COUNTERSPACES – Childhood column

Elena Luciano

Learning is an essential experience for human beings, who become progressively freer and more human through knowledge. This experience necessarily takes place over time, throughout life and from birth onwards. We learn alone or in groups, by imitating the actions of others or through the teaching of others. Above all, we learn through experience, when reality appears problematic, interrogates us and accentuates our need to understand ourselves, others and the world.  We learn from birth onwards and not only at school, even though old stereotypes lead us to believe that girls and boys only really begin to learn and exhibit skills and competences when they begin compulsory schooling. 

That same stereotype often leads to the assumption that, even when they reach school age, girls and boys learn mainly or more effectively through adult intervention and teaching. Actually, children learn all the time and everywhere, in all life situations, with adults and without them, within and outside of the educational and school contexts that are created for them. Children are naturally oriented to grow and learn in mutual and dynamic relationships with others and the world.  This happens if and when, alongside children, there are adults who are willing to believe that children are not containers to be filled with notions and knowledge, but rather builders of knowledge, curious explorers of things and their mechanisms, researchers of relationships and contexts, acute diviners and keen problem-solvers. 

In family, educational and school contexts inhabited by adults capable of freeing themselves from closed and stereotyped representations of childhood and willing to dedicate time to children, boys and girls can feel free to express themselves and research and learn because they are supported by an encouraging gaze that helps them to perceive of themselves from the earliest age onwards as ready and able to learn, and therefore free to do so, in that specific context. The image that children have of themselves and their abilities depends on the expectations – explicit and often implicit (but still powerful!) – that adults have of them and on the trust they place in them.  Promoting learning processes that go beyond formal educational spaces, to take place in a variety of spaces and throughout life, from birth, certainly does not mean offering very young children advanced or accelerated learning. Early childhood education contexts such as crèches and nursery schools are certainly not places for preparing knowledge and skills for adults of the future, nor for promoting school learning; rather, they are educational spaces where care, learning, play and socialisation can be integrated harmoniously. 

At home, in nursery schools, at school, if we consider children’s learning not so much the accumulation of hierarchical skills and knowledge but the progressive development of increasingly complex forms of interaction and participation, it is wrong to delude ourselves into thinking that any child can be absolutely capable or incapable, competent or incompetent. It is the lens through which adults observe children that makes the difference – that is, how they grasp their intuitions, their interests and their dispositions to learn, and thus to promote them further or, on the contrary, to ignore them and belittle them, thus blatantly missing opportunities to encourage, precisely in that direction, new discoveries and thus new skills and competences. Similarly, it does not depend solely on the child whether they are or are not capable or competent, as adults in poor and rigid educational contexts sometimes deceive themselves into thinking. Rather, children’s abilities and competences are related to the capacity of the context set up by adults – parents, family figures, educators, teachers, etc. – to inspire in children a desire for knowledge and discovery, or, on the contrary, to generate demotivation, debasement and educational poverty. Every child has unique and extraordinary talents and potential for development and will be able to shout, “I can do it!” as often as they have adults at their side who are capable of opening up questions and holding back on providing answers, on occasions designed to make them so interested and involved in the discovery of things, facts and phenomena that they persist in the face of difficulties, error and uncertainty, always attracted by the adventure of self-knowledge and self-direction.