When I tell people that I’m halfway through a research project for my master’s degree about the importance of love in early childhood, it raises a few eyebrows. “Love?”, they ask, “What’s love got to do with it?”
In the past few years, more and more articles and books are considering love within the context of early childhood, however, love is not a term that tends to be used within our settings. In fact, love is not even mentioned within the Early Years Foundation Stage. This was not always the case. When the EYFS was first introduced back in 2008, there were a couple of references to loving relationships, for example, the principle relating to positive relationships read, “Children learn to be strong and independent from a base of loving and secure relationships with parents and/or a key person” (DfCSF, 2008, p. 5). The wording was shortened during the revisions to the EYFS and the word ‘loving’ removed. However, within the non-statutory Development Matters document, the positive relationships are still defined as being, ‘warm and loving’.
In practice, love is rarely discussed and most authors will use alternative words such as, ‘care’, ‘attachment’, or ‘warmth’ which might infer love but do not specifically mention it. Using the term ‘love’ can be problematic within an early years context as it can hold connotations with intimacy or sexual desire. Therefore the word ‘love’ might appear to be ‘out of bounds’, ignored or even prohibited in practice. In an interview by Peter Elfer and Jules Page, one practitioner referred to this stating, “Oh you do love them all…. but you would never use that word” (2015, p.1773). I have also come across this attitude with some settings having ‘no-touch’ policies with children, or practitioners feeling worried about being seen to cuddle or hug a child. It is really sad that early years practitioners can feel this way and I believe such attitudes do children a disservice, as being loved and engaging in warm, close relationships is part of what makes us human. When reflecting on my own practice, I can honestly say that I have loved the children in my care and I hope that the various childcare practitioners my own children have encountered would have felt the same about them.
There is a lot of research which backs up the idea that children need to feel loved in order to develop secure relationships of their own. You might remember that Maslow includes ‘to love and be loved’ in his hierarchy of basic human needs and Sue Gerhardt in her excellent book, Why love matters, argues that within the first year of a child’s life, and beyond, affection has a huge impact on brain development and shapes attitudes and dispositions for life.
Despite the obvious advantages of developing a loving pedagogy, some practitioners have expressed concerns about acting in loving ways, citing child protection as a barrier. Keeping children safe is, and should be, our highest priority, however, John Byrne insists that discussion around child protection issues should complement our practice not inhibit it and he warns against, ‘a new form of abuse’ as caregivers overlook children’s ‘emotional needs for love and intimacy’ (2016, p.153). Early years practitioners must not worry that their loving actions will be misinterpreted and one way to help with this is to describe and define professional love within our setting’s policies.
Jules Page has developed the Professional Love in Early Years Settings (PLEYS) research project and toolkit aimed at practitioners considering what professional love can mean within an early years context. Using the term ‘professional’ can help to separate it from the notion of parental love and sounds more formal and less intimate. It helps to frame a loving pedagogy within a professional context, hopefully giving permission for professionals to love the children in their care.
We can demonstrate our love for the children in our care by:
- Spending quality time with them
- Keeping children’s best interests at heart and holding them in mind
- Showing a genuine interest in their lives
- Using positive touch in interactions with children e.g. offering a child a hug or a high 5 or allowing a younger child to sit on our lap during a story
- Building positive relationships and secure attachments with children
- Using positive, affirming and encouraging language e.g. labelled praise and words that build self-esteem
- Creating cosy corners for children to cuddle up with us and listen to a story
- Building nurture times into our routine when children can re-fuel emotionally
- Engage in genuine consultation with children about issues that affect them, value their ideas and, whenever possible, act upon them
- Create resources or plan activities with specific children in mind, reminding them they are special
- Doing something to help the children or an act of service for the children e.g. helping them to find their shoes, or finding the specific shaped block they have been searching for
- Giving children appropriate ‘gifts’ e.g. a daisy or special stone in the outside area
- Helping children to understand the concept of love, talking about people who love them and how to act in loving and caring ways
- Role modelling acting in loving and caring ways ourselves
- Sharing picture books specifically about love and special relationships
- If appropriate, allowing children to choose their own key person (the person that they gravitate towards)
- Ensuring that professional love or a loving pedagogy is defined and described within our setting’s policies.
I believe that love needs to be redefined within early childhood education to make the term more readily used and accepted. By kind and caring actions, holding children in mind and wanting the best for those in their care, early years practitioners are already demonstrating love on a daily basis. This pedagogy of love will demonstrate love’s power in these children’s lives and help them to grow into loving citizens of the future.
That’s what love has to do with it!
About the author
Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.
Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.