Children as activists and advocates

After all who children are and who we are as professionals are entangled – each shaping the other in a reciprocal relationship.

In early childhood education we have a long and rich history of advocating for children and their right to a quality education, as well as advocating for the value of ourselves as early childhood teachers and educators, early childhood consultant Stephen Gallen writes.

We have made some significant shifts and strides over the past few years. The introduction of the National Quality Framework in 2012 gave us a shared language to use and a recognised theoretical and practical knowledge base to draw on. Along with this came a change in professional identity with the term ‘educator’ and a new focus on the nature and quality of programs, curricula and outcomes for young children.

At the same time childcare and early childhood education has begun to figure more prominently in the national conversation and in the mainstream media. So why is it that the significant shifts in the last few years have not resulted in a shift in professional recognition? And on a cultural level, why have we been unable to shift the conversation about early childhood education and care (ECEC) from productivity, affordability and access (the concerns of the economy and of parents and society – in other words adult concerns) to conversations about the meaning, purpose and quality of ECEC (concerns more directly related to children, and also to teachers and educators)?

It’s worth considering that at base, almost all of our claims for the worth of our profession and the work we do are informed by a particular (and increasingly outdated) construction of the ‘child’ who we educate and care for – they rely on a ‘futures’ oriented perspective of the child (Dahlberg et al, 1999).

Developmental psychology points us towards future developmental outcomes, education emphasises broad educational (learning) outcomes and future employment and economic results, while the ‘care’ and social interventionist lenses lead us to consider future social (and economic) benefits that will result from investment in the early years.

This idea of ‘children as the future’ and ECEC as an investment in this future, seems attractive as a way of advocating for our work and our profession but what if instead of an effective argument towards valuing and respecting both children and early childhood teachers, this popular image actually undermines and terminally limits our struggle for recognition and respect?

Within the context of the National Quality Framework, children are characterised as competent – full of strength and potential, with a capacity to participate actively in the groups and communities that they belong to. This active participation is not just seen as a matter of capacity or potential, but also a matter of rights. This image of the child as a full human being, an agent and a citizen has gradually been emerging into view (Cannella, 1997, Dahlberg et al. 1999). Maybe it’s time that this started to inform our own professional image as educators. After all who children are and who we are as professionals are entangled – each shaping the other in a reciprocal relationship.

We have attempted for many years to argue for the long term economic and social benefits of our work, but the trouble with pinning our worth and value on the results of the future is that our contributions are never really visible, never really seen, because they are always deferred to the future, in the same way children’s value is seen as a potential only.

When we start to view children as human beings now we start to see our ECEC services in a different light too. They are not just spaces or enclosures for achieving outcomes for the future, for preparing children for life and for school, and to one day take their place in the community (Moss & Petrie, 2002). Our services are spaces where children are already living their lives, here and now, already communities where children are actively participating as citizens (Dahlberg et al, 1999). Carla Rinaldi (2006) talks about the possibility of constructing our services as productive and generative spaces, that make a visible and valued contribution to the cultural and social life of the community in the present as well as in the future.

Maybe it’s time to start advocating more vividly, more proudly as well as more loudly for what children (and we) contribute to society and culture here and now. What might be possible if we started turning our attention and our advocacy to describing and articulating the complexity (as well as the mundanity) of our daily lives together? All of the complexities, challenges and opportunities that arise out of facilitating and navigating groups of human beings living their lives together.

It requires a radical shift for us to begin to reconceptualise and re-describe our work as work that involves facilitating and enabling children’s active participation and engagement in the community, rather than as educational or caregiving work. In other words to describe this as work ‘with’ children rather than work ‘for’ or ‘to’ them. To stop talking about education and care and instead talk of how we amplify children’s voices and their activism. Maybe it’s time to stop being advocates for children and support them to advocate for themselves. Such a shift might also lead to a similar shift in how we as a profession are seen and valued in the broader community.

The work that we do, and the work that children do is really important, really valuable, really productive social, political and cultural work, as much as it is an educational and economic investment in the future. It matters. We know this. We just need to make this visible to others.


ACECQA, (2011) Guide to the National Quality Standard, ISBN 978-0-642-7810-17 [PDF]

Cannella, G. (1997) Deconstructing Early Childhood Education New York: Peter Lang

Dahlberg, G, Moss, P & Pence, A. (1999) Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care London: Routledge

Council of Australian Governments, (2009) Belonging, Being and Becoming - The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia, ISBN 978-0-642-77873-4

Moss, P & Petrie, P (2002) From Children’s Services to Children’s Space London: Routledge

Rinaldi, C. (2006) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia : Listening, Researching and Learning London: Routledge