organising early childhood classroom

ECEC: Why joy at work is wonderful (but never enough)

Image courtesy of Joanna Crothers

Educators voted on Wednesday to take strike action on September 7 – Early Childhood Educators Day – to highlight the issues and stress that workers within the sector have been experiencing after “more than a decade of inaction”.The Guardian

The field of early childhood is currently facing a series of crises, including staff shortages, centre closures and unprecedented low levels of morale within and across the profession. None of these concerns is new! Although exacerbated by the global pandemic, the chronic challenges to providing quality early childhood care are complicated by funding, privatisation, ever increasing administrative demands placed on educators, poor working conditions, low salaries, and overall lack of recognition for the importance of the profession. 

Such issues have dominated the discussion of early childhood in the media, portraying an image of a field inundated with problems and at risk of being overwhelmed by them entirely. Together with my colleague at the University of Sydney, Dr. Cathy Little, we undertook a study that sought to hear the perspectives of this situation from the educators themselves, not just of the issues outlined above, but also of the field itself. The representation in the media seemed incomplete, too focused on the problems that beleaguered the sector rather than understanding the deeper issues at stake. We wanted to focus on what was also good, sustaining and valued in and by the profession. One of the emergent key findings, despite all the current challenges, was surprising. It was joy! This article discusses the notion of joy articulated by early childhood educators, its presence in early childhood programs and how it represents a way forward for the recognition and value of the profession in our society.

Defining Joy

C. S. Lewis understood. Joy comes to us, unexpected. A presence that we can neither manufacture nor control. Joy arrives and with it a fulfillment that is beyond the scope of pleasure or happiness and unlike those feelings, beyond our control. We may experience joy or hope that joy is waiting for us, however it cannot be manufactured, nor is its presence assured.

“Joy bursts in our lives when we go about doing the good at hand and not trying to manipulate things and times to achieve joy.”

CS Lewis

We mention C. S Lewis and his idea of joy as it resonates with the views expressed by the early childhood educators in this study.  A consistent definition of joy echoed through our research findings, one that connected with feelings of happiness or pleasure yet moved beyond these to a “Delight in everything I do”, “A feeling of lightness and emotional fullness”, “Serenity and peacefulness” and an “Overwhelming feeling of happiness that comes from within”.  Educators noted that joy “burst” into their lives as they went about their work with children. Joy sustains them, makes the work they do worthwhile and of inestimable professional and personal value. Joy is an occupational hazard.

Finding Joy

In listening to early childhood educators, we learned that the source of their joy was found in relationships, experienced always with children, families, and colleagues. They described this joy in the day-to-day interactions with children, the quieter moments or as one educator wrote, “certain times when I make a strong connection with a child or build on my working relationships with my colleagues”. Others found it by, “Being in the moment with the children” or “Being with children” and “When the children are interacting with me”. They spoke of the joy discovered when observing children, “Deeply engaged in doing something they enjoy” and about “Having fun, singing, dancing, meditating, doing yoga. Engaging in conversations with the children. Playing with the children” and the “Daily joy… from the moment I enter the gate… to children cheering my name blowing kisses”. 

Joy was seen as present in the wider relationships that surrounded the early childhood centre. The relationships with families of “Interacting with the children/educators/families. Sharing the children’s and educators’ achievements and learning” and “Daily conversations with family not just about their personal life but also about mine and my team”. Families contributed to educator’s sense of joy by their feedback about the program, in communicating their children’s happiness to educators and sharing in a sense of belonging. Educators experienced joy through a depth of feeling for their professional role, when they recognised themselves as central players in the bigger picture of supporting children to reach a goal or a milestone, in assisting families and children, or in actions they thought “Truly make a difference”.

Joy was and is everywhere, despite educator burnout, staffing shortages, low salaries, and poor working conditions. It is joy that remained after the educators responded to the needs of the children, at the same time as they prepared lunch, made beds, tended to children’s injuries, both physical and emotional, and tried to find time to plan, program and reflect. Joy could so easily be a casualty to these demands, and to the exigencies of the field of early education overall. All of which are a risk to joy, a risk that as recent events have illustrated, our society should not be so willing to take. The wellbeing of our children, their opportunity to grow and learn with others, to feel valued and appreciated is dependent on a stable and positive professional community. As one director said, “Being happy within really translates to the children”.

Implications of Joy

The reverence that educators expressed for children in our study should be reflected by a reverence in our society for the work they do, reflected in their qualifications, financial compensation and in the day-to-day experiences in each and every program. Day to day experiences that expand on the opportunities for the reciprocal learning that takes place between children and the adults who nurture them. Adults that are well qualified and extremely knowledgeable about the value of quality education in the early years, education that is holistic and which nurtures the whole child. Our early years programs move beyond compliance with standards, rather, they are environments, developed through rich, quality programming that allow educators to observe the children and engage with them in a range of creative learning experiences.  Our work seeks to develop educators’ professional autonomy and provide them with the time to make pedagogical choices that are informed by research, the unique context of their program and not directed by standardized curriculum alone. To restore to them their joy, their joy of being with the children, playing with the children and their joyful pedagogy.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

 Cathy Little is the executive director of Initial Teacher Education at the University of Sydney. Her areas of interest are autistic spectrum disorder, high support needs, and positive behaviour support. She lectures at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and is supervising a number of research students.

How children describe their role in organising the materials in a kindergarten classroom

Early childhood teachers have many roles in a classroom – mentor, therapist, nurse, scientist, and judge, to name a few – but one of the main roles is teaching the foundational skills through organising and providing resources in the classroom space.

