By Jaakko Hilppö, Anna Rainio, Antti Rajala, and Lasse Lipponen
Do adults’ attempts at representing children’s worlds really capture what is important to them? If so, whose worlds are they? What we have paid attention to in the Finnish discussions is that the voices of small children are often missing.
Emma has been bullied at school since first grade, and bullying has been both mental and physical. She has been gossiped, threatened and pushed. Many attempts have been made to resolve the protracted situation. Emma has been given a supervised meeting with her bullies, and school staff have been told about bullying repeatedly. A police report has also been made. The bullying still didn’t stop. Eventually, Emma decided to become invisible. Recently, the school corridors have felt lighter as she has stayed out of sight of bullies. “The only guys who know how I feel are my mom and a couple of my best friends.” Emma’s mother wrote an opinion paper on her daughter’s situation in Helsingin Sanomat (the largest newspaper in Finland), which aroused great feelings on social media. The distance school arrangements caused by the coronavirus pandemic has been a huge relief for Emma. “Now we’re on the gravy train. Emma doesn’t have to physically go to school,” Mom wrote. (Parikka, Helsingin Sanomat 21.04.2020).
The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted the everyday lives of more than 2.3 billion people globally through different societal level protection measures. Many of these measures have significantly impacted children’s lives, for example, through daycare and school closures and by separating children from their family members, friends and other social circles. Yet, as the opinion piece that opens this article illustrates, the consequences of the pandemic can also be quite unexpected for diverse children. This complexity foregrounds the need for child perspectives in the discussions around the pandemic. Yet, amidst the constant newsfeed regarding the current situation, these perspectives were first largely absent, only gradually emerging while most of the discussions have been focused on children’s role as potential spreaders of the disease.
In this contribution, we first provide reflections on how children’s lifeworlds have been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic in one of the Nordic welfare states, Finland. In doing this, we will rely on news reports, opinion pieces, public social media posts and our experiences as parents and educators. We adopt a child perspective (Sommer, Pramling & Hundeide, 2010), an adults’ attempt to characterize and present children’s lifeworld as it might appear to them, in order to underscore the impact that the changes have had on children’s everyday lives as we understand them currently. More precisely, we will show how Finnish children have been positioned in relation to the pandemic in the fore mentioned media and by ourselves in three different ways: a) as vulnerable and relatively passive recipients of care and protection, b) as thriving in non-school settings, and c) as agentic actors capable of acting upon and transforming their circumstances. We conclude the article by discussing the difference between child perspectives (adult narratives of how children experience their lifeworlds) and children’s perspectives (how children themselves represent and share their experiences of their lifeworlds), as well as what we can learn from and with children during the COVID crisis.
COVID-19 shuts down daycare centers and schools
As in many other countries, in Finland too, the Covid-19 protection measures have caused a sudden and dramatic change in children’s lives in many ways. Daycare centers, preschools and schools have stayed open, but only for children under twelve years old and whose parents work in societally critical industries like healthcare, or for children who have significant special education needs. Complying with these requirements has been left largely to the parents’ discretion, but PM Sanna Marin and her government has strongly recommended that parents would keep their children at home. To compensate, preschools and schools have employed a wide range of different distal education possibilities, like online classes or group activities and by giving homework. In practice, according to a recent survey commissioned by the Ministry of Education (21.4.2020) this has meant that currently 78%–92% children and youth between ages 0 to 16 are currently staying at home. In addition to formal education, the protection measures have also halted a good portion of children’s hobbies, such as soccer and other group sports or activities.
Children as recipients of adults’ care and as objects of their concern
In the first wave of media reports on the daycare and school closures, one of the central issues highlighted was how the closures had cut children from their regular social circles and tied them more closely to their immediate families and guardians. For primary school age children school work continued in a different form, but there were no recesses, lunch time or walking to and from school with friends. For the early childhood education system, the impact was at first even more drastic with no curricular work bringing the daycare groups together remotely. What added to this isolation was that there were significant differences between children regarding how cut off they in fact were from their peers. Based on our own experience, guardians have been oscillating between being either lenient or strict in regulating the children’s social contacts. These differences of opinion have been widely debated in social media. Whereas some children have been allowed to meet friends in the playground or park, others have not.
Understandably the newspaper reports were met and accompanied by concerns raised about the possible short- and long-term effects of this isolation on children. Especially the situation of children in dysfunctional families or living with guardians battling substance abuse were at the center of public concerns. In a similar vein, parents and educators also highlighted that some families might not be able to support their children in doing the required school work. The fear was that the crisis would strengthen the existing trend of increasing educational inequalities between social classes in Finland. Schools reacted quickly to this by, for example, providing laptops and access to school meals for students needing them. Another concern about children’s access to educational opportunities – voiced particularly in social media accounts – concerns differences among teachers and schools in their employment of distant educational solutions. Early childhood education was particularly at the heart of the concerns because the government’s recommendations and requirements left it unclear how the daycare should be arranged during the crisis. In all, the espoused child perspective of these diverse accounts was dominated by a view of children as recipients of care and as objects of adult concern.
