Amy Keller (B.A Early Childhood Care & Education) has worked with children and families in Ireland, Norway and is currently working in New Zealand. Amy has taken the time to write about her experiences of what is has witnessed and appreciated in these countries.
It is clear from what I have seen that culture is the backbone of how childhood is perceived. It all boils down to individual parenting styles and beliefs, however, there are differences in how we view children. For example, in Norway I observed a huge appreciation for the outdoors. There is a saying “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” I had never heard of this before I went to Norway. However, hearing something is one thing, experiencing it is another. I definitely experienced this while working in a Barnehage (crèche/early childhood centre for children between 1-6 years) where the children played outside for at least three hours per day, whether it was sunny and warm, lashing rain, or snowy and cold. Another way in which I experienced this culture was through family life. The town I was in with my fellow Erasmus students was called Trondheim. It is a busy little town from Monday to Saturday, however, every Sunday – or during holidays such as Easter – Trondheim would come to a standstill, it was like being in a ghost town. The reason? Families would escape from the stresses of life and work and retreat to the mountains which surrounded Trondheim. It was a lovely thing to experience. Families would happily bring a picnic for the day, share stories of Trolls, ski together and children would play and explore together outside for a full day in the snow. This may sound heavenly to some, others may be wary. Even I thought before experiencing this that the children would often be sick with colds etc, but they weren’t. I myself have never felt healthier than when I was in Norway, outside everyday regardless of the weather, it was a wonderful experience.
Another aspect which stood out to me in the Barnehage I was in, was a strong focus on fostering independence. This view of the child was very refreshing, rarely did I need to help a child zip-up a snow suit. If a child could not do something themselves, it was not always up to an adult to do it for them. Often times an older child/adult would help by talking them through it. The children continuously worked on their problem-solving skills. This is sometimes a challenge, especially with time constraints and often it is just hard to see a child struggle and get frustrated. We just need to remember how beneficial it is for them to figure it out themselves, not only to develop problem solving skills, but for building their confidence, independence and developing awareness of their abilities. It doesn’t mean we can’t help them at all, and it is difficult to wait for them to button their coat when rushing out the door to an appointment but it is good to try and find that time. We don’t have to lift them up on to the trampoline, but help them figure out “hmm, where do you think your foot should step next?” It is important to try and keep a positive attitude, let them know you believe in them and that it is ok if they did not figure it out this time, we can try next time. This is great for developing patience, perseverance, and positive learning dispositions.
One of the things I have noticed not only in Norway but also in New Zealand is how much children’s natural instincts are trusted. This is one of the differences from Ireland in terms of risky play. It can be quite difficult to incorporate opportunities for risky play in Ireland. When speaking of risky play I am referring to experiences for children where the benefits outweigh the risk, and an adult needs to be present. An example of how this is incorporated in Norway and New Zealand is by climbing trees. In both of these countries I observed children climbing trees with confidence. There are certain things teachers and parents can do to minimise risk, such as always being by the tree to keep a close eye on the child and have soft mats underneath the tree. Another important aspect to keeping things safer is to never lift a child up onto a branch or into a tree etc. If a child cannot climb up themselves it usually means they will not be able to get down themselves. While risky it is so positive for their confidence, gross motor skills, awareness of their bodies and abilities and for their own personal risk assessment skills. If a child is not confident in climbing, they won’t. They themselves can usually (obviously an adult still needs to be there) assess risk quite well and wait until they are ready, or choose not to. It is our job to support them in trying, but also to let them know it is ok if they do not want to try. Risky play can be very positive if carried out in the right way. Lifting a child up into a tree when they are not ready can be scary and lower their confidence, deterring them from trying again. We must remember to listen to each child, even if they don’t say it with words, we can look at their body language, like facial expressions and posture. This often indicates if they feel it might be a bit out of their own range. It is their own decision, but we as adults, will be there to support them and help them by sharing and using our own knowledge as well as encouraging them to think for themselves.
Speaking of listening to children and their decisions, an aspect of the New Zealand culture I have noticed so far is respect. In the centre I am currently working in, it is clear to see the respect teachers and parents have for children, whether they are 6 month, or 4 years old. It isn’t as though we don’t respect children in Ireland, of course we do. However, it is in the smaller things such as the way a child is spoken to, it is on another level. We in Ireland respect children by giving them choices, positive behaviour management and listening to their interests and what they have to say. I have experienced a step-up in this area, for example, asking a toddler if you can pick them up, or change their nappy, if it seems like they don’t want to, adults will (if possible) give them a few more minutes until they are ready. This is not a one-way street either, there is not only an importance in adults respecting children, but ensuring children learn to respect other people as well as their environment. It is definitely a tangible strength of the practice I have experienced in New Zealand.
Another remarkable feature of childcare practice in New Zealand is collaboration with Whaanau (family). This is done through learning stories, which are written about an aspect of the child’s learning each month. Each teacher gets 3 non-contact hours per week where they can write these stories, linking this to the child’s home life by asking the parents how it relates to home etc. Partnership with parents is also a growing strength in Ireland. Talking to parents in the mornings and evenings is so important to learning more about each child and sharing our knowledge and observations of each child. This partnership is vital for teachers, but also parents in understanding each child as a whole. Knowledge about children’s interests and routines can aid their learning and development in early childhood settings. Each child is an individual, therefore the more knowledge about each child we have as early childhood professionals, the easier it will be to provide suitable learning experiences and an environment in which each child can thrive.
It has been amazing to experience other cultures in terms of childhood, family life and as an early childhood professional. I have found myself reflecting on differences and similarities between Ireland, Norway, and New Zealand. This has also made me reflect on what I appreciate about Ireland. One of Ireland’s strengths is playfulness. Children – especially in the early childhood years – learn best through play and what they are interested in. Even putting the learning aspect aside, it is so nice to see parents, families, friends and early year’s professionals playing with children. There is something very warm and comforting about this. It is what childhood should be about, Fun.