Recent research indicates that teachers have the predominant role in organising early childhood classrooms in Australia, but there is a growing body of research investigating the role of children in organising the kindergarten classroom. I wanted find out more about how young children are involved.

We do know that participation or involvement of children in organising their learning environment has a positive effect on their sense of belonging, behaviour, learning and development. This could be true for children of all ages but particularly so for young children experiencing their earliest encounters with learning spaces.

I wanted to specifically research how children describe their role in organising the materials in the indoor kindergarten classroom space in the Queensland, Australia context.

The challenges of organising such a classroom are real for teachers. In Queensland kindergarten classrooms there are usually two teachers in the room educating up to 22 children with a play-based curriculum daily. Teachers have to organise learning activities with a range of resource materials, including furniture, and be compliant. So, what is required of teachers in the approved learning frameworks to be compliant?

Requirements of children’s participation in classroom organisation

In Queensland the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) provides kindergarten teachers with a guide for their teaching practice, programming and the facilitation of children’s learning. It emphasises that children play an active role in planning and organising their own learning. Also, according to the Australian Government’s Early Years Learning Framework, teachers ‘can encourage’ the participation of children and families to contribute their insights and ideas about the early learning space. But neither of these suggestions mean that this will happen or that children participating in organising their classrooms will be taken seriously and valued.

Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) also requires children’s perspectives to be heard and taken seriously on matters affecting them. Literature has referred to Article 12 and the right to participate in many ways, but I have identified two categories (which should not be taken as exhaustive):

  1. Participation: the process of sharing dialogue and listening to children,
  2. Active participation: children making decisions

There is an increase in research showing how children’s perspectives are heard in the classroom space, however more is needed. My study aims to add to this field.

My Study

I used a sociomaterial and spatiality theory. (For details please see my full paper). This theory had me think of the classroom and the things in it as having an influence and transforming educational practice. In a nutshell, I considered how the materials (resources, learning activities (closed/open- ended), furniture, equipment, and utensils), children, teachers and the kindergarten space influences and transforms children’s ability to organise the space.

My study was conducted in a kindergarten setting within a childcare centre in Brisbane, Queensland. Six children conducted child-led tours describing their role in organising the classroom and then discussed their tours in a follow-up video-stimulated recall interview.

Child-led tours are a participatory tool for research, as it is a method where children lead the data collection and does not rely solely on children’s verbal abilities but draws on their non-verbal abilities. During the child-led tour, the researcher asked each child questions, such as ‘what do you put in here?’ and ‘do you play with it?’. One educator was present in the room at the time. Child-led tours were conducted while other children were playing outside to minimise their being captured in the video recording.

Dingo’s number line

I noted one specific departure from the expected organisation processes. Dingo, one of the six children in my study, indicated during the child-led tour and video-stimulated recall interviews, that he had set up a number line. Sandy, Dingo’s teacher, in an informal conversation with me, spoke about the number line being something that she and Dingo had created together. The creation of Dingo’s number line resulted in him taking ownership of it, as he reinforced the rules to children about using it.  For example, he told them, “Don’t step on it because it’s still dry”.

Dingo making the number line was unexpected as we know research suggests teachers usually have the main organisation role. However, Dingo showed that he had a role in the category of participation where he was involved in creating the number line and his participation was taken seriously by his teacher.  So his participation aligns with Queensland’s Kindergarten Learning Guidelines and the Early Years Learning Framework where early childhood teachers are encouraged to work with children to design and plan the classroom space. (For more details of Dingo’s number line please see my full paper)

Recommendations from my study

A crucial implication of this study is the amount of child involvement and the ‘hearing’ of their voices about the processes and practices of organising a kindergarten classroom. A strong breadth of literature supports the importance of involvement of children in the classroom, with children having the immediate right to be heard, taken seriously, and given due weight on matters that affect them.

A review of the literature suggests that a teacher’s decision to involve children in the classroom is influenced by the large educator-to-child ratios, the perceptions teachers have on children, the lack of support in facilitating children’s verbal and non-verbal languages and the little acknowledged phenomenon that non-human materials and the early learning space have an effect on practice.

Contrary to studies finding that educators have the predominate role in organising the classroom, a child in my study described that he clearly participated in the organisation of his classroom by constructing his number line.

Hear the children

I believe there is a need for researchers, educators, and organizations to hear, through different modes, the views of children.

This qualitative study, and the use of child-led tours and video-stimulated recall interviews, proved a successful measure of investigating how young children describe their role in organising the indoor kindergarten classroom. More research is needed to further under children and their interactions with non-human material to organise their early learning space

Due to the long period of time required to conduct research, the researcher recommends conducting workshops with teachers (in kindergartens, childcare centres), leaders (director, educational leader) and pre-service teachers in ways to discuss how children’s voices can be and are involved in organising their early learning spaces. Participating teachers would be networking and learning from each other.

Finally, it is emphasised by the inclusion of children in research, as seen in this study, children are capable and competent to interpret their world. The decisions made in how a classroom is organised and, with the use of a research story, any feedback about the daily operation of an early learning setting in a kindergarten classroom, can be investigated.

For those who want more detail Children’s participation in the organisation of a kindergarten classroom


Evangeline Manassakis is a research assistant for Griffith University in Queensland. She completed the Master of Philosophy (Education) that investigated children’s involvement in the organisation of the kindergarten classroom. Evangeline received for her study the Jean Ferguson Memorial Award and was made the runner up for Outstanding Thesis Award 2020. Her current research interests include children’s voice, classroom design and organisation, spaces, participatory methodology and design, Rights of the Child.