Children, families and practitioners are affected by wider contexts.
Communities are living practices that bring meaning and value.
Place, space, and histories are important.
Early years settings can be communities for social justice and sustainability.
Children, families and practitioners are affected by wider contexts. The term “context” includes much more than the physical environment and reaches far beyond immediate surroundings. It encompasses the beliefs and values that give meaning and purpose to children’s experiences in communities and settings. Beyond that, the contexts that enfold children’s lives also operate at larger scales, as is only too evident in the huge changes and challenges today, such as public health emergencies, climate change, sustainability, extremes of economic hardship or prosperity, movements such as Black Lives Matter, migration, and the (unequal) impact of digital technologies on young children’s lives. These larger-scale influences filter into the daily lives of children, families and practitioners, and mingle with more local contexts. Contexts are dynamic, multiple and constantly changing.
Communities are not static groups but develop from living practices that give people’s lives shared meaning and value. Communities are dynamic, changing as their contexts evolve, through politics, demography, technology and other circumstances.
Every early years setting is a community in itself, with its own values and living practices. But it also connects and communicates with multiple other communities, including:
- communities of other children (siblings, cousins, friends, out-of-setting gatherings)
- trans-local communities (e.g. local communities that keep in touch with members who are dispersed in other locations and countries)
- digital communities (the online networks and social media that settings, families and children use)
- inter-agency/multi-professional communities, and other early childhood education communities
- communities of all non-human things and beings that children are attached to, such as animals, insects, imaginary friends, special objects, sounds, images.
The contact between settings and communities needs to be a two-way, reciprocal effort at mutual understanding and joint action. Community relations can be seen as a kind of tuning in to one another’s hopes, fears, priorities and beliefs concerning children and childhood, and learning from them.
Children are active community-makers. They participate in and contribute to multiple communities as they move between home, extended family, settings and play areas. They often act as cultural brokers, helping families and settings understand one another.
Place, space, and histories are important. Communities and settings are embedded in particular places with their own geographies, neighbourhoods and local knowledge. They have local histories, group cultures and collective memories that shape the way spaces are created and used. These shared memories are often a source of comfort and solidarity, but they can also shadow the present by memories of injustice and hardship in the past.
Communities often take responsibility for caring for and maintaining the spaces of the setting, the local area, and environments further afield. The communities’ local environment, the geography of the locality and community buildings, are valued by families as safe and supportive spaces for families to meet. But communities may also be constrained by poor environmental conditions such as lack of access to green space; air pollution; contaminated water or ground; high volumes of traffic; derelict buildings; poor maintenance of public spaces; crimes against persons or properties.
The physical and historical contexts in which a community lives shape its ways of learning, its view of what counts as relevant knowledge, and its strategies for survival.
Early years settings can be communities for social justice and sustainability. By bringing together diverse communities, early years settings lie at the heart of social change. The settings themselves can create a sense of community through the relationships and environments which pull diverse elements together. They are safe spaces for families and generate social and community participation. As early years practitioners and families engage in the care of these environments, they can experience social justice and sustainability in action.
Early years settings have an important role to play in challenging unconscious bias and contributing to equity by understanding how race, gender, sexual orientation, poverty, faith, prejudice, and disability affect learning and life chances. To address unconscious bias, early years practitioners can learn more about what families like about the places they live in and support those who want to improve, and exert more ownership of, the spaces they would like to change.
Sustainability is also addressed through shared respect and care for the material environment. This means collectively coming up with ways to reduce consumption, to repair, recycle and to reuse.
Wider contexts that involve principles of common worlds, shared living spaces, and climate change can inspire settings to become actively involved in local as well as broader groups and networks focused on sustainability and environmental restoration. Such involvement can help challenge unhelpful distinctions that keep communities of human, non-human and other entities apart.