I fancied becoming essential might involve fanfare, regalia and pay rises. Instead we were made invisible, essential only by implication and association. On the 2nd of April 2020 the prime minister announced that child care services were ‘critical,’ and would thus be made universally free, so that essential workers – those in healthcare, emergency services, and ‘everyone who has a job in this economy’– could continue going to work. The education minister explained: ‘We want as many people being able to work as we possibly can, and we want them to be able to access child care as they need, to make sure their children are being looked after while working.’
Looked after by whom? The speeches and press releases made little mention of early childhood educators, as if child care services were purely physical facilities where children waited alone while their parents earned a living. I imagined the children without anyone to attend to their grazes and questions. I pictured a lot of wet pants, a lot of sunburnt noses, and haircuts with tiny scissors. I knew which children would become leaders, and which children would gratefully follow along.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rapidly unfolded in Australia, the government employed some impressive rhetorical gymnastics around the word ‘essential’. ‘Essential’ was a reluctant nod to what a lot of us already knew: that life-making pursuits such as caring, educating and producing food are the foundation of society. ‘Essential’ was an admission that to be able to work, humans must first attend to their living, breathing bodies and relationships. But even amidst this unavoidable recognition of the importance of life-making, ‘essential workers’ were also defined as those in paid employment. Anyone contributing to the productivity of the nation. Lifters, not leaners.
Consistent with this latter conceptualisation, policy makers have regularly framed the utility of early childhood education and care (ECEC) in economic terms: to free up the productive capacity of current workers, and to enhance the brain power of future workers. This was explicitly affirmed in 2008 in the midst of Rudd’s ‘education revolution,’ when the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) stated that children’s access to quality early education and care is ‘critical to achieving long-term participation and productivity gains for Australia.’ This productivist view from above powerfully shapes early childhood policy and funding.
The view from inside ECEC is very different. This is the view from below, from the perspectives of 6-month-olds and 2-year-olds and 5-year-olds and the educators like me who spend their days with them. Our day-to-day work is informed by a learning framework called ‘Belonging, Being, Becoming’; the title itself implicitly acknowledges children’s interdependence with others, and offers an image of children as dynamic and capable humans in their own right, rather than adults and workers in development. The five learning outcomes we pursue are capacious enough to hold transformative possibilities: Children have a strong sense of identity; Children are connected with and contribute to their world; Children have a strong sense of wellbeing; Children are confident and involved learners; Children are effective communicators. Early childhood educators know that children are not only the nation’s future, but powerful, insightful and creative human beings in the here and now.
When I think of my work as an early childhood teacher, I think of life and its attendant quandaries, relationships and emotions. I think of a messy entanglement of sweaty curious bodies constantly on the move. I think of both a microcosm and a magnification of all the mundane and existential dilemmas humans face on a daily basis. As educators, we support children to acquire the skills to keep themselves and their communities physically and emotionally healthy. We teach children to build and maintain respectful relationships. We support children to develop dispositions for life-long learning and critical reflection. We are co-partners in play, long positioned as the antithesis of waged work.
Crucially, we are also in the business of ‘leaving ideas lying around,’ which is the work I find most exciting but least predictable or containable. The phrase is the economist Milton Friedman’s, who, referring to his proposed program of economic privatisation and deregulation, said ‘Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around . . . Our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’ As Naomi Klein has pointed out, the notion need not only apply to the politics of austerity and neoliberalism, but to progressive movements as well.
Every day, young children and educators tackle intriguing questions like ‘why do snails make slime?’; ‘are you an adult?’; or my favourite, ‘do crabs pinch beards?’ As they arise in children’s lives and communities, we also explore ideas of race, class, environment, gender and sexuality. In September 2019, for example, as school students across the world organised climate strikes, some of our children attended protests with their families, and some shared their understanding of climate change with educators and friends. The children’s lived experience of climate change intensified a month later as the Gospers Mountain fire began, requiring us to stay indoors for weeks on end, away from the hazardous air quality. Over that smoky summer they created a vet clinic, rescuing and looking after injured koalas and wallabies.
