Dialogues on Complexifying Care in ECE

Danielle Wittick is a Pedagogist with the Pedagogist Network of Ontario at NYAD Community Inc.

Gabrielle Monique Warren is a Pedagogist with the Pedagogist Network of Ontario and a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto.

Lisa Johnston is a Pedagogist with the Pedagogist Network of Ontario and a doctoral student at York University.

In her poem “My House,” Nikki Giovanni (1981) quips, “English isn’t a good language to express emotion through/Mostly I imagine/Because people try to speak English instead of trying to speak through it.” This conversation takes on the spirit of her words by taking up the concept of care in early childhood settings and challenging its underlying assumptions. In a time when we pedagogists are reckoning with a multiplicity of epistemologies and ontologies within educational spaces, how might we think about language in a way that both honours and brings us forward toward a more fulfilling future? How might futurity be derailed when there is an assumed unified definition of care? How do we materially see the variance of the care within ECE spaces? How might we interrogate the processes that create varying care definitions within those spaces? This piece emerged from conversations in our small group about the devaluation of care in early childhood education. What follows are excerpts from our discussions that wove together our varied contexts as we exchanged ideas and grappled with the concept of care.

In this conversation, we explore the concept of care within education and society as a pedagogical movement to interrogate how we take specific words and concepts for granted. We discuss the precarious nature of care under capitalism, the role of government in neglecting responsibilities, and the importance of redefining the title of early childhood educators. We also emphasize the interconnectedness of care and the need to move away from individualistic thinking. We introduce various authors and their perspectives on care, including Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Joan Tronto, Robyn Maynard, Leanne Simpson, bell hooks, and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa.

As pedagogists, we offer that it is vital to notice the interconnectedness of a child in space and place. The asymmetry in educational spaces and the exclusion of certain children based on their disabilities or immigrant status is also highlighted. We discuss how the harmful effects of universalism and the dominance of narratives rooted in white supremacist and capitalist logics must be resisted in favour of anti-capitalist and anti-colonial values of love, reciprocity, and mutual responsibility.

We end the conversation by discussing the intersection of pedagogy and care in education. We explore the need to move away from technical conceptions of care and instead engage with care that involves the heart, mind, and spirit. By questioning inherited narratives and embracing curiosity and openness in pedagogical gestures, we open a material space to reflect those we engage with.


Danielle: To start with, why is it that we need education to validate this word of care? Why do we not see care as something of value on its own?

Gabrielle: From my work in the nonprofit space, I have witnessed the precarious nature of care under capitalism. I believe this concerns the precarious nature of nonprofits under capitalism. Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2022) speaks of the “shadow state” concept. She posits that this space, defined by the voluntary and nonprofit sector, gathers the abandoned pieces of society where the market fails to utilize extra-economic values like kindness, generosity, or for the sake of this conversation: care (Gilmore, 2022). Being cast to stand in the gap for what the state will not provide in terms of care, you are placed in the middle because you are not allowed to be a political actor or speak out against the state. However, the state does not necessarily need to give you resources to provide the gaps or help you provide the gaps you are filling within society. When you develop a community program, a volunteer program, an after-school program from the nonprofit, or the shadow state perspective, care can be complicated because the execution is very conditional on the state’s political will to fund various projects. In a post-pandemic era, Canadians are in need of more programming and food banks have skyrocketed in use; however, giving and volunteering is down (CBC, 2023; CTV, 2023). When I think of care, this is my standpoint. Care is not merely a personal action. It is a way of thinking about how various parts of our society work together to provide for the most vulnerable. 

Lisa: This makes me think of Joan Tronto’s (2013) work with feminist ethics of care. In Caring Democracy, she offers the idea of privileged irresponsibility which she defines as governments taking a pass out of their responsibilities to care for their citizens. In a sense, the creation of the College of ECE is an example of this. In the absence of government policy that assures good wages and working conditions for Registered ECEs that would support them in doing their work well, the College of ECE instead steps in to regulate professionals through increased accountability measures and stricter enforcement and punishment.

Danielle: Yes. I really like Fisher and Tronto’s (1990) definition of care as “… a species activity that includes everything we do to maintain, continue and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex life-sustaining web” (p. 40). I’ve been talking with educators recently about this idea of “care.” One of the questions I’ve asked them is, “if we were to redefine our title would it be early childhood educator or early childhood care professional? Nobody focused on the word care as being of importance. It was the word ‘education’ and the term ‘professional’ that mattered, because it gives us viability. Maybe parents would respect what we’re doing if our title had these words attached to “early childhood”. A question raised in these conversations was, what does the College (of ECEs in Ontario) do for us in supporting care? I referred to Lisa Johnson’s (2022) paper, Node-ified ethics: Contesting codified Ethics as unethical in ECEC in Ontario, which asked the same question. When our governments do not put value in care, why would educators see their role of care as a value? The simple act of wiping a nose and giving a hug is important. From my perspective, care involves meeting needs, and is always relational. While wiping that nose, we create a condition for the child to feel safe in the world (Tronto, 2015). Gabrielle, as you talked, I kept reflecting on what one of the educators said. They asked, how can we care when the ratios of educators to children are 1:13? When our afternoons are spent taking children to the bathroom? How can we care when the finances aren’t there? How can we care when our College doesn’t support us? 