Children as thriving in non-school settings
However, as exemplified by the shortened newspaper opinion piece we started with, the overall picture is not only grim. Instead, the situation is complex and is impacting children in different ways, as illustrated by the following comment of an elementary school teacher to one of the authors. The teacher said that in her class there were “some kids with whom I can see they are really negatively influenced by this, for them it is just too hard to keep up with all this from a distance. However, luckily, even a larger group are those who have started to flourish during the distance education”. Some children and youth who are struggling in school seem to have thrived in the changed conditions when schools have been closed. Indeed, soon alongside the voices of concern, narratives of children whose lives had turned better within a short time due to the shutdowns started to emerge. The distance education solutions were heralded as allowing students shine who otherwise had remained in the sidelines of regular instructional practices. Parents of neuro-diverse students told that being away from busy classrooms and the hectic school life had given their children more energy to concentrate on the teaching and learning.
These narratives highlight weak spots in the education system. Similar stories like Emma’s are reported and the distance education solutions are also seen by educators and researchers as giving significant opportunities for rethinking and revising their pedagogical approach to foster diverse students learning and wellbeing. The deputy mayor of Helsinki commented on Emma’s case in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, saying that the existence of such cases is a sign of failure of the school system, which needs to be taken seriously (HS 21.04.2020). School bullying is a regularly reported problem and widely discussed in public in Finland. It is Interesting that it required a collectively shared intense crisis that presented a sudden and perhaps unanticipated solution to a persistent problem of our before-the-crisis world that made the policymakers to comment even to an individual case in such a definite way.
Children as actors who act upon their circumstances
While the views that promote provision of care and protection for children are very important, they can also be seen as limiting the range of positions that children can adopt in relation to the pandemic. However, children’s responses to the COVID-19 have not been limited to just participating in already established ways. Children and youth have also challenged the established boundaries, pushed them and arguably created new positions for themselves amid the pandemic. In the news coverage, these positions have been evident mainly in stories about children and youth who break the rules of physical distancing, by meeting and hanging out in parks. Skateboarders have taken over much of the city space freed by the lack of traffic and commercial life in downtown Helsinki. In newspaper opinion pieces and the social media, this expansion has been condemned and addressed mainly as disruptive and unethical behavior. However, the issue is many-sided. The Ombudsman for children recently voiced her concern that this should be seen also as a question of children’s rights. Accordingly, the democratic debates about the legitimacy of restriction of rights should also consider child perspectives.
The following parental reflection from one of us authors illustrates a less confrontational form of childrens’ agency in their everyday lives.
Our first grader (7-year-old) has not wanted to go to school or any other place close by our home by herself without adults although she knows the area well, the distances are short and it is quite peaceful (not a lot of traffic etc.) But now during this Corona time she has started biking to a close by forest with her friend. They take some snacks with them and spend time there just by themselves. She now also visits her friend (she has one friend that she can visit during the lockdown) and independently walks there and back by herself. She told us how free she feels because of all this. In her words, it feels the same as when she has opened up her ponytail and she can feel the air in her hair.
In this case the loss of contacts during the COVID-19 perhaps made the child push her limits and develop a sense of agency over the close by geographic space. In Finland, children moving around by themselves is common after they have started first grade at age of seven. In general, Finland and other Nordic countries are distinguished from other European countries by the high level of trust that people have for their fellow citizens, according to Eurobarometer surveys (e.g., European Commission, 2018), which has a positive impact on children’s independent activity.
In some cases, we have also seen children and youth exercising their agency by showing compassion, reaching out to and offering their help to neighbors and other people in need. The attached image (Figure 1) is from an apartment building where one of us authors live and it shows an offer for help signed by two nine-year old’s living in the same stairway. In short, the children offer help with daily chores like walking the dog or doing groceries for anybody who might be self-isolated. What these reports and observations tell us is that children are not just passively waiting for adults to take care of the situation, but also trying to actively contribute to improving it.
But what about children’s own perspectives?
A central point that Sommer, Pramling and Hundeide (2010) with their book ask us and others living and working with children to reflect is whether adopting a child perspective is always enough. Do adults’ attempts at representing children’s worlds really capture what is important to them? If so, whose worlds are they? What we have paid attention to in the Finnish discussions is that the voices of small children are often missing. The child perspectives above largely reflect the worlds of school children and often also children coming from dominant cultural backgrounds. While alignment between perspectives might be more common than discrepancies, relying solely on adults’ formulations runs the risk of treating children (and youth) too much as a homogeneous group and overlooking significant disparities between social groups in society.
