THE WOMAN WORE a woollen vest, a long lavender skirt and orthopedic shoes. Her hair was blonde but now appeared greying and tangled in a high bun. There is a pause as she breathes deeply and affixes the glasses to the bridge of her nose. She is staring hard at the arrangement in her hand.
"You see, Emil, children are drawn to creating their own private worlds".
Her voice has a lyrical quality that describes a place west of England, as does the small dragon on her lapel. Wanting to see better, I looked intently at the folds of the paper in her hand. There, from an opening on one side, I discovered two feathers and a plastic jewel.
"Lower your body and look in as a child would.” She rested her hand on my back, guiding me in. I could see that the fold of paper formed a hole, and inside - cheap treasures. “That’s what we call enclosure.”
TEACHERS NEED GOOD TEACHERS, and the lady with the dragon lapel was a very good teacher. Her profile on the Institute of Education website describes thirty years working in the classroom, several appointments in senior leadership and the founding of a SEND provision in Wales. With me, her demeanour is not that of an ‘expert’, or a pioneer of ‘The Rights of the Child’. Instead, the Good Teacher speaks with warm wisdom, an archetypal grandmother figure who knows every rhyme spoken.
Young children are soothed by age. The more you have, the more they have to be anchored to. It’s as if they reach for someone who can balance out their own inexperience in the world. This was not to my advantage, as a young-looking twenty-seven-year-old, I still had the faint gloss of adolescence. Instead of age, I had the desire to learn, enthusiasm and precious institutional naivety - not to be discounted.
When the Good Teacher visited my classroom, she would sit with me in an alcove used for tea and printing. I have no idea how she found a fictive five minutes in an institution that always measured seconds. Good teachers have a presence, they can suspend time around them. With the Good Teacher I had no fear (especially after seeing her effortlessly stare down my cruel and suspicious Principal). Next to the whirling photocopier, we would sit for a while. She would ask me about my well-being and then talk of the unfolding journey occurring in my classroom. Throughout the nearly three years I had contact with her, I began to intuit she was someone who had experienced real pain - like age, this reservoir can offer stability for children if reconciled in the person who carries it.
Her presence with children was one of total amazement and curiosity. The Good Teacher liked getting low to know the height of a Duplo block better, or donning an apron to spurn on the children’s marks - these were her intuitive states of being. Adults who play with children are sacrosanct. The act is profound and offers children permission to be who they are in the presence of the people they love. Play is the hardest thing to learn as an Early Years teacher. It is a space of exploration - like art or love - seemingly simple, but with infinite depth and invisible to those who cannot see.
I google ‘children's enclosure’ when I get home. The results lead to a series of cages, brightly painted bars, chirpy-looking, but confinements nonetheless. I do not think this is what the Good Teacher meant when she guided me to the paper in her hand. Improving my search with words like ‘Early Years’ and ‘Childhood’, I eventually found a blog from an educator based in Tāmaki Makaurau (my hometown). The post described repetitive acts of learning or ‘schemas’. A list of nine essential schemas is provided: 1. Transporting 2. Enclosure 3. Enveloping 4. Rotational 5. Orientation 6. Positioning 7. Connection 8. Trajectory 9. Transformation
Early Years (EY) is filled with this ethereal-sounding theory, thinking that is inflected with the magic of young children. Endowed with its own curriculum and a toe-hold of autonomy, EY is an aberration, a moment of compassion in an otherwise punitive and hierarchical British school system. EY now stands in precarious opposition to the Tory education agenda, having been besieged by the fiscal policy of austerity (most notably with the scrapping of Sure Start). Key tenets of EY include the pupil-centred approach, a holistic curriculum, and an emphasis on the social and emotional development of children. All good things, regardless of age.
The theoretical founders of our practice are Jean Piaget, Loris Malaguzzi, Melanie Klein and Lev Vygotsky, early 20th-century radicals who applied linguistics, psycho-analysis, architecture and psychology to the study of childhood. Some of these figures were committed communists, and all had left-leaning views. Many of our innovators are women, people such as Margaret McMillan, a suffragette and labour party member who transformed early childhood provision in Britain.
No longer in the classroom, I still carry the imprint of this tradition with me.
NUMBER TWO on the list - Enclosure. The word has other resonant meanings in Britain. ‘The Enclosures of the Commons’ or simply, The Enclosures, describes a process from the middle ages in which commoner rights to land were removed. Acts of hedging, walling and fencing throughout England foresaw a profound shift away from common title towards private ownership. Once enclosed, these plots could be sold, kept, or trespassed upon, instigating a struggle for habitation among Britain's poor that continues to this day. The Enclosures are important.
THIS PROCESS OF CREATING a barrier that determines the possession of space seems disturbing to me, but my children would do it all the time. They would draw a chalk line that you couldn’t cross or a den that would be trespassed if entered without the password.
Still, these acts were fleeting and performative, the chalk washed away in the rain as the children returned to a more collegial notion of space. As much as I might wish it, childhood is not intrinsically socialistic. Children like to own things. The marking of possession as their own - be it a pony or a rock - affirms their presence and rights in the world. This tension between what is ‘me’ and what is ‘you’, between the thing ‘I want’ and the thing ‘someone else has’, is a profound struggle for young children. Put simply, we might just call it ‘sharing’.