Gabrielle: I believe this conversation reflects what is happening in society regarding desiring to professionalize our relations and isolate us from one another. When we returned to the “Black Spring” of 2020, there were calls for mutual aid and community accountability (Kelley, 2022). Furthermore, this idea of care is not just about the educator; it is not just about the child. It is about the parents. It is about the aunties. It is about the uncles. It is about the shopkeeper. It is about the puppies in the street. As we have seen in COVID, there has been such a disintegration of community and public space and people coming together. Sometimes I get frustrated within ECE spaces that there is such a myopic conversation on just the relation between the educator and the child, that we do not look at the fact that we are part of a constellation. This is a concept which Robyn Maynard and Leanne Simpson (2022) eloquently write of in their book Rehearsals for Living. From an Indigenous and Black Radical perspective, they relay this idea of constellations and how we are part of something so much bigger that is interconnected and interrelated. Moreover, I think moving away from myopic positioning or capitalistic individualistic urges and thinking about the connection of all things – human and non-human, seen and unseen – allows us to think about care in a more expansive way. This expanse reminds me of the black praxis of Bell Hooks. Her meditation on love is all-encompassing. Love is an action, and care is part of love (Hooks, 2001). In Teaching to Transgress, Hooks (1994) speaks on education as an act of love itself. Personally, I think about my work as an act of love.

Lisa: I was also reading Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2012), who talks about how we do not pre-exist relationality so, care cannot just start; it’s already happening. We’re already in relations of care and understand our needs by being in relation. There’s a lot in there, so I am still working through the ideas, but I found it quite an exciting and provocative way to think about care, including the engagement with posthumanism. 

Care and Citizenship

Danielle: In thinking about the “whole” individual, Malaguzzi discusses the same points in the paper, Your Image of the Child: Where Teaching Begins. Malaguzzi states that when we think about a child, when we pull out a child to look at, that child is already tightly connected and

linked to a certain reality of the world — she has relationships and experiences. We cannot separate this child from a particular reality. Put differently, when we think of care, it is ourselves knowing what we want. At the same time, you have to know what you want to be able to express what your need is. I like what Tronto says: we need to view not everyone as an adult or a child, but we’re all citizens. And if we’re all citizens, does that help or aid in how we view our relations because it puts us all on the same spectrum? Whereas care right now, we think of it as a hierarchy: I need to care for you, so you’re lucky. I want to look at care as reciprocal, as an ongoing continuous democratic practice.

Gabrielle: I want to complicate the concept of the citizen concerning care. In educational spaces, there is an asymmetry on multiple scales, even in these spaces where we are wiping a runny nose or picking up toys and facilitating children’s experiences. From the scale of the body to the city a child resides in, to the state or province they reside in, inheritances are latched onto how we view who gets to be a citizen and how that citizen is meant to be. Geographer Neil Smith (1992) defines a politics of scale. He argues that social processes create certain places and certain places create social processes. In the case of care, I think about how scale helps us better understand how the exclusion of a disabled child or a neurodivergent child or an immigrant child in how we conceive citizenship and care, which therefore creates specific educational spaces that are exclusionary. In other words, universalism is harmful because it subsumes the various genres of the human. These children are peripheral at best and a nuisance at worst. It is usually a one-on-one specific kind of child that is being centered. To unthinkingly believe that I am part of a democratic society obscures an understanding of master narratives steeped in white supremacist, capitalist logics that are void of love, reciprocity, and mutual responsibility. These dominant narratives say that I clock in and clock out of caring responsibilities through employment. Not all narratives and discourses floating around about what care is, how it is, or how it is coded are necessarily created nefariously. They are just naturalized. 

Care and Inheritance

Danielle: How do we do pedagogical work as always in question? One sentence that I wrote down from Langford and Richardson (2020) is in relation to how care has been instrumentalized. It’s not the kind of care that requires engagement with your heart, mind and your spirit. It’s more robotic right now.  This perspective made me think of the technical aspects of an everyday life, but instead ask how we separate ourselves from technical conceptions of care to really look and feel with our heart, our mind and our spirit? Educators are asked to work from 7:00 in the morning to 6:00 in the evening with a three hour split in between. They are required to do all these ongoing tasks throughout their day, and go home and care for their own family. How are we doing this “ethics of care” when we walk into a room or into any situation? 

