Helping the young find their voice

Once Jenny Ritchie completes her research into how children can be active citizens, she wants to work on improving their ability to articulate emotion.

Professor Jenny Ritchie, School of Education

Many of us might find it hard to imagine the role young children could play in taking action on environmental or social justice issues. Associate Professor Jenny Ritchie believes it’s time to question our assumptions.

Much of Associate Professor Ritchie’s research involves supporting educators to teach even our youngest children about issues such as climate change and living more sustainably.

“Civic action isn’t usually something we associate with young children, but we’re trying to challenge that view,” she says.

“We know children can be encouraged to advocate for their own wellbeing and others’ wellbeing. That could be a child noticing and calling for support for a child with a bleeding nose or it could be children negotiating the rules of engagement in their own reality.

“Children can assert themselves on their own behalf, on behalf of others and on behalf of the planet.”

Associate Professor Ritchie, who is in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Education, started her career as a childcare educator and kindergarten teacher. Her subsequent teaching, research and writing have focused on supporting other educators to bring social, cultural and ecological sustainability into their teaching.

Her research also reflects her desire to incorporate the commitments of the Treaty of Waitangi into early childhood education.

In her current research project, Associate Professor Ritchie is co-director of an international collaborative initiative that documents young children’s active citizenship across three countries: the United States, Australia and New Zealand. The researchers are focusing on an early childhood centre in each country, including a centre in Porirua’s Titahi Bay.

Funded by the Spencer Foundation of Chicago, the project has a particular focus on indigenous and/or marginalised children.

For Associate Professor Ritchie, issues such as ecological sustainability, linguistic sustainability and cultural sustainability are interrelated, and all depend on looking after people’s wellbeing.

“That could involve helping children find the words to talk about how they feel. For example, an educator might help a child tell other children they feel sad because they’re not being given a turn at doing something,” she says.

“Often girls are encouraged to feel emotion and boys are encouraged to get involved in another activity, but it’s important we don’t make any children feel they have to deny their emotions.”

As part of the project, all three childcare centres involved in the study will create a short day-in-the-life video showing how they support children to work together.

From 2004 to 2009, Associate Professor Ritchie led three consecutive two-year studies funded by the New Zealand Teaching and Learning Research Initiative. The studies focused on Te Whāriki, the Ministry of Education’s early childhood curriculum, which was introduced in 1996 and has a focus on self-determination.

Te Whāriki was the first curriculum in New Zealand that included the dual perspectives of Māori and Pākehā, in addition to being inclusive of other migrant peoples. It requires teachers, families and children to work together to determine their own interpretation of the curriculum, based on their needs, philosophies and cultural perspectives.

“Te Whāriki is strongly bicultural and has a strong philosophical commitment to the Treaty of Waitangi. It was radical and revolutionary in its recognition of indigenous voices,” says Associate Professor Ritchie.

“However, while the early education sector has been willing to implement Te Whāriki, it hasn’t been sure how that should be done.”

The first of the three studies aimed at building relationships in the sector by talking to education providers to get a stronger idea of existing bicultural early childhood education, while the second study gained insights from 10 early childhood centres considered to be implementing Te Whāriki well.

The third study considered ecological sustainability as well as cultural sustainability. It identified teaching methods that reflected a commitment to caring for “ourselves, others and the environment” and were informed by both Western and Māori perspectives.

Reports on the studies were completed in 2010. Associate Professor Ritchie says they continue to attract international attention.

“Our work has been influential. The world watches Aotearoa very closely,” she says.

Associate Professor Ritchie’s own work was recognised in 2016, when she was awarded the Bloch Distinguished Career Award. The international award is given to people who have made significant contributions to reconceptualising early childhood education over their careers.

Her research contributes to Victoria’s ‘Improving health and wellbeing in our communities’, ‘Enhancing the resilience and sustainability of our natural heritage and capital’‘Enriching national culture’ and ‘Advancing better government’ areas of academic distinctiveness.  

Associate Professor Ritchie says she tends to find each research project is a springboard to the next, introducing her to ideas she’d like to explore further. After she completes her Spencer Foundation project on active citizenship, she’d like to investigate how teachers can support children’s social and emotional wellbeing by helping them describe their feelings.

“If children can express emotion, they can get their needs met. Teachers can work with children to help them increase their vocabulary of emotion,” she says.

“If I’m able to carry out that project, I’d like it to have an emphasis on Māori. As educators, we have to recognise we are all the products of colonisation. I treat that as an important part of all the research I do.

“We have such a problem with violence in children’s lives: people don’t realise the level of intergenerational trauma that exists here. If we could intervene within the education system, starting at early childhood, we could make a real difference in showing children how to have respectful relationships.”