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A reflection on the ethics of group time, a pedagogical dilemma?

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How do you feel about group time? Do you see it as a negative concept that takes away from a child’s autonomy and right to play, or a positive time for collaboration, connections and transition? Perhaps, like many aspects of early childhood education, it’s all about how we approach it.

Pedagogical Leader Karla Wintle shares her experience with group time over the years, and how a critical reflection on inclusion and children’s rights has changed the way she approaches group time.

By Karla Wintle

Whether an expectation or a preference, group time has been a cause for discussion within the sector for some time.

My first experience of group time with 2 to 3-year-olds was not only nerve-racking but also quite a shambles. Some children were rolling around the floor, kicking others or crying. I guess I was very naive to think that 20 children of that age would sit and listen to me reading ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’. However, I persevered for some time, because it was an expectation that we did group time with every age group.

That was around 10 years ago and over the years I’ve looked back and reflected on the why behind this practice, focusing especially on the question who is group time for?

Group time can be a positive experience for children when approached in the right way, providing a time and space for children to be together, reciprocally engaging in conversation or experience. However, sometimes our own agenda can cloud our pedagogical decisions, which disregard the voices of children and other colleagues. Using the methodology of power with rather than power over supports an holistic approach to group time, enabling us to advocate for those we work with.

A question of inclusion

When we consider the complex and individual nature of a particular group, are we being inclusive when we run group times?

I remember the constant battle to include everyone, due to some children having incredible confidence to be able to voice their thoughts and opinions while those who were more reserved struggled to be heard. I considered how it was for the children who found sitting still challenging, was I listening to what they were subconsciously telling me? “I could be learning this in a different way…in my own way.”

Reflective questions such as who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged by our actions as educators can support social justice, equity and inclusion within our curriculum. In this case, such reflections enable us to consider both sides of the debate, including the benefits and drawbacks of engaging in group time vs not including group time in the program, and how much we should intervene to encourage children’s involvement when they are already busy playing or engaged with other children.

A meditation on rights

The thing that really dominates my thinking is, what right did I have to sit at the centre and forefront of children’s learning, being the holder of all knowledge?

I imagine myself sitting on a chair, higher than the children, hoping they would be listening to me and be interested in what I had to say. This contradicts what the Early Years Learning Framework tells us – that we should view children as active participants and decision-makers, opening up possibilities for us to move beyond preconceived ideas and expectations about what children can do and learn.

My question is who is silenced, who is excluded and whose agenda are we following?

When we consider that children have a right to be listened to and to have their opinions taken seriously, then are we being ethical in our pedagogical practices?

Group time can work, but it needs to be collaborative and empowering

I’m not saying that group time is something we shouldn’t include in our programs. In fact, socio-cultural theory tells us that children should be seen as co-constructors of learning, scaffolding the learning of others, which benefits children’s self-confidence and self-esteem, and group time can be one way of enabling this.

I’ve seen fantastic group times that have been thoughtful, engaging and inclusive, whereby children can choose whether they participate or not.

So, let’s consider an alternative collaborative approach to bringing children together.

Recently, as I was collating feedback for our quality improvement plan, I looked at the voices of the children within it and I had an instant light bulb moment.

What if we had a children’s QIP review meeting, just like we do as a leadership team?

Reflecting in action, we spontaneously gathered a small group of children who wanted to participate in our leadership table.

At first, it was quite a novelty for the children, who laughed and engaged in humorous conversation, but providing them with the resources to draw and create their thoughts was a way in which we could invite and provoke ideas for our QIP in an ethical and inclusive way.

Knowing that it was the last day for 4 of the children as they were going to school, it was a great opportunity to draw out their ideas around what we could do to make Springvale Service for Children better for other children in the future.

We showed that the children’s ideas were valid, respected and valuable to the service’s vision for improvement. For some of the younger children who attended the meeting, it was an opportunity to see how they can contribute to the meetings we will have in the future. My role was to observe and listen, occasionally being the teacher without knowledge.

Minutes were taken with a note added to say:

“All children in attendance chose to be present today. The children who chose not to attend this meeting were too busy in play and may attend the next meeting which is scheduled on [date]. The next meeting will be to organise and plan our Lunar New Year Event.”

While meetings with children are already part of our program, this meeting seemed to hold a more powerful message. Children were now able to be visionary about the service, making decisions that will not only affect the service but the children who will attend in the years to come.

Group time doesn’t have to be a part of the day where we are gathering children to get other tasks done or to enlighten them on a topic of our choice. It can be a powerful collaboration of minds that can happen anywhere at any time, allowing children’s ideas to become a powerful tool for reflection and continuous improvement. It can also be a time for fun and laughter 💗

CELA’s expert child care and early education service consultants have helped many new and existing providers across Sydney and Australia-wide to achieve success.

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2 thoughts on “A reflection on the ethics of group time, a pedagogical dilemma?

  1. This is a lovely, thoughtful piece. Thank you for writing it and for sharing. In my experience, ‘formal’ group times persist in the sector, with an expectation that all children will attend, both physically and cognitively. This kind of group time isn’t inclusive of all children’s learning dispositions, and often invites challenging behaviours, making it difficult for both the child and the educator.

  2. No wonder there is so much anxiety with our young children these days, we are robbing children of their childhood and treating them like they are little adults. There should now be a national inquiry into what’s happening in early Childhood education and the links to anxiety, depression and poor mental health. We understand that the first 5 years are vital to a child’s well being, but I have watched as the culture of childhood is being slowly eroded away. What has happened to routine and rhythm and why would you giving children so many choices? In fact, why have good quality university trained educators at all? We understand the value of well planned inclusive group times and how rich the music & movement experience is as well as story time. Maybe the problem lies in having 20 young children in a group of 3 – 5year olds. Maybe our groups for young children need to be capped at 15 instead. Once upon a time we had excellent kindergarten teachers colleges where teachers learnt the value of singing, play and games. They were the adults and the children were able to enjoy their childhood. There is no hurry for children to grow up and have to make big decisions. Plenty of time for that in their lives when it is developmentally appropriate. The struggle for a lot of parents today is that they give all the power to the children when they are not ready for it. They can decide what to wear, what & when to eat (do families still share meals together around the table), when they go to bed, how to talk to their parents, how to treat property. In fact, the problem these days is that there is not a lot of parenting happening, parents are scared to be the parents. Please don’t advocate the same thing happening in our profession. There must be a correlation between the rise in mental health problems and what is happening in Early Childhood

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