Gabrielle: I think part of considering care requires bringing up conversations about pedagogy and inheritance. I’m interested in inheritances and I’m interested in narratives; I’m interested in asking “what are the narratives we’re telling about education?” What are status-quo narratives telling us about who the child is meant to be within the Canadian context? Who is a citizen? And then who is left out of that? And in our contexts, how are we abiding by these discourses?  In my non-profit work, we had a specific program that we were developing and although we had our own vision for how we thought it should go, we realized that this was not enough. By making mistakes and asking questions, we began to develop programming that was more culturally responsive to the community we were working with. By suspending master narratives, we were open to curiosity. I argue that this curiosity and openness is a critical component of care. Pedagogically, in my mind, it’s thinking about “how do we just attend to this moment?” There is an overarching desire for uniformity in education and a fear of impermanence. Yet, in education, things are always changing, whether it’s the places we educate, the students we are educating, or revelations about past atrocities or the curriculums that are handed down from on high. Inheritances do not have to be stumbling blocks but might be a way to move honestly and humbly through the worlds we exist within. 

Lisa: I think that’s the thing about pedagogy: that it resists universalization. Returning to Cristina Delgado Vintimilla’s (2020) definition of pedagogy, as “that which thinks education”, pedagogy entails an active, ongoing process of thinking about education as a project and not as something just to be implemented. This requires a lot of time and effort, which is not productive in a capitalist context of checking boxes and of production and consumption. I think that’s what I, as a pedagogist ask: how do we push against the surveillance of universal, inherited conceptions of care? Perhaps it’s at the heart of what we’re talking about as a collective of pedagogists.

Danielle:  I know we started this discussion to think education alongside care. But I wonder, thinking pedagogically, how do we understand and view care?  I know this isn’t the same level of inheritance that you’re speaking of Gabrielle, but as pedagogists with the Pedagogist Network of Ontario, one of the first readings we engaged together was Acting with the Clock: clocking practices in early childhood, (Pacini-Ketchabaw, 2012). Together with this reading, we questioned how we often inherit past practices as a new early childhood educator. There becomes a question of how we as pedagogists, enter into spaces with educators who have inherited particular histories of care. Dominant approaches ask mostly women, women of different ethnicities, how they view care; if their vision is different from status-quo governmental mandates, we want them to conform to “our” (governments and agents of the government) care. As pedagogists, we might instead ask how we might keep diverse educators from conforming to inherited conceptions of care, knowing that reproducing master narratives of care has long been the practice advanced in educational institutions.

Gabrielle: I believe a large component is being intentional with a diversity of standpoints. Bell Hooks speaks on an anecdote of a colleague who advocated for her hiring at a university. She recalls that the colleague witnessed the hiring committee beginning to make worrying comments about hooks – comments that would not have been said if another standpoint was in the room. She stopped the meeting and suggested they incorporate others into the conversation (hooks, 1994). The power in that anecdote was the understanding of one’s limitations. We cannot be all things to all people, but we must have the wherewithal to go beyond ourselves. This is not an argument for multiculturalism, but something beyond – something Wynterian (see: Wynter, 1994). Care, in both thought and action, becomes richer when more standpoints from community, parents, children, community organizations, educators, and the elderly are present. I think this idea relates back to relationality as a pedagogical imperative. We do not have to fully understand one another to be in relation with one another (see: Glissant, 1997). Is this relationality something that is providing a more expansive vision of what we want to do as pedagogists? I think that one commitment that matters to me as a pedagogist requires giving us the power to flip the script a little bit. 


In this conversation, we foregrounded that in our current time, it is vital to resist a universalized pedagogical practice where there are unchecked inherited conceptions of care. In the movement of our conversation and contemplation, we are grateful for the time and space to engage collectively with this question of care, each of us bringing a distinct perspective. As the conversation moved, an invitation from Cristina Delgado Vintimilla remained in our minds’ foreground. In this invitation, during one of our large group gatherings, she asked us to think about feelings of stuckness that can take hold in our pedagogical work and to consider what practices we, as pedagogists, might create to bring momentum. This makes us wonder how care can become stuck in institutionalized, routinized, and instrumentalized practices. How might we disrupt this stuckness and engage with the momentum of care already happening in ethical relations? Through our conversation, we practiced creating a momentum space by accentuating the significance of the distinction of standpoints and generative relationality in reflecting on care and pedagogy.


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