• The Pedagogue

The Rights of the Child.... How can we embody Janus Korzcak's vision?

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

An article written after a workshop I ran at

The 3rd International Congress of Children's Rights

The 8th International Korczak Conference

Warsaw, September 2017


I intend to publish posts on Korczak, Freire, Malaguzzi and Boal in the near future



Introduction Korczak’s Magna Carta of children’s rights calls for “the right of the child to die prematurely ” (Korczak, 2007). Despite being written in a time and place where the socioeconomic conditions were quite tragic, I suggest that, in today’s Great Britain, Korczak’s words need to be stripped from sensationalist interpretations and understood as a plea to consider the values, ideas and attitudes that are projected onto children by adults. In inviting us to consider what is different in the death of a child compared to that of an adult, Korczak highlights the particular status of children in society, what kind of qualities and activities this status grants access to and promotes for the child, but more importantly in terms of rights, what it precludes children from doing and accessing.

Korczack with children in his Warsaw orphanage

A debate on children’s rights should dwell on this question of the status of children within society, and what kind of taboos and activities are culturally developed. This mapping out of the place of children within society is but a first step for anybody wanting to uphold children’s rights. The question remains that bringing about social change is rather a contested and political territory, and while pioneers like Korczak can show us the way, much remains to be done. How can each adult or adult professional working with children embed children’s rights in our current society? Importantly, the status of children within a society is not created in a vacuum, but is embedded in relationships between individual members of a society, and different groups within it. This is where I suggest some of the answers may lie. My professional experience and training in social pedagogy, rather than referring to Korczak’s work specifically, draw on Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of relationships (Petrie, 2011) and Loris Malaguzzi’s ‘rich child’ (Moss, 2011). I use social pedagogy as a reflective framework that removes some of the tendencies to separate theory from practice. The image of the ‘rich child’ and a ‘pedagogy of relationships’ echo some of the questions raised by Korczak’s work on the Rights of the Child. Those two theoretical and practical principles have guided my thinking in how to bring about social change with regard to children’s rights, and I will then explain how this can be promoted. In order to do so, I first consider Malaguzzi’s rich child as a theoretical concept, then link it with current perceptions of children within British society. Once those rather abstract conceptualisations of and about children are outlined, I then proceed to extract from Freire’s pedagogy of relationship a tool drawn from Marxist theory that promotes the relationship between “word and world”. This is referred to by Freire and others as ‘ascending from the abstract to the concrete’. This theoretical tool has been applied practically by ‘pedagogues of the Oppressed’ in areas such as street theatre and other form of democratic dialogue. This will form the basis of the reflection on practice that can be facilitated through ‘Theatre of the Oppressed’ techniques. This embodied form of reflective practice can support professionals to understand how values, attitudes and practices are embedded in our relationships with children and to enable participants’ understanding of this oppression, its transmission, and look at possibilities to transform it in daily interactions.


1. What is your ‘image of the child’, and how does it support the rights of the child? I first came across working with ‘an image of the child’ as a teacher for children with special needs in Camphill Schools, Aberdeen, Scotland. During multidisciplinary meetings with other teachers, therapists and carers, I learnt how “to form images that engender a compassionate personal attitude in those [like myself] learning to live with and love a child with special needs” (Weihs, 2000, p. 4). To me, this image was not an abstract exercise but a guiding principle that could be called upon again and again in my daily contact with children in my class. For example, during such a meeting the music therapist described how a young man took great pleasure in playing the trumpet, how that affected his posture and how projecting the sound gave him a sense of direction. When with this young man during moments of intense anxiety translated in aggressive behaviour, I imagined him as a trumpeter to guide my response to his behaviour and support him through this difficult moment. This gave me a tangible experience of the power of working with such ‘images of the child’. Just as I need a guiding image in my practice, researchers who strive toward social justice have attempted to develop such images, despite having long been criticised for a lack of objectivity because of the necessity they find themselves in to bring into their work the values, attitudes and personal intentions they want to see at work in society. From Rousseau to Pestalozzi, to Korzak through to Piaget, educationalists create an image of the child (Agbenyega, 2009; Gupta, 2006; Larkin-Lieffers, 2010). In social pedagogy, the ‘image of the rich child’ borrowed from Reggio Emilia’s Early years pedagogy plays that role. In this section, I first look at the ‘image of the rich child’ as formulated by L. Malaguzzi, before turning to other images of the child that stand behind current educational practice in the UK.

