The first stage is where children and adults gather the documentation; the second stage is piecing together information for dialogue, reflection and interpretation.
The focus in stage one is gathering information led by the children using the tools described above. Each tool can be used in isolation. However the strength of this approach is in drawing together the different methodologies through discussion. Stage two focuses on this interpretation: staff and parents now listen to the children’s own perspectives. This use of documentation has drawn on the process developed in the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia, which Rinaldi has described as ‘visible listening’. Listening is not limited to a two-way conversation between one adult and a child. Child conferencing is one of the pieces in the jigsaw which provides this documentation, but equal worth is given to children’s photographs, narrative accounts from observations, recordings of tours, maps and recordings of role play. Discussions included both formal and informal exchanges between children and adults, planned and unplanned. One formal exchange of ideas, based on the documentation, took place between parents, the children and the researcher. This took the form of a planned meeting to explore the material gathered including children’s responses to the child conferencing, the researchers’ narrative accounts from observation, and children’s photographs and maps.
A formal discussion was also held at a stage meeting, using documentation gathered by one 3-year-old as the basis for reflection and interpretation. Informal exchanges also took place between the children who had been directly involved in the study and other children in the nursery. This was mirrored by conversations with staff who had not taken part but who had become aware of the children’s enthusiasm for the project.
In the following sections I will explore what the material gathered revealed about young children’s experience of place.
A Sense of Place?
An important aspect of young children’s lives is their physical engagement with their environment. The classic study by Hart (1979)14 into children’s experience of place is relevant here. This was a two-year ethnographic study of the everyday experiences of the locality conducted with children living in New England. His creative responses to recording children’s intimate knowledge of their area have been of interest to me in this study. Hart discusses children’s experience of place in terms of their place knowledge, place values and feelings and place use. In a similar way to Hart, I wanted to find out about children’s knowledge and feelings about their everyday environment.
Constructing meanings: place use
The young children in this study defined the spaces according to their associations with people and past events, with objects, activities, routines and access.
During a child-led tour the children stop at a door and look in.
Researcher: What’s this room?
Clare: It’s the Parents’ Room – where people have their leaving parties.
Researcher: Can we go in here?
Clare: Yep, we can go in there.
Clare, in this account, demonstrates how the meaning she gave to the Parents’ Room was closely linked to her memories of past uses of the room for farewells. Other rooms were associated with the adults whom children regularly saw working in those spaces. The office was linked to the member of staff who was there when the children arrived in the morning and who was the first adult they met in the nursery each day. Two of the children had younger siblings in the nursery. The tours of important places and subsequent map-making revealed the spaces where siblings ‘lived’ as significant parts of the nursery for older children.
Children also associated rooms with certain objects or toys which they could play with in those spaces, as can be seen in the following excerpt from a child-led tour.
Gary: There are some toys over there and books. Where are the toys gone? Here they are. Let’s get them down. Can you get down the truck with the hook?
An important place in the Windham Early Years Centre. Sylvia the administrator in her office linked directly to the entrance. She is the first person children meet in the morning, her presence is an important constant throughout the year. (Photo: Mark Dudek.)
In this example, a layer of meaning was given to this room by the particular toy he liked playing with there. My observations have also shown that another inside space in the nursery was associated with the large, soft toy dog, which had been named by the children and lived in the carpeted area of the classroom.