How can we make responsibility visible in early childhood education? By supporting children’s hope, a researcher suggests

How can we promote responsibility and sustainable development in daycare centres? Researchers consider it important that small children are talked to about hope.

Is the world going to get broken, a child asks at daycare. How should we answer such a question?

In the case of difficult issues relating to the state of the world with no easy answers, the key is to interact with the child. Adults must be honest about serious problems prevalent in the world. At the same time, they must explain the successes in resolving such problems.

Professor of Education Miriam Kalland defends the pedagogy of hope.

“Instead of superficial optimism, I refer to boosting the agency of children when I speak about hope. It’s important to understand that the future is not only something we are passively accepting. Faced with challenges, humanity quickly learns new ways of doing things.”

As Kalland points out, children’s temporal perspective is different from that of adults. Children must have the right to enjoy the next day.

“As we approach the end of the year, we can’t foresee what the world will look like in March, but tomorrow we can go for a walk in the woods, and on Wednesday we will be doing crafts.”

Critical compassion helps see excluded individuals

In addition to an ecological dimension, responsibility is composed of social and economic elements. In terms of social responsibility, one of the central factors is how to make daycare an increasingly varied environment where all children are taken into consideration.

University Lecturer Jaakko Hilppö responds to this with the concept of critical compassion.

“It means that you have the courage to take a critical view of current structures and practices. Whom do they benefit and who are left out?”

You have to learn to perceive the world from other people’s perspectives. It may be that we take so many things for granted that we cannot see their potential for excluding others. As regards holidays, we have learned to take into consideration the range of festivities celebrated by different children. But which languages are used in daycare? If Finnish is the language of everyday activities, will children with Kurdish, English or Russian as their native language get the chance, at least occasionally, to use them in daycare?

Central to the routines of daycare is guiding children towards empathy and the promotion of diversity. Kalland and Hilppö describe observations made in compassion-centred research: children can be taught to be compassionate by involving them, for example, in everyday situations of consoling someone. If a child gets a cut, other children too can console them, instead of leaving the task solely to adults. At the same time, the responsibility always lies with the adult.

Belief in the possibility of change

Difficult questions pertaining to responsibility also give pause to students of the field. How can the qualifications of future early childhood education teachers be further strengthened?

Jaakko Hilppö and Mirjam Kalland believe in boosting the transformative agency of teachers. Students should be imbued with a belief in the possibility of change. Having the ability to do something often helps tolerate uncertainty and difficulties. Tangible actions relating to responsibility should be carried out in daycare: sorting out the rubbish, going for a walk in the forest and building planter boxes.

For the sake of transformative agency, promoting students’ critical thinking is important, as it trains them in identifying and questioning elements of everyday life at daycare: the role models available in children’s books and the symbols used to designate toilets. Is there room for diversity?

During their studies, students familiarise themselves with documents that guide teaching in early childhood education, such as the national core curriculum for early childhood education and care by the Finnish National Agency for Education. According to Kalland, taking in the curriculum can feel like a challenge to students. Fortunately, their perspective often changes over the course of the studies: the colossal document before them turns into an assistive tool. Its values can be used as support, and its content can be used to look for answers.

Kalland emphasises that studying early childhood education is not only about adopting but also examining relevant guiding documents. At times, you have to be critical about the instructions provided. Today’s students will be establishing new instructions as part of their careers.

Maintaining hope is key

Children are sensitive to and observant about matters related to responsibility. They may, for example, pick up a piece of rubbish left behind by an adult, or wonder aloud at the table why we are once again eating meat in spite of just having talked about cutting down on it.

Genuinely listening to children’s concerns about the state of the world is a good piece of advice for both early childhood education professionals and parents. Asking a child for their opinion on something leads to a dialogue that can teach something to adults as well. There is no need to fear not being able to answer children’s questions. Instead, you can say ‘That’s interesting, let’s look into it together’.

Maintaining hope is key. There are many problems in the world, but humanity has managed to solve them collaboratively, and will continue to be able to do so in the future.