Anarchy & the EYLF Pirates

Refuse. Resist. Rebuild.

Play, Foucault and economic (ir)rationalism


“the view that commercial activity … represents a sphere of activity in which moral considerations, beyond the rule of business probity dictated by enlightened self-interest, have no role to play.” (Quiggin 1997)

“Keep the paint on the paper.”

“Don’t drop play-dough on the floor.”

“Keep the sand in the sandpit.”

“The goop stays in the trough!”

Every day in services across Australia, children’s play is being corrected. You’ve all seen this: even the most ‘permissive’ (what a word that is) educator who supports children’s choices in play-based learning will at some point correct and ultimately confine their play. The how is less important than the why, I think, and the ‘what’: why are we limiting play and what are we reproducing when we create these limits?

The world of doing Foucault in Early Childhood opened to me recently, much like a Pandora’s box from which more questions than answers have flown and keep me awake at night with a ticking, frantic brain. I cannot see my practice, my values, my service, my organisation, my colleagues or the children I work with again in the light that I did before reading about the discourse of control in EC settings. For me it has literally felt like a light being switched on: and what it has revealed has been extremely unsettling.

Most uncomfy-making has been the realisation of the intimate relationship between our desire to correct and limit children’s play and the economic rationalism backtrack that national discussions about the Early Childhood sector have been set to.

Even a passing skim of Australia’s media conversations about Early Childhood education and care in the last 12 months reveals what seems to be the most salient function of ECE politically: the enabling of a workforce. Productivity, and the most optimal amount of it. Getting mums back to work. Good worker bees, buzzing away in their hives with their newborns regularly wiped and fed by an “industry” of “carers”. Even the Greens, a traditionally ‘alternative’ party, have stepped to this beat – talking of “investment” in children and speaking of children as a “resource”.

In other words, educators and ECE exist to prop up capitalism and make sure the status quo continues in force. Children are simultaneously a product and are future producers of work. In this view of the future, the possibility of non participation in productivity is erased and children’s “now” is unimportant; their desires, their ideas for their lives have no inherent value. ‘Well-being’ is not an end, only a necessary and functional characteristic of an industrious worker (be well so you can work; otherwise your wellness is irrelevant). Early intervention is only useful for keeping kids from being a drain on the economy.

In our current national discourse around early childhood education, educators are “child care workers” and do not exist to nurture dissent in their ranks or in children. “Child care workers” are definitely not supposed to participate in social change. Just wipe those bums, for goodness sake, and don’t get radical.

Yet the call to sustaining capitalism goes a little deeper than even that: educators are deeply complicit in creating new generations of workers – children who know how to conform from the youngest age and to focus on what looks and feels “purposeful”. It is certainly startling how many educators rise to the call of creating a future workforce. For instance, what do you think “school readiness” is all about? Fitting children in to rigid systems, conditioning them to sit on lines, stay still for up to an hour at a time – aiming to make all children at least average, or exceptional in a way they can later sell.

The EYLF is hardly the revolutionary document many seem to regard it as. It places a heavy emphasis on good social order and self regulation, and I really challenge if this emphasis is for children’s well-being or so they will emerge from childhood transformed into someone who can see the sense in working long hours of overtime ‘for the good of the company’. Many statements from the EYLF outcomes could be just as easily lifted from workplace performance review criteria.

Here’s a scenario. A group of children in an early childhood setting are making leaf prints on A4 sheets of paper. They are all aged around three years old. Their educator models how to make the prints by applying paint to one leaf, pressing to the paper with the flat of her hand. The children follow her for a few minutes but soon they have begun to squish and tear the paper; fascinated by the sensation and their effect on it, the delicious interplay of paint and fibre and their ever more powerful fingers. And then it is on to using the whole table as canvas – spreading and smearing. Then an urge to paint the chair. The floor. Themselves.

Many educators in this situation would encourage the children to “keep the paint on the paper” because the planned experience is about leaf prints. And even if they were to allow the experimentation with the paper, they might put a stop to painting the table. They may put a stop to painting the chair. And most – let’s be honest, most – would definitely halt attempts to paint the floor.

If it isn’t painting the floor, it is the idea that Children Should Wear Shoes All The Time or Children Shouldn’t Get Muddy Except In A Controlled Educator Led Experience. There are a myriad of ways in which children’s desires to experiment, create merry chaos, and turn the tables on the established order in play are curbed by educators. A child painting their arm, exploring in wonder the blue slick of acrylic up to their armpit is considered unacceptable by many.

Endless systems exist that to an outsider may seem weirdly arbitrary (these are the teacher’s books, this is the toy basket, this is your locker, we rest this way, we eat here, we eat at this time, we pack up the blocks by 4.30, we all sit for group time) but shape children to accept dominance and automated order. Group times could be considered one of the more effective ways of conditioning children to suppress their instincts in favour of collective productivity.

If we really ask ourselves why mess bothers many of us so much, we might find that it is because messy play is equivalent to disruption. There is something deeply unsettling for many adults in ‘allowing’ disruption, and participating in practices that engage children in realising and claiming real autonomy and a taste of power. We cannot trust children with power: we must hold on to it, and hand it over only when children have shown they can “play nicely”. This also explains for me everything about why many children with disability are sidelined as disruptive and later, why people with disability are so disempowered within economic rationalist narratives.

And this is ultimately the purpose of limiting play, I think. Behavioural control starts young, and is all about teaching children that they cannot trust themselves – instead they must surrender their sense of independent selves to produce pleasing results for adults – and later, the economy. Engaging in messy play builds dispositions that stand as a direct challenge to the necessity of conformity as a worker.

Why does this even matter? Why do I even care if I’m producing a compliant workforce? That is a portal to thinking that needfully stretches far beyond the bounds of this piece. Capitalism’s ugliness is such that we are able to put productivity and profit above humanity with ease, and examples of this abound. When even child sexual abuse is talked about in terms of “costs to the economy” – as though that’s all that matters – a deep and resounding why? is a very fine place to start.

(c) Charlotte Badger (Guest Pirate)

Anarchy & the EYLF Pirates

Refuse. Resist. Rebuild.


2 comments on “Play, Foucault and economic (ir)rationalism

  1. BushKinder Doug
    June 11, 2015

    Great piece from the pirates again. I am a lover of sand out of the sandpit and empowered children painting off the paper……This piece makes me wonder if freedom is a luxury of the privileged. Conforming to societal expectations, accepting dominance and automated order will at times open up opportunities of greater freedom. The choice of conforming, being controlled, or being permitted freedom is not available to all children in all environments. The image of paint on the table, chair and floor in the home of a socially disadvantaged family could be frowned upon as representing uncaring neglect. The same image in the studio of a family with social advantage could be applauded to represent parents openness to an artistic temperament…… While schools in some aboriginal communities are struggling to get children to wear shoes, wealthy families are professing the benefits of allowing their children the freedom of going barefoot. …..Lots to keep thinking about.

  2. Annie
    March 28, 2017

    Great piece!!
    I often struggle daily with what is embedded within me and the need for order, and wanting the children I educate to explore freely. This is also the struggle with the career path I have chosen I suppose , I hate the way schooling systems and now early childhood education has been moulded to create compliant citizens. I guess it is the space somewhere in between we all need to occupy and slowly and continually shift the boundaries and challenge these notions daily within ourselves, enlightening those who surround us.

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