Early years pioneers – Challenge the status quo

  • Early years pioneers – Challenge the status quo

TEY hears from Aaron Bradbury about bringing early childhood theory to the 21st century…

I’ve always maintained that early childhood pioneers are really important for us to hold onto. They keep us grounded and make us realise why we do what we do. It’s vital that we don’t forget about that grounding. 

Ruth Swailes and I have created our new book, Early Childhood Theories Today, to explore the work of early childhood pioneers and how their theories relate to modern-day practice. 

There are pioneers that you will know – Bronfenbrenner, Piaget, Vygotsky, Malaguzzi, Montessori – but we’ve brought them up to modern day and applied their theories to contemporary practice; it’s our interpretation. 

We’ve also included theorists like Pierre Bourdieu, who explored the role that society and cultural capital plays in early childhood, and Dr Stephen Bavolek, author of Nurturing Parenting Programs, whose research is centred around how to develop a culture of nurturing in families. 

Modern-day pioneers

We wanted to highlight current researchers and practitioners as well as the Montessoris and Vygotskys of this world. The book includes theorists who are working with children and active in the early years sector such as Tina Bruce, Valerie Daniel and Julie Fisher.

There are many early years practitioners out there doing pioneering work. People might ask, ‘How do you define a pioneer?’ I think the pioneers of today are the people who are really making change and getting us to think and reflect on our work.

We’ve tried to introduce different perspectives and ways of approaching early years. Each chapter takes you on a journey about the theorist, then gives you a reflective stance to embed the theory into your practice.

When Ruth Swailes and I started writing the book, we thought it was missing other voices, so we invited others to write a chapter each. The book now includes contributions from Tamsin Grimmer, Kate Irvine, Meredith Rose, Valerie Daniel, Sue Allingham, Phillipa Thompson and Pam Jarvis. 

Each writer focuses on a particular childhood theorist – whether that’s a pioneer from the past or a modern-day theorist – who has been chosen for their child-centred approach; every chapter takes it back to the child.

Early years practitioners already know what good practice is; being theoretically informed allows us to challenge and critique, and gives us confidence in what we do. It introduces the ‘So what?’ Why are we doing what we’re doing? Is it time to make that change?

As a sector, we tend to shy away from difficult conversations, because we’ve been downtrodden so much. We don’t like to challenge or even feel that we are able to challenge. We are expected to get on with it.

This can be seen with early years reforms – no consultation and even policies put forward by non-early years colleagues. The tide is changing and we need more expert opinions to say, no, there is an alternative. We need to start with seeing our own worth and challenging the status quo. 

Some people might pick up the book and think we’re changing the script when it comes to theory and pioneers, but that’s what we’re trying to achieve – we want people to think about what we’re saying and either agree or disagree with what we’ve written.

There are 11 chapters. You might like seven of them and dislike three; that’s great. That should be what books are about. Some chapters, such as Montessori and Malaguzzi, apply well-known theories to modern day, while other chapters provide a whole new perspective. 

Advocating the voice of practitioners

As a collective, those of us who aren’t at the coalface of early years need to give our spaces to practicing early years professionals – supporting them to have a voice, and to challenge and advocate for their sector. 

We already do that through different means, but I think we can get better at providing that space and helping practitioners to build confidence.

The only way we’re going to make change is by putting early years practitioners at the starting block to be able to challenge and question what we’re constantly told every single day is the right way to do things, when perhaps it’s not the right way. 

We can empower the people who don’t feel powerful, and I think that’s so important – to give voices from the sector to the sector. 

Early Childhood Theories Today (Sage Publishing) is edited by Aaron Bradbury and Ruth Swailes. 

Aaron Bradbury is a principal lecturer for Childhood and Early Years at Nottingham Trent University. He is the Chair of the LGBTQIA+ Early Years Working Group and a member of the Executive Committee of the ECSDN (Early Childhood Studies Degree Network). Find out more at Early Years Reviews or follow Aaron at @AaronEarlyYears

Ruth Swailes is the Director of Assure Education and has 25 years’ experience in primary education, with over 20 of those in leadership roles. Ruth has taught from nursery to Year 6 and has worked as a school improvement advisor, early years consultant and moderator, supporting leaders and teachers to improve outcomes for pupils. 

Watch Famly’s free webinar session with Aaron Bradbury on nurturing children through an inclusive and diverse lens.