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Children's Agency - an individual pursuit?

As I visit centres around Australia, I am increasingly interested in educator's interpretations and enactment of 'children's agency' in practice. With the implementation of the National Quality Framework, the National Quality Standard was introduced as the quality benchmark against which services are assessed and rated. Quality Area One of the NQS focuses on ensuring that an approved learning framework informs the development of a curriculum that enhances each child’s learning and development, and element 1.1.6 requires educators to ensure that each child’s agency is promoted, enabling them to make choices and decisions and to influence events and their world. It is the interpretation of this element that interests me in terms of the way that is enacted in practice. The Guide to the National Quality Standard (ACECQA, 2011), tells us that agency is about children recognising their capacity to initiate and lead learning, and their right to participate in decisions that affect them, including their learning.

As I talk to educators and observe practice, I notice that children are indeed making decisions throughout the day on matters that affect them. This is often explained to me as children's right to choose. In general, what I see more and more of is children choosing whether to, and they way in which, they participate in experiences and routines. For example Oliver, a three year old at a centre that I recently visited, who was participating in a painting experience, and was painting not only on the canvas provided, but also on the tables, chairs and the adjacent paint trolley. Or Montana, who after showing great interest in a cooking experience, supported by an enthusiastic and committed educator who gathered up the required resources and sourced a recipe online, lost interest and moved on to another experience with a peer before any mixing or cooking had started. In discussion with both of these educators, their perspective was that children have a right to choose, and that they were conscious of supporting their agency. But I wondered what this meant for the agency of the children who would use the painting area after Oliver, or the educator who had responded so purposefully to Montana's interest. Was their agency, their capacity to make choices and decisions, limited by Oliver and Montana's enactment of their own agency?

It is the interpretation of children's agency as an individual pursuit, that is one in which the child makes decisions about matters that affect them and their daily experiences, that has me pondering over how this aligns in the context of a community of learners. Because after all, aren't children part of a family, a community and a broader society? If we view children as active participants within an ecological system, as Bronfenbrenner (1994) famously identified, then shouldn't children's agency extend to the collective good, and aren't early childhood educators perfectly positioned to do that work? Can children's agency be framed and enacted from the perspective of citizenship, social justice and humanity? So many questions, and so many opportunities for rich reflective discussions with educators that ensued.

A centre I worked with recently made a beautiful connection with the local nursing home. The children spent some time each week in a collective discussion about what they would do on the next visit to the nursing home, decided on what activities the residents would like, and considered these options based on their developing understanding of the resident's personalities and preferences. They had a photo of each resident and each week they added to this documentation with information about what they had learnt about them, and educators used this to inform their discussion meeting. The children debated and came to a collective decision about what the best activity would be based on what they knew. From my perspective, I appreciated the skillfulness of educators as they facilitated those discussions, and their very intentional work in ensuring that each child’s agency was promoted, enabling them to make choices and decisions that authentically influenced their world. The children were excited by these visits, felt great ownership in the program, and exercised their agency beyond the personal, and into the collective sphere. Hawkins (2014) believes that for a future characterised by peace and understanding, early childhood educators must foster curriculum that upholds equity and human dignity. I would support broadening the interpretation of children's agency in the National Quality Standard to make space for multiple perspectives, and welcome the potential that this brings.

Bronfennbrenner, U, (1994). Ecological models of human development. In International Encyclopedia of Education, Vol3, 2nd Edition. Oxford:Elsevier

Hawkins, Karen. Looking forward, looking back: Framing the future for teaching for social justice in early childhood education [online].Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, Vol. 39, No. 3, Sep 2014: 121-128.

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