Critical Pedagogy and Peace Education in Early Childhood

Although the incorporation of peace education and critical pedagogical approaches are visible in certain spheres of elementary and higher-level education, entertaining the possibilities of implementing these in early childhood education is commonly absent from ECE spaces. Research on the human brain indicates that it is during the first five to six years of life that the vast majority of active brain growth and development occurs, with neural pathways forming and the brain essentially wiring itself as to how to know, relate to, and be in this world (Gramling, 2015). Further, evidence that children are aware of differences and begin to develop biases and prejudice during these early years (Pelo, 2008), including an awareness of structures of social dominance by as early as ten months (Christakis, 2016), suggest that the inclusion of peace education and pedagogical practices that foster critical thinking and a sense of ethnorelativism present as valuable concepts to bring to early childhood education. Ann Pelo, educational consultant and author, emphasizes the importance of rethinking early childhood education through the use of reflective pedagogical practice and social justice and ecological teaching. She asks, “What kind of people do we want to be? What kind of a world do we want to live in?” (pg. 37, Pelo, A., & Carter, M., 2019) and seeks to answer these questions through examining and reframing the purpose of education. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of how critical pedagogy and education for peace may be translated to early childhood (and the pedagogical inspiration for Pelo’s work) exists in the infant toddler centers and preschools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, out of which the now globalized Reggio Emilia Approach to education emerged.

“This was the community’s response to the danger of totalitarianism and tyranny: create a school for the youngest of children.”-Anne Pelo

Following the devastation of WWII, the citizens of Reggio Emilia (specifically feminists active in the Italian Resistance and belonging to the Italian Women’s Union) sought to establish a school that recognized the right of every child to high quality care and education that imbued a sense of participatory civic consciousness so as to prevent any resurgence of fascist reign, war, and genocide as a consequence of societal conflict. With the guidance of Loris Malaguzzi, an educational practitioner who was instrumental in consulting a global network of educational theorists, philosophers, and social psychologists, the Reggio Emilia philosophy was developed as a new and comprehensive approach to early childhood education that sought to teach a sense of moral citizenship to the youngest members of society (Timeline | Reggio Children, 2020). Unlike other ECE approaches and curriculums that can be certified and implemented as is, the Reggio Emilia philosophy rests on a set of core values/tenets that are intended to be translated to work within the specific context of any given communal educational space. These foundational values mirror many of the pillars of peace education while also aligning with conceptual elements of critical pedagogical practice, and thereby serve as an example of the application of peace education and critical pedagogy to early childhood.

 At the heart of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is what Malaguzzi coined “the Image of the Child,” the belief that each and every child represent a whole human and citizen, capable, competent, and deserving of inherent rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. (Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G., 2011). Understanding the Image of the Child requires one to acknowledge their personal subjectivity in how they have come to view children and others through their own life experiences and epistemological lens. It informs the daily practices and interactions of adults as they work collaboratively with the children and each other to create a learning environment that is relationship-based. The task of observing and honoring the essential worth and value in each and every child connects directly to many of the other foundational tenets of the approach. These include:

  • The establishment of democratic classrooms, whereby all stakeholder voices of the educational process (the children, families, educators, and greater community) are held as equally valued and heard.
  • The concept that children are active protagonists of their learning, which occurs largely through processes of negotiated learning and social constructivism.
  • A practice of teaching and learning that is founded on a Pedagogy of Listening, whereby the capacity for reciprocal listening and dialog enables meaning making processes that are collaborative, collective, and democratic.
  • The idea that children (and all people) learn and communicate through “One hundred languages” of expression and understanding, and that it is imperative to acknowledge and listen to these various forms and ways of “being” in the world.
  • Embracing an openness to difference, doubt, uncertainty, and diverse perspectives as a point of learning and recognition of the value in another’s point of view and interpretation.
  •  The environment’s role as the third teacher, supporting the development of curriculum that is contextual and emergent. (Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G., 2011)

The pedagogical approach, which is constructivist in nature, pivots the role of the teacher from all-knowing keeper of information to co-discoverer, co-researcher, and co-learner alongside the children. This framing of the meaning-making process and role of the educator embodies a rejection of what Freire termed the “Banking Method” of education (whereby teachers deposit knowledge into students who are viewed as empty vessels) and assumes student-teacher, teacher-student relations that reconstruct traditional hierarchal structures of the educational process (Freire, 2000). Dedicated and astute observations of the children’s engagements and interactions inform the creation of documentation and reflective processes through which educators facilitate further learning that is responsive, relational, and centered on the children’s theories, inquiries, and quest for knowledge.

…a willingness to question all your own abilities, your knowledge, to become humble. Only then will you be able to listen to the child, to set off on a common search, to ‘educate each other together.'” -Loris Malaguzzi

While the Reggio Emilia philosophy embodies values that parallel many of the pillars of peace education (enabling multiple intelligences, community building, nurturing emotional intelligence, skill building, and serving as a nonviolent means of transformative societal change by fostering ethnorelativism and valuing difference and diverse perspectives), when translated to the context of the United States the approach may be coupled with an anti-bias curriculum to more explicitly address racial hierarchy, structural violence, and societal injustice, thereby providing a nonviolent means of actualizing a more equitable society based on the pursuit of positive peace.

“The relationship between peace and prejudice concerns the ability or inability to be good listeners. This is where education for peace begins.” –Carlina Rinaldi

Although this post barely scratches the surface of the Reggio Emilia approach and what peace pedagogy may look like as translated to early childhood education, stakeholders in the fields of both of early childhood education and that of peace building may find it useful to begin to examine the possibilities of reframing the purpose and potential of early childhood education towards transformative societal change. A more detailed lesson plan could be developed centering on any or all of the foundational tenants of the Reggio Emilia approach and how they correspond to peace education and the implementation of critical pedagogy in early childhood, to then be used as inspiration for teaching practices in any given early childhood education center.

References/ Resources:

Christakis, E. (2016). The Importance of Being Little. Van Haren Publishing.

Edwards, C., Gandini, L., & Forman, G. (2011). The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation, 3rd Edition (3rd ed.). Praeger.

Freire, P., Ramos, M. B., & Macedo, D. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (30th Anniversary ed.). Continuum.

Gramling, M., & Jones, E. (2015). The Great Disconnect in Early Childhood Education: What We Know vs. What We Do. Redleaf Press.

Pelo, A. (2008). Rethinking Early Childhood Education (First ed.). Rethinking Schools.

Pelo, A., & Carter, M. (2019). From Teaching to Thinking: A Pedagogy for Reimagining Our Work. Exchange Press.

Timeline | Reggio Children. (2020). Reggio Emilia Approach. Retrieved December 8, 2021, from

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