19 SES 04 A, SPACE: School Space Uses and Discourses
The 2018 ECER conference invites participants to consider and debate how inclusion and exclusion in their various forms come to be within education spaces, and furthermore how they are produced by the people, places, objects and practices that comprise the learning environment within those spaces. Of particular interest to me as a parent, teacher and researcher in inclusive education is how early childhood learning environments support or constrain the active participation and learning of all children, especially those on the autism spectrum.
These environments have traditionally been conceptualised as being built in nature, with a focus on what can be seen and readily understood (Curtis & Carter, 2003). Indoor learning spaces have been described as being accessible, inviting and aesthetically pleasing, and able to appeal to and provoke children’s learning dispositions and working theories in action. Similarly, outdoor learning spaces have been described as environments where provocation, organisation and aesthetics spark children’s sense of exploration, discovery, creativity, imagination and fun. Modern learning environments have promised a flexible approach to pedagogy and learning through a narrow rethinking of ‘space’. Finally, the notion of environment as the third teacher argues that the people, places, objects and practices that make up education spaces act on and are acted upon by children in a way that can, and must, result in their learning. However, these definitions of learning environments and how they might be applied in practice do not naturally invite the active participation of autistic children, who require a deeper understanding of what encompasses environment that includes the sensory so that their active participation and learning can be better assured (McAnelly, 2017). This is something not researched before that I felt required further exploration.
Through my study of sensory environments in early childhood settings (comprising my PhD thesis), I am beginning the shift towards understanding learning environments as sensory spaces as well as being built in nature. The study is underpinned by three research questions that all link to the notion of environment, starting with definition of a sensory environment before proceeding to ask how sensory environments afford the active participation and learning of autistic children, as well as the development of empowered learning identities in autistic children. There is a current dearth of research that discusses learning environments in terms of their sensory impact on children’s learning. This is particularly problematic for autistic children, many of whom possess sensory processing capabilities that mean they experience sensory stimuli in ways quite different to the expected ‘norm’. I argue this impacts upon their ability to actively participate and learn within early childhood environments in desired ways, which in turn impacts their right to realisation and practice of citizenship.
I have taken dual sensory ethnographic and new materialist approaches with this study. Traditional ethnography has a focus on understanding and interpreting culture, specifically the ‘webs of meaning’ constructed by people within communities (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2007), whereas sensory ethnography has a particular focus on coming to know and represent culture through emplaced multisensorial meaning-making within communities (Pink, 2015). How senses are produced, categorised and made sense of within communities, and what role people, spaces, objects and practices all play in these processes are crucial considerations. Sensory ethnographic approaches aligns well with those of new materialism which, in addition to people, emphasises the material importance and entangled nature of places, objects and practices within environments (Barad, 2007; Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012; Fox & Alldred, 2017). For my study, I have been able to utilise both approaches to describe how these aspects of environment intra-act to mutually constitute the autistic active participant and learner.
Through this study, I have been looking at how people, places, objects and practices within early childhood settings intra-act in their production of a sensory environment that constitutes the active participation and learning of autistic children. The study has taken the form of bounded ethnographic case studies encompassing observations, photos, book and map making, video recording, conversations and interviews as data collection tools. Observations have provided narrative accounts of the sensory environment and how it 'speaks' to focus children. Photographs and video recordings have enabled focus children and I to document the people, places, objects and practices within their learning environments that appeal to them and that they feel comfortable with. Photographs focus children have taken have been transformed into books that are shared with them. Focus children have also been invited to visually map the environment with reference to the areas they felt were important to them and invited their active participation and learning. These methods have enabled focus children to become co-producers of research. General conversations and the more focused questions asked at interview of focus children, teachers and focus children’s parents have further revealed and confirmed how people, places, objects and practices within early childhood environments intra-acted to mutually constitute the autistic active participant and learner. In addition to that which is suggested by undertaking a sensory ethnographic approach, I was guided in the selection of these tools by the Mosaic approach framework (Clark, 2017). This speaks to the importance of multiple ways of sensing and 'seeing' what takes place in early childhood settings in order to give a richly textured account of how people, places, objects and practices within those environments come to be, act and intra-act. Furthermore, the Mosaic approach has enabled the perspectives of focus children on sensory environments to be ‘called forth’ and made visible (Gaffney, 2014). This is a crucial tenet of this study. Diffractive data analysis has made material and discursive realities inherent in the data visible, and offers transformative potential for change in conceptualising early childhood environments as sensory spaces that are inclusive of all children.
A key finding of the study relates to the provision of an explicit description of sensory environments, and what the implications of these are for the active participation and learning of autistic children in early childhood settings. The study asserts that autistic children can, and should, be able to take up roles as social actors, active participants and citizens within learning spaces, and that this is reinforced in settings where environment is considered an entangled, forever moving intra-action of people, places, objects and practices. The study provides clear insight for all members of early childhood settings into how to support and work within the sensory environment to ensure active participation, learning, inclusion and citizenship become lived realities for autistic children. Further, although the study was specific to early childhood settings, findings could (and I hope, will) be applied across educational contexts.
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. Clark, A. (2017). Listening to young children: A guide to understanding and using the Mosaic Approach. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Curtis, D. & Carter, M. (2003). Designs for living and learning: Transforming early childhood environments. St Paul, MN: Redleaf Press. Dolphijn, R. & van der Tuin, I. (2012). New materialism: Interviews and cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press. Fox, N. & Alldred, P. (2017). Sociology and the new materialism: Theory, research, action. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications. Gaffney, M. (2014). Calling forth disability in the classroom. Disability & Society, 29(3), 359-372. Hammersley, M. & Atkinson, P. (2007). Ethnography: Principles in practice. London: Routledge. McAnelly, K. (2017). Achieving citizenship for all: How can a kindergarten community of practice support the active participation of a disabled child and their family? Retrieved from https://ourarchive.otago.ac.nz/handle/10523/7960 Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
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