Theoretical underpinnings of the participatory approach

There were three main theoretical starting points for this research approach, each based on notions of competency. Firstly, I acknowledged the importance of the ideas expressed in the emerging
sociology of childhood. This supports the view of children as ‘beings not becomings’. In other words, their views are not to be ignored because of their status as young people subservient to adult carers. Rather they are to be valued and listened to as authentic individuals in their own right functioning within a democratic community.

Childhood is viewed as one of a number of authentic structures within society, as quoted from Qvortrup et al.3 ‘…children have their own activities and their own time and their own space’. This proved to be a useful theoretical beginning for this study, acknowledging that children have important perspectives to contribute about their lives in early childhood institutions and elsewhere within the urban environment. This view of com­petency is in contrast to other research models, which can exclude the voices of children:

Children are often denied the right to speak for themselves either because they are held as incompetent in making judgments or because they are thought of as unreliable witnesses about their own lives.3

Instead, this study views children as ‘experts in their own lives’ and especially in the understandings

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and insights they may offer regarding space and the environment.4

Secondly, I looked to Participatory Appraisal to see how an existing methodology developed to empower adults in communities in the majority of the world could be applied to young children. The
concept of ‘voice’ was important here. These tools have been designed to give voice to those who are disempowered. In an international development context these methods acknowledge that local people are the ones best equipped to know about the lives lived in their own places.

Inevitably there have been some challenges as to whether these techniques have been used to bring about effective change. However, as a theoretical starting point this view of competency was of interest to those I consulted with at the formative stages of this study. It was the assumed competency, which led to the development of imaginative methods that enabled often-illiterate adults to communicate their local knowledge within Participatory Appraisal methods. This same trigger has been the spur for developing the Mosaic approach with young children.

Thirdly, my background in early years education led me to consider notions of competency and young children, referring to pedagogical frameworks in their totality. The pre-schools of Reggio Emilia, a region in Northern Italy, have strongly influenced this study. The theoretical framework for these early childhood institutions, established by Loris Malaguzzi in the 1940s, is one of the ‘competent child’ working within a rich and supportive childcare environment.

Educators in Reggio refer to an image of the child as a ‘rich child’ who is strong, competent and active. This view is reflected in the architecture of Reggios’ childcare centres and in the child-friendly city itself. The relationships, the routines and the pedagogy, all speak of an integrated approach to designing the architecture. Learning is seen as a collaborative process in which adults and children search for meanings together: ‘We construct the meaning of school as a place which plays an active role in the children’s search for meaning and our own search for meaning, shared meanings’.5 In this regard the architecture is a fundamental element of this knowledge and search for social cohesion within the city and the spectacularly successful welfare of young children in Reggio.