“Friendships are made, imaginary worlds created. Information is processed, skills develop. Laughter, tears, emotions, ideas… through play, a child explores what it is like to be human on our planet. The development of our species, the future adults and leaders of our world, all pass through the portal of a childhood that can create and lift who they are and who they become through the spirit and drive for play. We are wired for it. We are who we are because of how we played. And where we played. And with whom we played. (Rusty Keeler)

Are children’s friendships undervalued in early childhood education? Is there a preoccupation with individual journeys of learning that may dismiss the importance of peer culture as an imperative to the development of the whole child inclusive of identity and wellbeing.

Our decade long engagement with the Early Years Learning Framework has in many ways conditioned us to craft meaningful curriculum that generates opportunities to ‘belong’. This theme is crucial to creating a community that celebrates the multifaceted, interconnected relationships for children, families and educators across home and centre. It is congruent with feelings of familiarity, safety and security and is often the impetus to nurture aspirations of ‘becoming’, however the potential for rich relational learning may be narrowed if becoming is consistently aligned with predetermined outcomes. So, what of the space in between, what occurs as we celebrate the art of ‘being’, the immediacy of living and learning every day in context with others?

  • What does ‘being me’ in companionship with others look like?
  • What role does friendship play in ‘being’ in the early learning context?
  • And how do we evidence the importance of peer relational learning and each child’s identity?

‘Being’ recognises the significance of the here and now in children’s lives, of them knowing themselves, building and maintaining relationships (EYLF, 2009). It is intricately woven into children seeing themselves as being with others, developing their emerging capacities to navigate diverse relational expectations and dimensions of power. It therefore holds significance for the educative team to develop an understanding of the value of friendship as a pedagogical pursuit. One that honours children as sophisticated social beings and values the influences of interdependent relationships as an integral component of self-identity.

What then does a pedagogy of friendship articulate about what we value and understand about peer relationships in the early years? The consideration of the importance of a pedagogy of friendship as a core component of curriculum may help children make meaning from their friendship experiences; provide educators with unique insights into children’s lived experiences in context with family and community, and build an appreciation of children’s agency, social capacities and vulnerabilities.

A pedagogy of friendship determined by, and for, children striving to be with others in a social context is characteristically influenced by the culture and demographic of the centre community. Several questions prompt reflection when considering the opportunities and impact of friendships among very young children (Teaching as Research PLC, 2019):

  • How does the predictability and or inconsistency of attendance patterns contribute to, or compromise the potential for children to consolidate friendships?
  • How do we support a sense of connection and community when challenged with a Transient demographic?
  • Is an experience of belonging created through familiarity or neighbourhood relationships, and are sibling relationships an advantage to children initiating friendships?
  • Intentional groupings and learning affordances – is there gender bias in the environment and expectations for play. Do children socialise behaviours in girls or boys?
  • Are there diverse and or conflicting expectations of children as social players from family, educators or peers? This might also include expectations and perceptions of how infant and toddlers enact friendship, and biased perceptions of children with special rights to enjoy reciprocal relationships.
  • Are educators alert to and cognisant of the realities of a peer culture inclusive of othering, exclusion and social currency as power?
  • How do we nurture children’s emotional intelligence and dispositions of trust and empathy?

Creating a teaching and learning culture that values friendships as a social construct requires educators to begin to develop an understanding of the phenomenon of friendship both from the child’s perspective and through a research lens. A new framing of friendship as an educational experience aligns with research evidence that suggests children’s friendships impacts significantly on social and emotional competence and academic achievement (Campbell et.al, 2000). It is therefore incumbent upon teachers and educators to elevate friendship as a pedagogical imperative. A pedagogy of friendship that is thoughtfully and intentionally designed can be informed by three key elements- practitioner knowledge, the making and maintenance of friendships and children’s agency (Carter and Nutbrown, 2016)

Practitioner knowledge is an expectation that educators have a comprehensive knowledge of each child, knowing details about their personality, interests, social experience, home culture and family context. Practitioner knowledge also values the hidden peer culture. Children create their own complex peer culture, with its own rules, routines and practices often hidden or misinterpreted by the adults in the environment. An awareness of children’s peer cultural practices coupled with each child’s emerging social, emotional competence and experience, will support practitioners to make appropriate practice decisions which are well attuned to the children. Ilsa (5 years) shares her thoughts “I have boy friends too Noah, and Quentin on Fridays. I play different games with them when there's no girls”. Ilsa readily shares the hidden rules associated with engendered behaviours and the adaptability required to retain currency as friend in the play. These offerings from children often allow for sensitive and reflective responses from teachers and educators to children’s varied friendship dilemmas.

