Acorn’s Relational Pedagogy 

Please don’t be put off by the fancy title.  ‘Relational pedagogy’ might sound as if we’re trying to impress with academic gobbledegook, but it is the most accurate wording to describe our approach to teaching, learning and care.  It also reflects the way we run our organisation.  We have always focussed on personalising care and education for individual children, and on taking a holistic approach to nurturing their social and emotional wellbeing, and we are now developing a way to explain in more detail what we believe and why, and what this approach means in practical terms.

What is ‘pedagogy’?

In the UK we tend to talk about teaching and learning, but although pedagogy is about the practice of educating, in Europe it is particularly associated with early years, and it encompasses two other aspects which we think are critical; care and reflective practice.  So it’s another way of saying how we educate the children in our care, but it doesn’t prioritise academic education over the practice of caring.   

Why ‘relational’?

Babies and young children are social learners.  They depend on the people around them, both adults and other children, and from a very early age, babies and children need social interaction to develop language skills, but also to form positive relationships.  Children (and adults) need to feel emotionally secure in order to learn effectively.  If children are to develop a caring attitude to others, it is also essential that they first experience caring, respectful relationships with others.  Acorn follows an ‘ethic of care’ which focusses attention on caring relations between everyone in the organisation, and particularly with and between children. Children do not learn in isolation, and every interaction is a learning opportunity – not in a ‘teaching’ sense, but in more subtle and universal ways which help children to learn to trust, respect and care for others, and to discover fun, creativity and self-confidence.

The journey not the destination

Our relational pedagogy allows us to focus our attention on children’s experience, not just their learning outcomes or ‘school-readiness’.  In a fast-changing world, we need to help children develop a reflective, questioning and creative aptitude, and a love of learning through discovery.  Making educational experiences meaningful and engaging for children relies on understanding a child’s interests and individual needs.  Our key person approach is critical both for monitoring a child’s development and also to ensure that every child has someone who will have a more detailed understanding of their likes, dislikes, fears and favourites.  Every child is unique and equality of opportunity is about tailoring our care to the needs of each individual.

What is an ethic of care?

The ethic of care prioritises caring relations and a responsive approach to the children in our care.  Caring as a profession, whether for the young, old or sick, is undervalued, and over-simplified.  It isn’t simply about providing comfort and cuddles, but about developing a fuller understanding of the needs and desires of others.  Children often crave attention, and an ethic of care is more than just attending to that need; it’s not about smothering care, but about care that leads to autonomy.  What children desire is not always in their best interest and early years practitioners have to balance children’s desires with what will stretch and develop their knowledge and growth.  We hope to demonstrate the ethic of care in our dealings with everyone – children need to see genuinely caring practices if they are to learn how to develop caring relations and a caring attitude themselves.

Relational pedagogy and nature

An appreciation of natural environments is also a key part of Acorn’s ethos and practice, and this also forms part of our relational pedagogy.  Handling mini-beasts, not damaging the environment by dropping litter or harming plants is an extension of the ethic of care, and nature pedagogy is about forming a healthier relationship with the natural world.  Today’s technological world and the increasing screen time for children can be damaging to their ability to form personal relationships, but it can also lead to what has been called ‘nature deficit disorder’.  Our relation with the natural world is the widest expression of relational pedagogy, and children can often be helped to understand the cycle of life through regular contact with natural environments throughout the different seasons, and seeing the growth and development of plants and animals, which also give them the opportunity to demonstrate their own ethic of care.