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Critical Geography in Preschool: Evidence of Early Childhood Civic Action and Ideas About Justice

by Katherina A. Payne, Anna Falkner & Jennifer Keys Adair - 2020

Background: U.S. preschool children from Latinx immigrant and Black communities often experience schooling rooted in compliance and overdiscipline. In these contexts, schools do not recognize the rich lived experiences of Children of Color as suitable for civic learning. This article explores how, when schools value young Children of Color as capable and their work as important, classrooms become sites of children’s daily embodied civic action.

Purpose: Our study sought to better understand how children conceptualize and enact their ideas about community and to document the kinds of civic action present in early childhood classrooms. Applying theoretical tools of critical geography, we specifically analyzed how children used space and materials to enact their vision of a just community.

Participants: Three classrooms—an inclusion classroom, a bilingual classroom, and an English-only general education classroom—located within a Head Start center in South Texas participated in this study. The campus is roughly 65% Latinx, 33% Black, and 2% White, serving 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children.

Research Design: This study used a multisited, comparative ethnographic methodology. Multisited ethnography allows researchers to locate patterns and contextual differences that impact people’s lived experiences. Initially, researchers conducted ethnographic observations through field notes, photographs, and short videos documenting children’s action on behalf of or with the classroom community. Next, we used video-cued ethnographic methods, filming for three days in each classroom and editing the footage into a 20-minute film. We showed that film to teachers, families, and children in focus groups. Analysis occurred in multiple phases, during which we refined codes through individual, partner, participant, and team-level work.

Findings: Children used physical space and materials to assert community membership and to strengthen community ties. They adapted space and classroom materials to include other community members in shared activities. Finally, children advocated for space for their own purposes.

Conclusions: When teachers and administrators approach the classroom as a civic space where children representing racial, linguistic, and ability diversity can access embodied experiences with civic action, children can use their space to act on behalf of the community. Rather than offering lesson-based social-emotional learning, schools can reflect on how children might build a just, caring community through authentic embodied experiences that include having some control over space and materials. Doing so may allow a shift toward class environments that support shared endeavors and opportunities for children to care for community members.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 122 Number 7, 2020, p. 1-34
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23324, Date Accessed: 2/27/2021 4:44:03 PM

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About the Author
  • Katherina Payne
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    KATHERINA A. PAYNE, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research considers the intersections of civic education, elementary/early childhood schooling, and teacher education, and examines the role of relationships, community, and justice to transform classrooms into child-centered, democratic, and more equitable spaces. Recent publications include: Payne, K. A., & Journell, W. (2019). “We have those kinds of conversations here. . .”: Addressing contentious politics with elementary students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 79, 73–82; and Payne, K. A. (2018). Democratic teachers mentoring novice teachers: Enacting democratic practices and pedagogy in teacher education. Action in Teacher Education, 40(2), 133–150.
  • Anna Falkner
    University of Memphis
    E-mail Author
    ANNA FALKNER, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of instruction and curriculum leadership at the University of Memphis. Her research examines how young children learn about critical social issues such as race/racism, and intersects with critical civics education. Recent publications include: Falkner, A. (2019). “They need to say sorry”: Anti-racism in first graders’ racial learning. Journal of Curriculum, Teaching, Learning and Leadership in Education, 4(2), 37; and Falkner, A. (2018). Racialized space and discourse in the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. The Journal of Social Studies Research, 42(2), 171–184.
  • Jennifer Adair
    The University of Texas at Austin
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER KEYS ADAIR, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of curriculum and instruction at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research examines the role of race, culture(s), and cross-cultural experiences in early childhood education, particularly the experiences of teachers, parents, and children from immigrant communities. Recent publications include: Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S. S., & McManus, M. E. (2017). How the word gap argument negatively impacts young children of Latinx immigrants’ conceptualizations of learning. Harvard Educational Review, 87(3), 309–334; and Adair, J. K., Colegrove, K. S. S., & McManus, M. (2018). Troubling messages: Agency and learning in the early schooling experiences of children of Latina/o immigrants. Teachers College Record, 120(6).
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