Stress and relaxation in early childhood education and care: Experiences of relaxation - The voices of young children in early childhood education and care

Year: 2019

Author: Cooke, Emma, Thorpe, Karen, Clarke, Andrew, Houen, Sandy, Oakes, Candice, Staton, Sally

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The importance of children’s relaxation in their early years is recognised in research and Australian ECEC policy and regulations. However, the research landscape has been dominated by bio-medical approaches to conceptualising relaxation, and children’s own understandings of relaxation have been ignored, despite this being at odds with Australian ECEC policies which prioritise children’s agency and meeting each child’s personal relaxations needs.

Our study, funded by the QLD Department of Education: Education Horizon Grant scheme, sought to address this gap in knowledge by asking: how do children experience relaxation in ECEC? This research was informed by an interpretivist approach which posits that children are competent social actors and experts in their own experiences. We used a child-centric methodology and conducted drawing-prompted, semi-structured group interviews with 46 child participants aged 3-5 years old across six ECEC services at two time points. Children were asked about what it means to relax and what they do to relax.

Children described sensory-rich conceptualisations of relaxation which predominantly pertained to bodily temperature and positive emotions. Three key themes emerged from children’s accounts of relaxation: play, people and place. Children often referenced play as relaxing although the forms of play were diverse: some children emphasised playing alone while others described playing with friends. While most children reported sedentary play as relaxing (e.g. building Lego, listening to music, making puzzles), some children made references to physically active play (e.g. football). Some children relayed that certain people, typically friends and parents, helped them to relax. Finally, place was key in shaping children’s relaxation experiences. Children frequently discussed nature as a place where they could relax.

Young children are capable of understanding relaxation and communicating relaxation preferences. While ECEC policies emphasise children’s agency and meeting children’s individual relaxation needs, our study indicates that such policy aspirations are not always being met in current practices. The ECEC services we visited had places and play resources which children used to relax, but children could only access these resources within the confines of adult generated schedules. Improvements to ECEC practices could include allowing children access to relaxing resources and places throughout the ECEC day and educators engaging children in conversations about their relaxation preferences. Further research is need into how children experience relaxation in inner-city ECEC services where access to nature is limited.