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  • Writer's picturecathybelgrave

How We View Children: Towards Play-Based Learning

Updated: Oct 16, 2023


Like many educators, I take time to reflect on my teaching practice, looking for areas of growth. Whenever I do this, I find my reflections always seem lead me back to looking at my view of the child.


How we view children informs how we perceive behaviour, how we communicate and interact with children, how we set our classroom environment, how we structure our classroom time. And, I find that when I discover an area for growth, it more often than not requires an unlearning of how I was educated at school.


To explain my thinking, I turn to a workshop facilitated by Gunilla Dahlberg (Reggio-Inspired Learning Centre Winter Conference), where she talked about three views of the child. Each view is based upon a set of beliefs about children, and despite our best efforts, she pointed out that all three views play out in the classroom.


In theory, very few people talk about children in this way, but in educational practices worldwide, this is still the prevailing image of the child. ~ Loris Malaguzzi

The Empty Vessel

Here, the child is viewed as a blank slate or an empty container. It is the job of the adult to fill the child up, to 'shape them like a lump of clay' (Dahlberg) because they are unable to do this for themselves. As educators, we are very familiar with this model, we often feel we've moved beyond it and so we don't talk about it. Yet, this transmission pedagogy is alive and well. It happens when:

  • The teacher teaches directly, the stand and deliver method. The message that children receive is that the teacher is the authority, the holder of knowledge and there is no room for discussion. The tone is often one of right/wrong.

  • Educators feel time pressure to get through material, and/or want the children to experience success in learning.

  • Educators feel there is limited opportunity to create flow in their classroom and they need to follow a rigid routine.

  • Educators believe this is the best method for children to access information and learn.


The child has no responsibility for his own knowledge, but is controlled from the outside by others. This image of the child always presupposes very active adult educators. It also means that the child remains poor, because he does not get to use all his resources. ~ Gunilla Dahlberg

Controlled From Outside of Self

This is where we believe that children learn by understanding, that they have the resources within themselves to learn but they need an adult to stimulate their learning (Dahlberg). We see this when:

  • We become overly involved in the children's learning, joining them in their play. Often it's difficult for the children to sustain leadership in their play because we eventually take over, feeling there is a 'teachable moment'. When we do this, we choose to foreclose on the children's curiosity and redirect their exploration.

  • We ask questions. Here we might have a piece of information to share, and our question is intended to guide the children towards a specific understanding. What we're actually asking the children to do is guess what answer we're looking for. When this is happening, we aren't really listening closely to what the children are saying, we're more tuned to hearing the answer we want.

  • We have an expected outcome, something specific we want the children to experience. This predetermined outcome becomes the driving force and limits the children accessing their own thoughts and ideas. Think curriculum.


The child and the [educator] are researchers, co-constructers and protagonists, in an open process ~ Gunilla Dahlberg

Power & Resources Within Self

Here is where most play-based educators want to live - fully believing that the child creates their own knowledge, that they want to grow, learn, know, and that they have the resources to do it. This is a "relational, interactive pedagogy" (Dahlberg) where the adult constructs the world with the child. The child still needs an adult, but it's an adult that can hold their authority while allowing the child to possess their own authority. Adult and child are in a reciprocal relationship, with each having something to offer the other. What this looks like:

  • Both child and educator are full of awe and wonder. The educator is able to see things from the child's perspective.

  • There is a space for children to play freely - initiating and directing their play outside of adult involvement.

  • The educator slows down, observes closely, listens deeply to what is unfolding in the play. There is an acceptance of the children's thinking and theorizing.

  • The educator documents carefully so they may reflect on the children's thinking and understand the 'why' of their play.

  • The educator creates an environment that supports wonder and the development of thought processes related to the children's curiosity - a space where the children can test their theories and take the next step in their learning. This facilitation is "easing the learning or play process rather than telling children what the process is" (Axelsson, p. 3).

  • Educators and children share ideas and discuss the possibilities of the ideas. There is reciprocity in the relationship.

  • There are times of teaching to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the child, or to offer a piece of information. Here, teaching is a "respectful form of teaching" (Axelsson, p. 6) where knowledge is shared. There is a reciprocity between child and educator, where the educator is observing and listening carefully to the child, noticing how the information is received. There is a space for dialogue, where the child can share their thoughts and the educator has an opportunity to learn from the child.

This is the art of being an early childhood educator, or play-responsive educator (Suzanne Axelsson, The Original Learning Approach) - being an advocate for play as a process that is freely chosen by the children, intrinsically motivated, self-directed, and knowing when to share information, when to facilitate.


For myself, I can see where all three views of the child play out in my time with the children. There are the moments where 'I can't believe I said that thing', where I've given in to the whisper in my head that says, 'I know best'! Times where I foreclosed on play because I was so excited for the children to gain a specific understanding. Times where there was such flow between the children and our conversation that I found myself marvelling at how children engage with the world, how they construct knowledge from their experiences, and how caring they are towards each other.


So much to unlearn in order for reality to be revealed ~ Suzanne Axelsson

So, if we believe that children are curious, capable and competent, and that in a safe environment, their curiosity and wonder drives their learning, how do we change so we see more of this belief in our practice?

  • Be aware of where you are in your view of the child - awareness is the first step of towards growth. Ask yourself, what belief/value from my own schooling is playing out right now? Is this where I want to be? What can I do to shift my thinking?

  • Give yourself grace when you bump up against a limitation - non-judgment is an important component for growth.

  • Choose one step that's doable, that will bring you closer towards seeing the child as an empowered learner - one small step at a time can bring big changes. Keep it simple.

  • Give yourself time - time for both yourself and the children to adjust to the change.

And finally, celebrate the process of learning - the 'ahha' moments, for yourself and the children, when something new if revealed.



Related Reading:

The Original Learning Approach by Suzanne Axelsson

From Teaching to Thinking by Ann Pelo & Margie Carter





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