When I became a participant in this research I had a good theoretical knowledge of ESD after completing a thesis in the subject. However, I entered this study very aware that translating theory into practice is often complicated! In the case of ESD this is compounded by the fact that, as with most practitioners, throughout my training I have never received any formal tuition on its implementation in ECEC. In writing this blog post therefore, I plan to describe my trains of thought as I worked through ESD activities with the children rather than describe the activities themselves. This is because, often, I felt the position of the child as a rights holder in their chosen play and in their agency as a social actor almost ‘clashed’ with ideas that I considered central to ESD. This frequently left a question mark over what best practice may look like in each situation.
Firstly, a brief introduction of my setting: I work in a large full day care private creche. It is set on extensive gardens, 3 acers in total, in rural Co. Galway. It has a strong Montessori ethos and I am Montessori trained. The children whom I work with are between the ages of 2 ½ and 5 years old, with the following activities taking place with those children over this summer.
Like most children, the children love making potions in the sand pit, or making meals in the mud kitchen. Very elaborate cakes and pizzas and magic drinks are created, all decorated with wildflowers or grasses that grow throughout our garden and hedges. I wanted to have the conversation that if we pick all the flowers the insects will have none, that they are so important we should leave them grow. I set up an insect hunt, magnifying glasses and picture books were all introduced and from there I moved to the conversation regarding keeping our flowers growing so they can feed all the lovely insects we had just found. And while in principle the children nodded and agreed, the temptations to pick and gather always seemed too much! Cakes just had to be decorated and mammies always needed a flower when they collected their child. I watched a child one day with a handful of dandelions in the mud kitchen and asked “oh I wonder will the bees be very hungry if they can’t find food growing in our garden?”, the reply “but they can have this”. Well, that’s fair enough, isn’t it? There was a perfectly lovely decorated dandelion sand cake that any bee would love.
And so, I watched the children, and stopped asking them to leave the flowers to the insects and instead congratulated them on their floral creations. Do I still drop into conversation the need for flowers for our insects? Yes, I do, I even read “The Very Greedy Bee” (a story about a bee that won't share flowers with anyone else) the other day as a little reminder. I realise I am sending two messages, but at the moment this is the children’s play, this is what they have chosen as their interests. I can see the developmental benefits in what they are doing. They learn sensorially at this age and the need to pull and pinch and break apart each flower in their exploration is just too alluring. Is this the best ESD approach to the subject? Honestly, I have no idea. Is this the best rights-based approach for the children? I hope so.
There is always a woodlouse to be found, a worm under a timber, an odd butterfly or moth, a daddy-long-legs. Children will rush to you excitedly and announce, “look what I found!” Well often now it’s a daddy-no-legs or a squished worm. How to deal with this? This is no time to admonish or reprimand, after all, this child, is filled with wonder and awe by this new discovery, by this strange creature. Yet that creature is now dead and the conversation needs to be had. I once found two boys burying some woodlouse in a large hole they had dug in the sandpit, when I asked what they were doing they told me they had made them a new house. I explained that really this might not be the best place for woodlouse to live and we should probably take them out and return them to where they had been found. We couldn’t find them after that and worrying that these children’s actions of kindness towards these creatures would turn to shame or worry if they realised that they would probably never again emerge from their new sandy home. I told them it was fine; they might be able to find some nice wood down there to live under. However, should I have cautiously inferred the true situation? I am unsure. We have chatted about these creatures and how they always prefer to be watched instead of touched, if we see them, we should leave them alone. However, I know the temptation to reach out and touch, explore sensorially and manipulate, is always there with children of this age and so I have showed then how to hold the creatures gently, in cupped hands, never pinched between our fingers. And so again; opposing messages.
Participating in this study has shown me that, as with most things’ early years, its complicated. Complicated by the children ages, level of understanding, ways of learning, but also by how the practitioner views ESD, and how the practitioner approaches children’s rights. My hope in my own practice is that I have given the children a foundation in how they can take care of their environment. At the moment, although often egotistically, they are doing it in the best way they can. However, this is simply their developmental stage, hard enough to understand the view point of your friends at this age, never mind the bee who may have enjoyed the dandelions you just picked for your restaurant.