Creating Places of Belonging for Learning in Early Childhood Education

By: Diane Kashin, Ed. D, RECE. Recently I experienced the power of place when I spent the weekend in Pennsylvania at Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC). I was invited by LCCC’s Teacher Education program to do a morning and afternoon workshop featuring loose parts to help launch its 32nd annual celebration of the Week of the Child This place drew me in – it was like I had walked into a dream. When I walked through the halls, the early learning centre with the teachers and children, the classrooms for ECE students and faculty, the faculty meeting rooms, the student lounges and the common areas, I felt an emotional connection. I felt attached to this place as I could see in the attention to detail, the thought to aesthetics and the comfy seating that this was a space that welcomed all. I used to struggle to find my place when I worked in a very similar but very different community college. At LCCC the indoor and outdoor spaces offer all who reside or visit there from children, to ECE students, to teachers, faculty and the community an authentic and inviting location for learning together. All are valued, all are welcome. The message given is that you belong here. I experienced something that alluded me in my own work environment, which was a sense of place, the emotional connection that happens when a space gets under the skin.

When Sobel (2004) wrote about place-based education, which uses the local environment as a starting point for learning across the curriculum, he was referring to children. In the place that is LCCC, the ECE students too, have opportunities for hands-on real-world learning that helps them to develop stronger ties to their community. I loved seeing the recycled materials arranged thoughtfully and displayed in ways that invited their use, not just for the ECE students but for other students in the college. The space for seating, allowed not only for interactions but it invited the collaborative use of the materials. When ECE students have an opportunity to explore the properties and potential of materials, then they will have a deeper understanding of how to use them with children. This I know from Frances and David Hawkins and the theory of messing about.

There is a strong connection between developing a sense of place and forming a sense of belonging. According to Brillante & Mankiw (2015) developing a sense of belonging in place is different than being in a space. A sense of belonging relates to a sense of connectedness. Along with well-being, engagement, and expression, a sense of belonging is foundational to learning and development (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). Vergeront (2013) described place as where we feel at home, whereas space would be our address.

What become obvious during my short visit to LCCC was that the teachers and faculty had become what Brillante & Mankiw (2015) call “place-makers” (p.5) for the children and students. When there are opportunities to actively explore place and manipulate objects, we learn about the world around us. These experiences are the foundation for understanding our sense of place. They help to foster the formation of deep attachments to people and places.

We learn that within these places and with each other that we belong. Belonging refers to a sense of connectedness to others and of being valued. It relates to forming relationships with others and making contributions as part of a group, a community, and the world (Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014). While my time at LCCC was brief, I felt like I belonged, and I look forward to returning to this place in the future. My hope is that each one of us in our work with children, ECE students, teachers and faculty will become “place-makers”.

One thought on “Creating Places of Belonging for Learning in Early Childhood Education

  1. Thank you Diane for your felt-sense comments. I was very disappointed to not be able to travel back to PA to meet you along with the LCCC faculty. I worked at LCCC for a brief period of time and carry with me the same impressions you related. As adjunct faculty working off the site of the LCCC main campus, the faculty created the same sense of place/belonging for me as you describe and picture relative to the physical environment. What is created and visible on the outside is a reflection of the values of not only pedagogy, but of ‘person’. And truly, the staff of LCCC possess and carry forth values externalized in numerous ways throughout their program and environment. I used to do a training called “The Child from the Inside, Out”. My experience at LCCC is that the values we have within, are expressed individually and collectively. The rich pedagogy of Reggio,Hawkins, Montessori, Steiner, or any other great thinker/educator are only a living force on behalf of the child and family if honored as reflection from within. Otherwise, it becomes the ‘materials’ and falls short of the magic, wonder and possibilities. Truly, LCCC is a place where this lives.

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