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On behalf of children, I object. Dr Deborah Harcourt talks marketing and learning spaces

Barista coffee is not a benchmark of ECE quality
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Outdoor play observations; style vs substance marketing; physical spaces and groups directing pedagogical outcomes – the buildings and areas in which early and middle years educators interact with children and each other undoubtedly affect the style and possibly the success of the learning that takes place. Dr Deborah Harcourt, the Deputy Editor of the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, among other roles, agreed to share her thoughts with Amplify readers in this provocative piece (originally posted on her LinkedIn timeline)

Dr Harcourt questions children’s services about what ‘state of the art’ really means, and rejects access to a coffee barista as a benchmark of quality.

Have we reached a new marketing low?

Early childhood contexts for young children, in my view, should be spaces that offer an opportunity to engage in an ‘internship’ with the real world – with access to rich and authentic relationships with people, places and things as the basis of their construction of new knowledge and ideas.

It is my belief that these settings should primarily be concerned with creating the most beneficial and authentic social, emotional, physical and intellectual contexts for children’s learning, alongside a stable team of committed and invested adults.

As an early childhood community, I am concerned that we have become de-sensitised to the severe limitations placed on experiencing a high quality childhood as offered through the plethora of new (and usually very large) early childhood centres that are popping up all over the country.

Often these structures are in the CBD of a large city; on a busy road; in a shopping mall; a major intersection; a high-rise office block; or jammed in among a swathe of other buildings. They are predominantly hidden from view via large fences, solid frontages or strategically placed (opaque) glass panels that prevent the passer-by from observing children and adults at play.

In addition, access to the real world including green spaces and sunshine, rain and mud, trees and puddles is severely diminished leading to an impoverished experience of childhood.

Unless the physical, affective and intellectual aspects of the environment all work together, under an experienced leadership focussed on a pedagogy of effort and interest (Malaguzzi, 1963), it is but a façade.

Imagine this

Imagine being one of 150 (or more) children sharing a space based on the minimum requirement, or being one of 30 infants under 12 months of age, all in one room, accompanied by a revolving door of stressed and disinterested adults – what does this tell children about the importance of their childhood? It just doesn’t matter how ‘beautiful’ the physical space is, or that it has the swankiest fittings and timber furnishings (replete with loose parts of course).

Unless the physical, affective and intellectual aspects of the environment all work together, under an experienced leadership focussed on a pedagogy of effort and interest (Malaguzzi, 1963), it is but a façade.

It also appears to me that there is now ruthless and unfettered competition going on among developers/owners/organisations (regardless of their financial persuasion) to see who can corner the largest market share by using the most absurd marketing and branding techniques. Illiteracy about young children and childhood among the marketeers, and those who give them their briefs, is rife.

Key drivers are not the children

Workforce participation, the hurried/harried parent, and pure economic drivers form the key drivers in selling a place in this new breed of early childhood centre. The rhetorical notion that children are central to decision-making is farcical, and the paradigm of a joyful, intelligent and satisfying childhood is non-existent.

And so, we come to the latest branding catch cry: ‘state of the art’. I have struggled with what this is, what it means in early childhood and how it might manifest as part of everyday life for children and teachers in a centre. I had a simplified view that it must mean access to technology, sustainable buildings and be eco-friendly.

But I was wrong … Let me share two of the very few answers I have received from new centres in response to my question “Can you please explain state of the art for me?” I must say, I was stunned by the pretentious and condescending nature of the replies – I have added the emphasis.

Hi Deborah,

This means that we provide high-quality care to children ages 6 weeks to 6 years. Included in our everyday fee are all meals, snacks, beverages, nappies where required, linen and all extra-curricular activities.

We are sustainably designed with generously sized learning hubs. We provide interactive technology and Zen areas to balance learning and play.

All of our nutritious meals are prepared by our Chef and we also have the added bonus of complimentary barista-style coffee and freshly baked treats that can be either enjoyed in our parent lounge or you can take away.

If you would like more information about us, please visit our website (link was included)

Kindest regards …

And another:

It has a MasterChef kitchen, sports field, four-lane running track, fully interactive library and Japanese Zen garden.

The fields have been created for inter sports days, pitting each centre against one another, to help prepare the children for school … the only thing built for the enjoyment of parents is a drive-through coffee shop.

Contract of intention

Should we not hold a moral and ethical contract of intention to do the right thing for, with, and alongside children? What does it say about the communities that sit around these new centres that are effectively enacting the skills of silence in relation to advocacy for children and childhood?

The image of a child that is being socially constructed in these contexts is not one as a holder and bearer of rights, as a citizen of the now, or a strong and powerful learner. Rather, the purchasing power of families seems to be an enabler for shifting the centrality of children to the side and de-stabilising the importance of childhood.

Early childhood settings should be places of authentic participation, places where debate and research about teaching and learning occurs, and where children, teachers and families can sit in dialogue with each other in a position of equity and respect.

It is naïve of families to think that barista coffee, a laundry service, a chef and an app is the new benchmark in quality

Skills of silence

To those responsible for this new breed of centre, I will use Susanna Mantovani’s (2017) suggestion and say, “Stop talking the poetry of nonsense”. It is naïve to think that this new breed will, as if by some kind of magic, result in higher quality experiences for children and families.

It is naïve of families to think that barista coffee, a laundry service, a chef and an app is the new benchmark in quality. It is naïve of educators to think their practice will somehow be miraculously improved through waterparks, ‘zen’ spaces and light boxes. And most of all, to the centres themselves, it is naïve to think that an external assessor of quality will be fooled.

On behalf of children, I object.


Deborah Harcourt

I have been working in early childhood for 25 years both in Australia and abroad. I am currently working across the higher education and consulting sectors in raising the quality of experiences for young children attending early learning programs with a particular focus on the principles of Reggio Emilia.I co-founded the Children's Participation in Research SIG with Dr Alison Clarke in 2004 for the European Early Childhood Research Association. I am also currently the Deputy Editor of the Australasian Journal of Early Childhood. My scholarly work focuses on children's right to be active participants in decision-making with publications that explore participation, informed consent and ethics of researching with children. I am particularly interested in an international exploration of young children's views and opinions on number of issues such as quality, rights and the social construction of childhood.In my consultancy work, I am focusing on developing professional inquiry as the driver for curriculum decisions.

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