One of the proto-Facist leaders in my school advised me to stop teaching the children to share. This instruction was delivered via email and included a linked article, in which an educational researcher proposed that young children were cognitively unable to share. The author lampooned adults instructing young children to share, as the instruction created confusion, unnecessary distress, and most importantly, lost time learning. My gut repulsed and I felt duty-bound to ignore this directive. Still, the thought lingered. Sharing is hard, and children do mostly hate it. Often, in attempting to arbitrate these situations, I would implicate myself in some material deficiency - one batman figurine, instead of two. I wanted nothing to do with that. The article proposed that children should explore these tensions independently. The writer inhabits the familial voice of observation and anecdote that is a marker of our discipline:
What does the child who is forced to give their bucket to Yahya learn about what it means to share? How does a child having to give their bike to Rebecca, because a timer said so, help them develop their empathy or generosity?.... Our paper-thin “solutions” to these common events might implicitly teach them that even the adults in their lives – who truly are omnipotent in their eyes – aren’t comfortable with conflicts or difficult emotions and take the quickest possible route to get out of them.
It might seem trivial, but how we attend to perceived injustices in childhood is vitally important. These moments, if poorly attended to by the adult world, can instil a disillusioned or apathetic view within the child, and potentially inform their emergent sense of society at large. This is a challenge for the Early Years educator, the devil’s in the details, and you have to exercise discrete moral reasoning at almost every point of the day.
I have progressed towards a more diffused and textual understanding of sharing. It makes intensely complicated demands on us, and yet, if we exercise some imagination, there are satisfying solutions that bring us together. Firstly, we need to attend to dispossession - acknowledge it, dwell on it, how did it feel when Timmy said ‘it's mine’? Then, we need to explore imaginative solutions - I wonder… maybe the ball would be fun to throw? The ball is now passed between two, freed from the hands of one zealous child.
Finally - we have to practice reflection and celebration - wow! didn’t it feel great when we played that game together? Subtext - It was so much better than when Timmy was sitting on the ball possessively, screaming at anyone who approached him - and it is generally a ‘him’.
JUST LIKE TIMMY, the English landowners of Enclosures refused to share the land. Pursuing new commercial farming interests, they denied the ancient rights of access and prompted an unfolding saga of protest and resistance. The 1381 Peasants’ Revolt, the Kett’s Rebellion of 1549, and the Midland Revolt of 1607, all expressed dissent against The Enclosures and today represents a deep time of English class struggle. England is wrongly perceived as a passive nation that singularly nurtures colonial hegemony - past and present. Its history is filled with dissent and emancipatory agendas. Lest we forget that the English were the first in Europe to chop off the King's head (a full 153 years before the French thought to do it). For a brief moment in the seventeenth century, it was transformed into the Commonwealth of England, a republic that also waged brutal warfare on neighbouring Ireland. Nothing is one thing or the other here, but we would do well to nurture other memories of England.
On the wall of my classroom, there hung a red, white and blue flag, its eight lines representing the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland - a monarchy established in 1801, which at that time included all of Ireland. In this same year, Parliament passed the General Enclosure Act 1801, the final legislative gesture of a nearly thousand-year history of dispossession. To further complicate the meaning of this moment, these final enclosures were an important prompt for the willing and coerced migrations of ‘settlers’ to the South Pacific. Enclosures matter in Aotearoa too, and nothing is one thing or the other there, either.
As with the peasantry of medieval England, the mood in an Early Years classroom could quickly turn riotous, particularly if a cherished ritual was denied for reasons either pragmatic or punitive. Throughout my years as an Early Years educator, I experienced a recurring nightmare of being swarmed by children, their little hands biting into my skin as I collapsed under their collective weight. I have done a few practical tests towards this - I can carry the weight of nine or ten kindergarten children before my knees give out. Conducting this experiment, I was not at all comforted by the joy this trial triggered in my would-be assassins.
HERE, among the bug rugs and bunting of an Early Years classroom, is the other enclosure, the one intonated by the Good Teacher with the dragon lapel. The expression struck me as beautiful when I received it, its possible meanings lingering: Enclosure - the creation of one's own space. Enclosure - a reprieve and private confidence. Enclosure - a place where things are kept close.
Enclosure appears through small moments such as treasure boxes, sealed envelopes and hidden shrines. Material arrangements that describe the impulse to hide, and perhaps, to be found. At a larger scale, it finds its expression through den-making and chalk lines, castle-building and tunnels. This is also a denial of sight, not in shame or repression, but rather in comfortable attunement between the Self and the World.
Once I became aware of enclosures, I sought to summon them as quiet resistance to the encroaching evils (embodied – in my mind – by the school’s senior leaders). There were handbags for the midnight ball, and hotels for the insects, each material enclosure linked to another story at hometime.
THE ENCLOSURES claimed land that should belong to us all, whereas these other, early years enclosures serve private and sacred worlds. It seems that England is a nation of enclosures, of contradictions, made manifest through ignorance and kindness. Now, I understand the Empire in a different way having lived near its heart. It is diffused, complicated, and formed of earlier transgressions at home, the Welsh (living some three hundred miles from London), were the first peoples subjugated by the English Crown.
More recent colonial histories also made themselves manifest within my classroom, as the children I cared for told stories of migration from within the former British Empire. The countries of Jamaica, Somalia, Antigua and Barbuda, Nigeria and Pakistan, all found themselves present. The children are recorded by the British State as Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority Group (BAME), and in my classroom, this group formed 76% of those present. They had other stories of Empire, told tacitly through their language and ritual, and, most painfully, through poverty written on the body.
I AM GRATEFUL to have spent time among these enclosures. And now, I remember my own enclosures. Caring for children can form a lucid pathway back to our own childhoods, and if we allow it, dormant memories are felt again. There was the brass monkey kept in the wooden box. A hole beneath the grass to hold the snails. Secret coins buried in the lining of soft toys.
Not all possessions are possessed, and not all hiding places are for obscuring the wealth.