Responsible collaborative exploration – the future of pedagogy for early years  

Collaborative exploration

Elin Eriksen Ødegaard, Director and Professor in Early Childhood Pedagogy, Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, explains why responsible collaborative exploration is crucial to early years pedagogy

In most countries, strategies to further develop early childhood education & care services, frameworks, and practices, are associated with a discourse on quality. These discourses will often be limited to academic learning, play and development with a belief that quality will be increased through professionalism and structural improvements. By focusing merely on the development of children’s cognitive and academic skills, which are deemed fundamental for success in school and later in life, knowledge about the value and benefits of play and exploration for children’s joy, wellbeing, resilience and perseverance, a driving force in problem-solving and engagement in staying alive, are often overlooked or marginalised, since it escapes measurement tools. What is easily forgotten in this discourse is that play, and exploration is key to development and learning.

There is strong evidence that children’s exploration will enable deeper engagement and learning. Recent laboratory studies show that children integrate evidence, prior beliefs, and competing causal hypotheses in their explorations (e.g. Bonawitz, Shafto, Gweon, et al, 2011, Bonawitz, Schijndel, Friel, & Schulz, 2012). The difference between exploration and play has been referred to as being between an orientation of ‘What does this object do? and ‘What can I do with this object?’ (Hutt, Tyler, Hutt, & Christopherson, 1989). Also, research agrees that open-ended pedagogical approaches and materials should be balances with framed and guided approaches. Evidence is brought forward into pedagogical synergies between inquiry-based science and creativity-based approaches in the early years. E. g. a recent literature review led to summing up five characteristics that describe the interface between play and learning: joyful, meaningful, actively engaging, iterative and socially interactive and brings to the table a compelling picture of how playful experiences support children’s development and learning (Zosh, Hopkins, Jensen, et. al., 2017). In addition, a series of studies stated that play and exploration, motivation and affect, dialogue and collaboration, problem solving and agency, questioning and curiosity, reflection and reasoning, and teacher scaffolding and involvement was crucial to early years pedagogy (Cremin, et. al, 2015).

To move forward from this knowledge base, we now need to add attention to values. When we invite children to curriculum and activities, we invite children to participate in something. Play and exploration are not neutral, so the next large question is How to educate the young child for a sustainable future when all we know is the past and present?

To learn to be sensitive to nature and culture, to learn to ‘read’ others, starts in play. To be able to see one object as representing another, the ability to understand symbols undergirds language, so we could say that it is a false dichotomy to claim that early year’s education should either be play or learning-oriented. Play is an intrinsically motivated experience evolving around explorative activities, triggering playfulness and endurance in activities, and it does not belong to children alone (Ødegaard, 2021).

To visualise knowledge connected to a value approach, a pedagogical model of exploration in education was developed (Ødegaard, 2020). The vision here is that central to the early year’s teacher is exploration as dialogical engagement. Through a series of collaborative research projects, central conditions are found to be dynamic relations, activities, time and space. As children’s exploration and cultural formation are crucial in their creation of meaning and capabilities to thrive, learn and survive, exploration practices are found to be verbal, as well as in silent practices, driven by body, performance and doing.

Collaborative exploration

The concept of exploration entails a dynamic process and activities

This line of thought is supported by more post developmental approaches. It will be possible to intersect traditions, often dichotomised, as the child and play-oriented vs an academic and teacher-oriented tradition. For example, being play responsive could open to see if, how, when and where conditions for children’s living and development can be supported through play and dialogue with peers and adults when appropriate (Pramling, Wallerstedt, Lagerlöf, et. al, 2019). Post-humanist approaches could also widen our attention to a wider complexity in knowing and understanding, as when researchers go beyond play and exploration in the realm of human relations (Arlejung, 2020).

What we make available for children and what is foreground in our dialogues with children, will affect early years pedagogies and create conditions for the formative development of the child (Pramling & Ødegaard, 2011, Ødegaard & White, 2016, Gradovski, Ødegaard, Rutanen, et. al. 2019). This knowledge is critical when it comes to developing a pedagogy where children’s rights and well-being are considered essential for holistic and embodied learning. As stated above, we have evidence in studies from laboratory settings, showing that child-centred exploration benefits both academic and socio-emotional outcomes, considering play and exploration the core wheel of child development. Often these studies feature an experimenter with one child or a small group. In contrast, staff in real-life settings often need to support 20 children or more (Jensen, Pyleb, Alacab, et al, 2019).

Collaborative exploration holds the promise of contextual responsiveness to childrens’ embodied inborn drive to explore and to make meaning. Establishing a pedagogical genre for collaborative exploration in practice will entail the whole spectrum of bodily expressions, from the song, dance and movements to gestures and signs indicating communication. It will also involve shared attention, curiosity, manipulation or problem-solving engaging in exploring relations, artefacts, materials, matter or symbols.

Future studies should be carried out in diverse early years settings, involving the often-tacit knowledge and engagement of the local teachers and families to acknowledge cultural diversity. The standardised program should be avoided or used with careful attention. This is an important message to politicians that often direct attention to the promises of rapid solutions to complex problems. There is no easy fix to problems in education as equity, effects of poverty etc. for the obvious reason that these problems cannot be solved by education alone. Instead, we need to develop slow pedagogies with evidence to enhance both wellbeing and learning.

Collaborative exploration adopts an organic and relational epistemological paradigm to strengthen the argument that children would benefit from cultures of collaborative exploration, where teachers are responsive to children’s lives and agentic interests and balance this responsiveness to the local and situated child and group with acknowledging the authority the pedagogical mandate imposes.

Collaborate explorations holds the promise of a pedagogical approach that will serve the UN Agenda 2030 and the visions for a sustainable future for people and the planet. Collaborative exploration simultaneously takes children’s imagination and play seriously while paving the ground for following up on children’s curiosity and endurance in investigating and searching for meaning and knowledge about the world in which they live (Cremin, et al, 2015, Ødegaard, 2021). A pedagogy of collaborative exploration bears a promise of sustaining resilience, creativity and innovation in children because it acknowledges uncertainty and drives meaning-making and the continual journey to find life worth living by being together in the efforts of finding meaning, answers and solutions, companionship across generations is necessary for attempts to obtain sustainable futures, engaged mutual relationships, creates joy and belonging, even if new questions, problems and obstacles inevitably will arise.

It is vital to the Early Childhood Education & Care (ECEC) sector to pay attention to the long-term puzzle of inquiry. As experts, politicians, parents, and teachers, we anticipate the future for the child. We advise, teach, invite, and share knowledge without knowing if these forms of knowledge or its content will be meaningful for the child in the present time, nor could we see what will be of use for the child in the future. Our times pandemic and nature crises are strong reminders. We need a responsible pedagogy where the adult generation manoeuvre responsively to the child’s situation with uncertainty in mind (Arendt, 1993, Wals, 2017, Ødegaard, 2021). We need to navigate unknown futures with wisdom and envision the future of our children.

The child itself will gradually grow understandings, knowledge, and skills through the embodied exploration of the human and non-human environments in which they live. Ludic play and exploration will be central to their inquiry. For the parent or teacher to await the future before sharing, giving attention to the world, or giving advice would be irresponsible and lead to brutal childhood experiences. Instead, the adult generation needs to take responsibility and act upon policies and conditions that can ease life situations and tame problems. The recognition of the collaborative exploration of a future-oriented pedagogy could be a driver of social sustainability, as we must learn to think and act differently to reach sustainability goals.


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Director and Professor in Early Childhood Pedagogy
Western Norway University of Applied Sciences 
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