A second example: in May 2020 National Sorry Day occurred a day after the murder of George Floyd, and we talked and read books and watched children’s TV segments about anti-racism, the Stolen Generations and Black Lives Matter. Despite these resources, the other educators and I grappled with how to shift the conversation beyond the conceptual without scaring or disempowering the children. Sharing the successes of past social movements emerged as one effective strategy. Knowing that children are not ‘colour-blind,’ we also decided to explore the role of melanin in producing skin tone. A few weeks after National Sorry Day, I overheard two three-year-olds laughing as they lay on adjacent beds, holding their arms together: your skin has less melanin and mine has more.
A third example: On sunny days, boys so young as to be barely verbal forgo playing outside over being seen in a flowery pink hat. Almost all children assert that Frozen is only for girls, despite many of the boys’ families sharing that it is on high rotation at home. At the same time, children playing in our outdoor mud kitchen happily accommodate two mums or three dads. When a school dramatic play area is set up, one child asserts: at this school you don’t have to be a boy or a girl! A favourite book of many children is the wonderfully queer Julian Is a Mermaid. Every day, gender roles are both fortified and torn apart, and it is our job as educators to keep open as generous a field of gender identity and expression for children as possible.
Such conversations, incidental moments and intentional teachings may well be considered controversial by gatekeepers of Australian values. However, the powerful mythology of childhood as a time of innocence serves to protect ECEC from the conservative scrutiny to which other institutions – universities, foremostly – have been subjected. Children’s temporal distance from the workforce and positions of power also acts as a buffer against stricter impositions of conservative values and productivity-oriented logic on the curriculum itself. This is not to say that such logic does not affect children or our work as educators, rather that we have space to move, play and reflect in a way that is slipping out of reach in higher education.
The consortium tasked with creating Australia’s first Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) between 2008 and 2009 began with an assumption that ‘curriculum is always political, in part because it shapes what is seen as (im)possible.’ As detailed in the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, the consortium consulted with diverse ECEC stakeholders, and found a desire within the sector for the framework to be wide-reaching and transformational. As they developed and negotiated the principles, practices and learning outcomes that comprise the EYLF, the members of the consortium held in mind this question: ‘How can we counter the dominant but limited human capital policy focus on children primarily as learners in order that they become successful and productive workers and contributors to society?’
When they presented draft versions of the EYLF to the public, certain aspects met with media backlash. This backlash included criticism of the idea that educators should encourage children’s ‘civic participation and contribution to the future,’ and scepticism that children habitually explore power and politics through play. However, despite this resistance, the final document explicitly upholds the following as essential to children’s learning and development: respectful and interdependent relationships, critical analysis skills, strong social and emotional wellbeing, and an ethic of fairness and justice. When such process-oriented principles from ‘below’ are considered alongside the productivist, outcome-oriented early childhood policy and funding from ‘above,’ it is clear that a deeply contradictory relationship exists between the two.
During the first lockdown of 2020, there were three short months in which it became abundantly clear that the core work of our species is care and life-making. These were the months in which ECEC was universally free for all families, and in which it was judged imperative that nurses, doctors, allied health professionals, educators, cleaners, and food workers continue to work, while consultants and bankers and real estate agents stayed home. This moment of relative stillness afforded a multi-directional view: behind us, to the beliefs, values, habits and practices that were the invisible hand in our lives pre-pandemic, and forwards, towards a world in which our fundamental interdependence might become the cornerstone of our economy and society. A world of mutual aid, climate justice, secure housing and guaranteed income for all. A world in which the historically feminised work of social reproduction and nurturance is honoured as the precondition of our existence and our endeavours.
