What is Childhood For?

What is childhood for? That’s the question that Rethinking Early Childhood Education editor Ann Pelo raises in this blog post, a previously unpublished piece that Ann wrote for the book celebration we held in Portland back in December 2008. Ann was to be our guest of honor, along with Portland-area contributors to the book, Laura Linda Negri-Pool, Katie Kissinger, Melanie Quinn, and Peter Campbell. Unfortunately, freak storms flooded I-5, and she was unable to get from her home in Seattle to Portland for the event. We read Ann’s comments, below, in lieu of having her with us in person.

I recently found Ann’s piece while preparing for the celebration we’ll have here in Portland for Rethinking Schools’ latest book, Rethinking Elementary Education (coming up at King Elementary, May 18—RSVP at our Facebook page).

And I have a more personal reason for revisiting Ann Pelo’s writing, and Rethinking Early Childhood Education. My grandson, Xavier, turns 3 years old this month, and he will begin attending an early childhood center a few mornings a week beginning in June. All of us who have young children in our lives need to be concerned with what’s happening to our society and to our planet, and specifically, how early childhood education (which some incorrectly see merely as “preschool”) has become a battleground in the corporate school reform agenda.

At the risk of sounding like a Rethinking Schools book salesman, if you don’t yet have Rethinking Early Childhood Education, I encourage you to buy a copy; and if you have the book and know how wonderful it is, I encourage you to buy copies for all the parents and teachers of young children you know. In this moment of social, ecological, and educational crisis, Ann’s poignant words below remind us that childhood is at stake. Nurturing young children always involves trying to answer the question: What kind of world do we want to live in?

Bill Bigelow
Curriculum editor

What Is Childhood For?

By Ann Pelo

Rethinking Early Childhood Education is graced by writing that stirs both emotion and intellect, and the chapters by the four contributors here today exemplify that. Laura Linda Negri-Pool, Katie Kissinger, Melanie Quinn, and Peter Campbell raise significant questions in their chapters, asking:

  • How do we ensure that children’s lives are visible and honored in our classrooms?
  • What is authentic inclusion, and how does it change us?
  • How can we invite children to engage with ideas, with story, with language?
  • What’s the harm in scripted curricula?

An underlying question links their four chapters: What is childhood for?

Laura Linda Negri-Pool reminds us that childhood is about living into a strong individual, family, and cultural identity. She writes, “I knew from my own experience what it was like not to be seen, to be treated with a question mark.” And she traces her experience as a teacher to learn about a child’s family and cultural identity, working closely with her student Kalenna’s Marshall Islander family to strategize ways to bring their culture into the classroom. Laura Linda’s story brings to life the principle of “learning from and standing with children’s families” as a way to support children’s social-emotional and dispositional learning and to bring anti-bias teaching to life.

Katie Kissinger writes about anti-bias learning, not as an abstraction, but as a result of relationship. She tells the story of consciously dismantling her own fear of and ignorance about disability so that she could enter into a real relationship with Nyla, a child with cerebral palsy, and so she could invite the other children in the class into relationship with Nyla. Her chapter illustrates the meaning of solidarity in its best sense, and locates the principle of anti-bias teaching and learning in the context of community. What is childhood for? Developing empathy and experiencing the joy and responsibility of life in community.

Melanie Quinn shares her experience as a mom and as an educator, witnessing her son’s dismay when he’s given skill-focused literacy worksheets and nonsensical little books to read in kindergarten, drawn from the Houghton-Mifflin Reading curriculum. “Stories need to be complete, not exercises in phonetics,” she writes; stories need to be engaging, resonant, lyrical, emotionally evocative, intellectually stimulating. What is childhood for? Cultivating the dispositions to think critically, to linger with story, to embrace language as rich communication.

Peter Campbell writes about his 4-year-old daughter’s first encounter with preschool, which was a test that launched her into a preschool program heavy on academics and skill drills. Her teacher says that academics and drills “won’t do any harm.” But Peter argues that “it’s not the addition of academics” that’s problematic so much as “the subtraction of everything else,” including play, and art, and recess. What’s childhood for? Play, and the social and emotional learning and critical thinking that it nurtures.

Each of these chapters asks “What is at stake when early education programs narrow their scope to packaged curriculum that tells teachers what images to put on the walls, what to read to the children, what to talk about with the children?” The answer resonates across the chapters: Childhood is at stake.

Children’s work is bigger than academics; children’s work is the development of:

  • self-awareness
  • empathy
  • collaboration
  • curiosity
  • critical thinking
  • connection to the earth

Our work as educators must be about these dispositions, no matter the age of the children we teach.

Related Resources:

Rethinking Elementary Education collects the finest writing about elementary school life and learning from 25 years of Rethinking Schools magazine.