I watched a child in the playground not long ago, looking upwards with an expression of utter concentration. “What’s the sky made of?” she asked.

We who are so old and wise that we have forgotten about these unanswerable queries are either entranced by such questions or mildly frustrated by the way in which they are framed. Young children make assumptions about the world based on limited experience, and they handle their understanding within a limited use of language. But in asking such questions children are open to any possibility, and trust that the questions will be answered truthfully.

It is this openness and trust which is the keystone to much of the learning and teaching which goes on in key stage 1. It also places a burden of responsibility on teachers to be truthful, while finding an explanation which is couched in language children can understand, and which helps them to make sense of new experiences without being threatened by them.

We might have a go at explaining what the sky is made of – but I wonder whether we’re in touch with the meaning of the question? Does the five or six year old have the same concept of the sky as we do? Many times have I drawn children’s attention to the horizon line, during art or science or geography lessons, but the children’s pictures almost unfailingly represent the sky as something which rests blue-ly above and separate from the scene below. If the sky is something which is separate from the earth in this way, how can it be composed of the same sorts of gases and airs as those all around us? Or, even more strangely, of the graduated absence of any such airs and gases? How can we explain what the sky is made of if we don’t have a shared understanding of what the sky is?
As teachers, we are constantly aware of the importance of relating our teaching to the children’s own experience – of making it 'real'. The truth is that children experience far more than their own 'real life'.  drawing

The television, songs, stories, magazines, adult conversation, all contribute to children's perception of reality, and for many children, these vicarious experiences are as much a part of reality as what happens to them on a Monday morning on the way to school [Jill Murphy's 'On the Way to School' gives us a taste of that wonderful cross-over between imagination, suggestion and reality]. This capacity for recognising the reality in others' experiences supports children in developing empathy, which is another of the concerns of key stage 1, and as teachers we welcome opportunities to expand children's horizons in this way. However, we are faced with a dilemma: how do we translate 'second hand' reality truthfully? How do we sustain the trust and openness while helping children recognise that not everything is equally 'real' for them, even though it impacts on their understanding and perception of the world?

These questions become particularly important when we are dealing with life-changing events such as the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. What was, and is, a terrifyingly real event for the people who were there, was a shocking but distant reality for those of us who heard and read about it in the media. For many of the young children in our key stage 1 classrooms, it was experienced as something real Ð evidenced in the level of concerned response of the adults around them - but not necessarily recognised to be distant. [One five-year old boy would not get into the bath after hearing a detailed explanation of how the wave had washed homes and people away, and others had tears and nightmares.] For some children it was a story, like so many stories they hear and see, which sound plausible but do not relate to their own direct experience of reality.

Most children respond to pain and distress sympathetically; it is part of the socialisation process. It is challenging to respond to something at a distance, or when you are confused about how real it is.

In an education system which claims as one of its purposes to "help pupils to be responsible and caring citizens capable of contributing to the development of a just society" [National Curriculum 2000], it is incumbent on us as teachers to help children make sense of these events, and then to support their struggle to respond. Most young children in the UK have not experienced disaster on the scale of the tsunami, but many have experienced what for them are personal disasters. Family break-up, death of a parent or grandparent or moving away from friends, can feel life-changing when you are six. It is tempting to belittle such 'disasters' in the light of those which impact on thousands, but it is through children's recognition of their own feelings that they come to understand those of others. They can begin to see that the feelings they have are real, and that for the people far away the same feelings are also real.

Is this the truth? When children ask us "what happened in the tsunami?" can we find a level of reality to which they can truthfully relate? I believe that trying to give them a sense of the horror, death and destruction is not going to help them understand what the experience was like for those who were there. They are not yet sufficiently able to distance that reality, so can feel very afraid. Fear is not an emotion which leads to empathy and caring in most small children. But there is a truth, which can be expressed in simple language, about the feelings which people across the world hold in common.

Everything we do is experienced as a reality in the way we feel it. Developing children's empathy is an early step on the road to them becoming educated and caring citizens. Supporting their understanding of the different contexts in which people are afraid, happy, excited and angry helps them to see that people live in different realities but hold much in common. People experience different events but share the same sort of responses.

This understanding is as valuable a starter to global citizenship as a recognition that people have different cultural traditions, even in the same city; that we trade goods with other parts of the world; that we live the same life-cycle as people everywhere; that we are all responsible for the sustainability of the planet. Children's knowledge of the world grows dramatically throughout their Primary years, and by the end of key stage 2 they have a more comfortable grasp of what impact can be made on their own lives by world events. But it is in key stage 1 particularly that they struggle with distinguishing their own reality from that of others, and either of these realities from fiction. At the same time, they are uniquely open to the potential of an emotional understanding. It seems to me most useful to work with the realities they, and we, know to be theirs, in order to find and explore their connection with the wider community.

Download a presentation by Mary offering suggesting some of the hallmarks of global learning with young children.

This presentation was given as part of a Tide~ conference on the theme of Young Children and Global Citizenship ~ Space to think.  It raises questions abut the kind of experiences young children need if they are to have ‘thinking space’, and about the kind of learning environments and teacher-child relationships which best enable these.

Further ideas about what these hallmarks might mean in practice are shared in the Tide~ resource Young children and global citizenship

"Some people say that there are people living on this big round ball, but I don't believe it!"    Y2 child examining a globe