We Can Learn If We Listen To Children

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

A groundbreaking book by early childhood experts at the University of the West of England invites readers to embrace an approach to children that places the child's feelings and intelligence at the centre of all learning interactions. The book, Whose childhood is it? analyses how children are at the receiving end of a raft of target driven initiatives drawn up as a consequence of important policy initiatives published, often with to great acclaim, over the past two decades. Amongst these notable initiatives can be found The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (1989), Every Child Matters (2003), Early Years Foundation Stage (2007) and The Children's Plan (2007).

Dr Richard Eke, one of the editors, a former teacher and head teacher, has trained teachers at UWE for over 20 years speaks with passion about the failings of what he sees as a fierce regulatory structure that has been imposed on children and their families along with a determination to measure learning outcomes. “We need to stop underestimating children and to get closer to their meanings so that we can make valuable provision. As a culture we need to watch, learn and listen more closely to children.” He continues, “We know that children in the UK are amongst the unhappiest in the developed world (UNICEF 2007) and much of this can be attributed to the way we are raising children. There is much rhetoric around the way we raise children but this is in stark contrast to the oppressive sets of demands we place on our children in their early childhood. This tension is something that we have attempted to address in the book.”

Helen Butcher, Leader Early Childhood Provision and Developments, believes that discovering and being sensitive to 'meaning making' with children is a key to unlocking their potential. She continues “We all too often fall into the trap of imposing our own need to direct and define children's experiences. There are many examples of this but a simple analogy is an adult commenting on a child's painting and saying 'What is it?' to a brown splodge. The child will whilst making the 'splodge' have been talking in their mind about a thousand different things and the 'splodge' will be meaningful to them even though it doesn't appear to represent anything recognisable the adult. What we need to encourage is a listening approach to learning and teaching.”


Whose childhood is it? is aimed at everybody with an active interest in early childhood. It invites them to recognise the importance of critical thinking to help develop a sensitive and informed approach to the way they behave with children. As well as presenting the wider context of government initiatives, the book also sets out to analyse the importance of sustaining children's capacity for independence and engagement. Mandy Lee, specialist in young children's engagement with contemporary media, and the other co-editor emphasises the extent to which our own notions of childhood lead to provisions imposed on children, rather than provided in collaboration with them. “These provisions in turn often have more relevance to our ambitions for the adults they may become than to the lives they are leading now.”

This conception of children as social beings in their own right is a theme which permeates the book and is illustrated in the second chapter of the book, How am I doing on my outcomes? Helen uses a case study of how children were involved from the outset in plans for a new nursery on the main campus at UWE.

'In a discussion with architect Shana (4) said that the nursery would be better with no corners – she illustrated her point by pointing to an area of the nursery with lots of doors in a small space making it very restricted. The architect said that he thought her idea was the best he had heard but because the university had to buy ready made it wouldn't be possible to have a round one but it would be possible to have some round shaped spaced inside. This seemed to satisfy Shana.'

“As editors we have tried to promote a thoughtful engagement with the issues and theories informing our understanding of childhood. The book touches on how we communicate with children and argues in favour of listening to them when designing spaces, when creating relevant and engaging media opportunities, when teaching children, and for a deepened understanding of children's artistic representations. The book also seeks to demonstrate how government interventions such as the Sure Start programme and increasing curricularisation of early childhood have impacted on young children's experiences over the past decade. The book shows that with the best will in the world we will not succeed in bringing up happy children if we continue to impose provisions premised on too narrow a definition of their wellbeing.”