At this juncture our government chose to mobilise two main ideas: getting the nation ‘back to normal,’ and implementing a ‘gas-led recovery.’ The latter was to be spearheaded by a National COVID-19 Coordination Commission comprised predominantly of fossil fuel industry leaders. In September that year, the government proposed using tax-payer dollars to build new gas infrastructure, in absence of any analysis suggesting such public subsidisation was necessary, let alone advisable. The project of returning to ‘normal’ involved announcements to cut income support payments back to below the poverty line, and to hike university fees to discourage people from studying ‘non-vocational’ degrees, further foreclosing access to higher education.
In early childhood education and care, normal meant unaffordable for low-income families; normal meant reinstituting some of the highest child care fees in the OECD; normal meant cutting JobKeeper income support for ECEC before all other sectors; normal meant no physical distancing and no protective gear for children and educators; normal meant a return of welfare obligations for parents and caregivers wishing to access child care subsidies. Normal meant the obfuscation of the fact that essential workers largely cluster around the lowest income brackets.
We do not need a gas-led recovery or a return to the old normal. With mutually-enforcing crises of climate change, global political polarisation, growing income disparities and the still-unfolding pandemic, it is clear that ‘back to normal’ is a devastatingly ill-advised path to take. We need a care-led recovery, a pivot to life-making. As Tithi Bhattacharya has written for Jacobin, this pivot would mean understanding work as a ‘means to a life of dignity’ rather than an end in itself. It would mean an economy in which work is linked ‘to multiple forms of social sustainability in ways such that jobs can become tools to counteract systemic injustice rather than reproduce them.’ Moreover, this shift would mean an uncoupling of workforce participation with the right to a good and full life.
The logic which says that ECEC only merits public investment when pegged to the nation’s productivity gains is the same logic which says fossil fuel investment is the way out of our current crisis. It is also the same logic which implies that those who do not generate profit are undeserving of a good life, thus discipling and devaluing the lives of those who are unemployed, sick, disabled, elderly, carers, and holders of non-vocational degrees. During the pandemic, many people habituated to regular workforce participation were without work for the first time in their adult lives. Although not contributing to the nation’s GDP, they still felt themselves to be deserving of housing, income support, good food, fresh air and reciprocal care and connection with others.
From March to May 2020, as educators disappeared from public discourse, I disappeared from our centre entirely to care for my mum, who was in the last months of her life. Getting coronavirus would be have been a disaster for her and for us, and I couldn’t risk carrying it from the sixty snotty preschoolers to her. My colleagues arranged for the children to call me on FaceTime while I was away. I sat next to Mum on our worn family couch, and she and the children smiled and waved to each other. The children asked me: Are you lonely all on your own? When are you coming home? To them, it seemed the centre was my home, and, if not with them, I was surely sad and alone. When Mum died two months later, they drew me pictures: This is you crying and this is me holding your hand. This is you and your mum inside a love heart. This intergenerational care, empathy and connection is part of the learning and relating that occurs daily within the thousands of ECEC services around the country.
The political push and pull between life-making and profit-making is not a new phenomenon. Until the late 19th century, the English working class was subjected to an unlimited work day, and workers had a life expectancy of twenty years of age. When a shift from light to heavy industry occurred in the 1870s, the capitalist class realised they could not rely on an emaciated workforce. They thus began to attend to the welfare of workers through public health measures, restrictions on child employment, and trade union decriminalisation. The nature of this necessary investment in the social reproduction of human life has shifted greatly over the last 150 years, but to those unprotected by wealth and social status, it has always been understood as a question of life or death. Recent events have revealed that this question is salient for everyone.
During the early days of the pandemic, many Australians looked to the USA – a vision of a government decidedly eschewing life-making – and watched as people died because of lack of access to health care or sick leave. With the regular furniture of our lives suddenly stripped away, it became clear that care, education, health and food production are essential, both in terms of keeping us alive, and in terms of building the infrastructure for a good life. This life-making work, both paid and unpaid, not only sustains individual bodies, but also webs of relationships between humans, other living creatures, and our home planet. In the life-making realm of early childhood education and care, children and educators are playing with the kinds of ideas that might just be put to use in building our society anew.
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