Sommer and her colleagues (2010) contrast these attempts with what they call children’s perspectives, the way in which children themselves see and represent their experiences in ways that are meaningful for them. In practice, this means letting children control what words, images or other means are used to speak on topics they see relevant, if spoken at all. While for some children (and youth) speaking and communicating for themselves is easier, Sommer, Pramling, and Hundeide’s (2010) point entails an ethical call to aspire to hear and understand also those perspectives that are not easy for us to reach or which might, at first, seem strange and ambiguous (see also Rainio & Marjanovic-Shane, 2013; Hilppö, Lipponen, Kumpulainen & Rajala, 2017). Particularly with smaller, under-school aged children we need to be sensitive and open-minded to hear how they perceive, feel and interpret situations in which they are placed by the adults. The short parental narrative below from one of us authors highlights this well.
Our three-year-old has not really properly met or played with friends or other children of his own age for over a month, not even virtually like his older sister. Although he seems quite fine being at home, today he followed a spider who was locked in between our window panes and told me that he feels very sorry for the spider. How lonely it must be, stuck there, with no friends. And that we here should help him, be his friends. He then sang a self-initiated spider song to the spider but was troubled because he wasn’t sure if it could hear him or not: the spider was not moving or showing any other signs of hearing him. We then showed it pictures of other spiders from a book. Later in the evening we then saw another spider in between the same window panes. Such a shared joy to find it was not alone there but had a friend (and certainly leaving without notice the possible fact that the other spider might end up eating the other one in case they ran out of food). It is possible that this little episode did not particularly relate to his feelings on being disconnected from his peers really but it does reflect something that is going on in his mind now.
Both of the perspectives Sommer and her colleagues (2010) raise are important in themselves and have their own potential for highlighting significant aspects of and for children’s lives. Admittedly, they also are idealized crystallizations of complex relational phenomena, but nonetheless helpful when aspiring to improve children’s lives and their institutions, such as kindergartens and schools and help make them visible and seen amidst the crisis.
Learning from and with children
Research on post-disaster learning suggests that major disruptions seem to put societies in a somewhat paradoxical situation; the need to learn from the crisis and change practices across different societal levels is clear, but yet seldom takes place (Egner, Schorch, & Voss, 2015). One of the argued reasons for this is that the way in which the disasters are framed in post-disaster discussion reflect pre-disaster solutions and ideas. The possibility to create something new, or retain the new that was built during the crisis, is lost in the aftermath.
What can our experiences in the Global North offer for life after COVID-19? On the global scale, the Nordic countries are putting up with the pandemic relatively well. While the pandemic severely halted Finland and its Nordic fellows, its impact has arguably been less disruptive so far than for example in the Unites States. National social welfare, health care and educational systems are currently under immense pressure, but seem to be working nonetheless. This is hardly surprising given that the Nordic welfare state model has a good track record in battling social ailments like poverty, homelessness, or illiteracy (e.g., Hellman, Monni, & Alanko, 2017).
But, to say that all is well in the Nordic welfare states would be too romantic. Cracks have formed in the Nordic countries’ social foundation over the recent decades (e.g., Normann, Rønning, & Nørgaard, 2014). Helsinki, for example, has experienced increasing segregation of schools along social-class lines (Kosunen, Bernelius, Seppänen, & Porkka, 2016), following a bigger trend of political measures not being able to prevent and or do away with social segregation and their repercussions (Andersson et al., 2010) in the Nordic countries. Racism is also a persistent problem in the Finnish society and it has been shown to manifest itself in the structures and everyday practices of the education system (Kurki, 2019; Riitaoja, 2013).
Overall, the different child perspectives presented in different media have brought new light on these issues in public. On one hand, they highlighted how needed the school community can be to fight loneliness and daily struggle of many children. On the other hand, they also highlighted the Janus-faced nature of the system: whereas for many daycare and school represent supportive structures away from despair, for many others they ARE the source of that despair. These issues are certainly not news. The exclusionary nature of school as an organization is well known, studied and reported as is its role in narrowing disparities, especially in the Nordic countries. However, the perspectives also show that new routines, even radically new ones like giving all instruction online, are possible and can have surprisingly positive outcomes for many. While small and possibly hard-to-maintain solutions in the post-covid world, they nonetheless offer some glimpse into what better worlds might lie in the future.
In this sense, “Finland-in-the-throes-of-COVID-19” could then potentially provide informative cases of how diverse activity systems and networks of them, especially within education, are able to react to the massive disruption that COVID-19 represents. Analyzing more closely, or even just documenting, what these responses are, what shapes and forms they take, what possibly falls between the cracks and especially what new this situation produces, is important if we want to learn anything from the current situation. It is not impossible that what becomes visible now helps governments and the civic society to fight for what still remains of the welfare system or invent it anew in ways that we cannot yet see. Listening to children’s perspectives in this learning process is something we might well need to start from.
About the Authors
Jaakko Hilppö works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. He currently conducting research on children’s compassionate projects.
Anna Rainio is a Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in Educational Psychology at the Faculty of Education, University of Helsinki. She is also a vice-chair of the board at the Finnish Society for Childhood Studies.
Antti Rajala works as a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki. He is Book Reviews Editor of Mind Culture and Activity.
Lasse Lipponen is a professor of education, with special reference to early childhood education, at the Faculty of Educational Sciences, University of Helsinki
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