«Blikk for barn» is a big research project studying what the quality of kindergartens has to say for the smallest children (0 to 3 years old).
A broadly composed group of researchers has used different kinds of scientific methods to try to describe the everyday life in kindergartens.
“Quality is a complex and value-loaded term. In addition, it’s difficult to define what a meaningful and good life is for children in a kindergarten. In this project though, we have really tried to look very closely and focus on what a good kindergarten-life for children might be,” tell Nina Winger and Brit Johanne Eide, two of the researchers in the project.
TRADITIONAL AND FLEXIBLE
In order to see the kindergarten with the eyes of the children, the researchers used an ethnographic method where they are present in the kindergarten trying to sense, observe and describe what exactly characterizes everyday life. The researchers did their best not to disturb the children or the staff.
Six kindergartens took part in the project. Three of them were organized in units, named traditional kindergartens by the researchers. Three described themselves as flexible kindergartens.
For a total of 24 hours the researchers observed what characterized the routines, the interactions and the activities in the different kindergartens. They also talked with the staff and with the parents selected to participate in the project.
MORE MOVING AROUND AND MORE LOGISTICS
In the traditional kindergartens the children had a relatively free access to every room in the unit, the researchers found. In general, the rooms were decorated with toys and equipment stored in open shelves, i.e. they were both visible, available and accessible to the children. In some rooms the toys were arranged according to their type and put in labelled boxes. The children knew where to find the toys and could go and get them themselves. There were different kinds of toys, adapted to the age and development of the children.
In the flexible kindergartens the children belonged to their own core group, which again had their own specific room. These kindergartens also disposed of several special rooms, for instance destined to music or visual art. In addition, they had big rooms in common where several groups would meet at the same time.
According to the researchers, toys and equipment were less accessible to the children here. In the common areas some equipment and toys were present, while in others they were put in closed cupboards. In some of the special rooms much of the equipment was not adapted to the smallest children. With the exception of the exercise room, the children didn’t use these special rooms a lot.
First and foremost, they used the big common rooms or the room, often quite small, their core group belonged to.
In short, children in the flexible kindergartens had at their disposal a much bigger physical area and were in contact with much more people compared to the children in traditional kindergartens, their everyday life was also marked by a higher degree of moving around and logistics.
The possibility for the children to act and do things therefore seemed more limited in the flexible kindergartens than in the traditional ones. In all the kindergartens however, the staff’s concern was to ensure care, comfort and to be available to the children, even when it could be more of a challenge in the flexible kindergartens with more children and more staff present.
“In the kindergarten the community has to function. For some children it will always be difficult to enter this community. In a small kindergarten, the staff probably has a better possibility to keep an eye on the children who struggle to be part of it. We are a little concerned and ask ourselves whether every child in the kindergarten receives enough attention from an adult who knows them,” says Brit Johanne Eide.
The researchers believe that it can be exciting for small children to have large rooms where they can wander about and with a lot of people around them. But children also need to know which group they belong to in the kindergarten.
In the flexible kindergartens, the researchers noticed that several children were wandering about. Was it because they wanted to? Or was it due to a feeling of not belonging somewhere or not to be paid attention to by the staff?
The staff interviewed by the researchers, experienced the organization of the kindergartens very differently.
“Quality is a complex and value-loaded term. In addition, it’s difficult to define what a meaningful and good life is for children in a kindergarten.”
Some appreciated the big professional environment provided to them in the flexible kindergartens, while others told it was very demanding to plan activities there. A lot of organizing was needed when several groups were to be placed in various rooms. This in turn might steal from the time that should be spent together with the children, an aspect many in the staff were thinking about.
Some also worried that it might be stressful for small children to have to deal with so much people in a single day. The researchers ask themselves whether it is possible to maintain the smallest children’s right to participation in big rooms together with a lot of other children and where the toys are difficult to access.
“You shall be able to influence your own life, even as a small child. But to let every child participate and make choices when so many children are present is difficult,” Brit Johanne Eide says.
A CHALLENGING PROJECT
Eide and Winger admit that it has been challenging to study what quality means in the kindergartens. The discussion about flexible versus traditional kindergartens has at times been intense. Being a researcher and maintain an open mind might become difficult.
“We have talked a lot about this in the research group. We have done our best to enter this project without preliminary strong and value-loaded meanings, instead we have tried to present a picture of a complex day-to-day life,” Winge says.
The researchers emphasize that they don’t have a basis for expressing a general view on what children’s lives in traditional kindergartens versus flexible ones are like. But even if this is a qualitative study and therefore cannot say something in general about every kindergarten, the findings are important contributions to the fundamental knowledge about kindergartens.