Children are constantly engaged in complex efforts to understand their worlds and to develop their identities through connections with adults and other children (Hedges and Cooper, 2016) and the making and maintenance of friendship is both complex and dynamic. Sustaining relationships can be a fragile practice and often dependent upon age and abilities, social experience and emotional competence. Conflicts and disagreements, exclusion and othering are constant in the environment. Paley (1993) in her study 'You can’t say you can’t play' stressed the importance of compassionate and understanding adults and advocated for modelling inclusive ways of working as an antidote to children refusing access to play or friendships. Corsaro (2003) argues that adults should not expect children to always allow access to play and friendship circles suggesting that allowing others into a play scenario may compromise the play. He proposed that children must learn strategies to help them to enter the play, and that the distinct peer culture helps children to make sense of their play and friendships.

What role then does agency play in the formation and evolution of friendships?

Children need time and space to develop skills of negotiation and problem solving without adult intrusion or intervention. Allowing children to have their own agency to organise time and space to create the capacity for friendship. This presents a compelling lens for reflection on the contextual relationships between, children’s learning experiences, peer relationships, their sense of agency and the role of the environment. The synchronicity of this learning landscape enables long blocks of uninterrupted time for learning and connection. Time and space for children to share their experiences and to establish and nurture their friendships through shared endeavours, rich play themes, risk taking, collaborative experiences, conflicting ideas, simple discoveries, and surprising challenges. Adult determined schedules often result in a lack of time for play and collaborative work which means less time to develop emotional and social aspects of friendship.

Considering a 'Pedagogy of Friendship' stimulates discourse on children's friendships in educational contexts. It illuminates the complex landscape that influences, guides and challenges children’s belonging, enables a thriving peer culture and recognises the role of the educator as sensitive observer of friendship experiences. A pedagogy of friendship values peer relational learning, and children’s agency because of its impact on children's social and emotional development and ultimately their cognitive development.

A Pedagogy of Friendship examines contextual dilemmas that shift and change with the culture of each community, current pedagogical focus, and the demographic complexities unique to each space. It reminds early childhood educators to hold space for children as the cornerstone of our work, to walk in companionship with children and embrace the promise of learning as a social process.

“We didn’t realise we were making memories. We just knew we were having fun.” (Winnie the Pooh)

References

Bagwell, C. L., & Schmidt, M. E. (2011). Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence. Guilford Publications.

Campbell, J, Lamb, M., Hwang, C (2000) “Early Child Care Experiences and Children’s Social Competence Between 11/2 and 15 Years of Applied Development Science (4): 166-175

Carter, C. and Nutbrown, C. “(2016) A Pedagogy of Friendship: young children’s friendships and how schools can support them. International Journal of Early Years Education. pp. 1-19. ISSN 0966-9760 https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2016.1189813

Carter, M and Pelo, A. (2018) From Teaching to Thinking A pedagogy for Reimagining Our Work

Corsaro, W. (2003). We’re Friends, Right? Inside Kids’ Culture. Washington, DC: Joesph Henry.

Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (2009). Belonging Being and Becoming; The Early Years Learning Framework.

Davis, B. and Degotardi, S. (2015). “Educators’ Understanding of, and Support for, Infant Peer settings.” Relationships in Early Childhood Journal of Early Childhood Research 13 (1): 64-78.

Hedges, H., & Cooper, M. (2016). Inquiring minds, meaningful responses: Children’s interest, inquiries and working theories. http://www.tlri.org.nz/sites/default/files/projects/TLRI_Hedges%20Summary%28final%20on%20website%29.pdf

Paley, V.G. (1993). You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (2020)