the power of adults. She considers the situation of formally teaching spirituality, and contrasts this with the approach of nurturing children’s spiritual connection and faith. It is a very interesting and thought provoking read. Dillen questions how much adult content should be offered to children in religious education, and this has generated a lot of discussion within my own church and the children’s work teams.
The essence of Dillen’s article is to distinguish between three types of power: ‘power within’, ‘power with’ and ‘power over’, children. She outlines several insights regarding the teaching of religious education to young children and the development of their spirituality. So, what about our work in Early Years? I have just started a journey here; where I have begun to think about all areas of work and play with children, and how we might consider the influence of the power relationship in all areas of relationship with young children. It could be a long and very interesting journey.
Well, does this then have anything to do with maths? The thoughts about power came back to my mind when I read these words:
“So, you pull me from my play, my all consuming play, to learn maths with you at a table with brightly coloured bits of plastic.
Whilst I sit there learning with you, all I can think of is getting back to my play, my all consuming play, where I was measuring, using shapes, making patterns, counting, solving problems and THINKING – until I got pulled away to come and learn maths with you.” (Elaine Bennett) (2)
These words were added to a photo of a child playing and used to generate a “meme”. This particular meme has travelled its way around the world since Elaine first posted it on the Keeping Early Years Unique (KEYU) Facebook page. If you are not a Facebook user, it can be seen on the KEYU website. Like many of the posts on that page, it resonated with those working in Early Years across the world. It challenges us to question why we feel we must pull children away from their play and insist on some type of formal learning to meet a prescribed aim, instead of observing and playing alongside them and learning together. In effect, who has the power in children’s learning about maths.
This seems to sum up, or maybe even start a debate, about the power struggle mentioned above around nurturing spirituality in children. Do we exert “power over” children, dictating what and when they should learn in maths? Do we share power equally, recognising that we share “power with” children and learn together? Or do we provide an atmosphere that nurtures children’s mathematical learning, trusting the “power within” them and following their lead?
And it is very timely that we are currently hearing comments from the review taking place of the Early Learning Goals set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Twitter has been full of concern that there is a push towards removing the shape, space and measure aspect of Maths in the EYFS, and a greater focus just on developing number skills. The Early Learning Goals (ELGs) identified in the pilot framework for maths include only number and numerical pattern. (3) The narrowing of the ELGs seem to represent once more the dominance of the “power over” approach to young children’s education.
There are many people standing up against this approach with a petition of over 5000 people asking for the review to be halted and questioning the expertise of some members of the review panel. (4) Maybe, as Christians who wish to reclaim education for God, we need to stand up and add our voices to those challenging the changes and stand up too for children’s right to learn through play.
1 Annemie Dillen Empowering children in religious education: Rethinking power dynamics
Available at https://www.acu.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/418448/JournalRE_601_2012_Full_Version.pdf pp 4- 12
2 Meme credit: Elaine Bennet available at https://www.keyu.co.uk/gallery/