1. The ‘image of the rich child’ Over many years as Director of the Scuole d’Infanzia - municipality of Reggio Emilia, Italy, Malaguzzi has spoken and written at length about his early years pedagogy. He believed that “a declaration [about the image of the child] is not only a necessary act of clarity and correctness, it is the necessary premise for any pedagogical theory, and any pedagogical project.” (Cagliari et al., 2016, p. 374) While Malaguzzi gives prominence to developing his image of the child, he is aware that this is quite a rare endeavour within the fields of education and psychology. He makes no qualms about the political consequences of not doing this work: “to put it crudely, I repeat, unidentified children [whose image has not been clarified] who are declared ‘poor’ are more convenient than children who are identified as rich. (Cagliari et al., 2016, p. 376) To Malaguzzi, working from the image of the rich child is quite literally holding the key to upholding children’s rights. So, what then, is Malaguzzi’s rich child? In an article translated in English in 1993, he stands against separation and loneliness, professional distancing between parties within an educational setting as well as a top down decision making process. “Instead our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent, and most of all, connected to adults and other children.” (Malaguzzi, 1993, p. 10) The relational aspect of Malaguzzi’s rich child is prominent. Through relating to peers, adults and the world around them, children learn and grow. This is not the controversial aspect of Malaguzzi’s rich child, which he described as intently political. Supporting growth and learning is indeed the focus of any educational endeavour, yet Malaguzzi’s emphasis on context sets his project apart. By portraying the rich child as powerful, strong and competent, he shifts the adult’s gaze from the adult the child is about to become to the child as a being in the present. Malaguzzi is not the only one to highlight this difference (James & Prout, 1997, pp. 202–219), yet he clearly articulates the emancipatory potential that the image of the rich child has. This shift from becoming to being is required when working from the image of the rich child, but as Malaguzzi points out, this is far from common. What would working with the image of the rich child mean practically? I do not believe the answer to the question can be found in copying projects and formulas found to have been successful in other contexts, but that, as I will explain in the second part of this paper, those solutions need to be re-invented and re-imagined by all of us, in our everyday situations and relationships with children and young people. This is because, and Malaguzzi was well aware of this, other strong –though less deliberate- images of the child are at play within society. What are they? 2. What other images of the child influence professional practice in Britain today? In contrast to Malaguzzi’s rich child, other theories used by “childhood professionals” reflect quite different images of the child. At present, I would like to focus on 2 different themes pertaining to children within British society. To do so, I used mainly work done within the “New Sociology of Childhood”. It is a strand of childhood studies aiming at understanding the place of children in society using ethnographic and sociological methodologies. Researchers working within this field have a strong commitment towards social justice, and children’s rights in particular.

a) Needs versus Rights The beginnings of the New Sociology of Childhood are understood as roughly coinciding with 1989 (Mayall, 2013), the year in which the concept of the child in need (Department for Education and Science, 1989), as well as the rights of the child (United Nations, 1989) have been enshrined in law, in Britain and internationally. What is interesting in putting both those conceptions of the child side by side is that it raises questions on children’s capacity, in a continuum that sees them as either vulnerable or as the bearer of rights. At one end the children are in need of support because of their biological immaturity (Moss, Dillon, & Statham, 2000, p. 240) or, at the other end, are granted rights so that their minority status can be overcome. However, the reality of children’s rights still emphasises the incapacity or vulnerability of the child as it is more geared towards rights to welfare rather than rights around freedom (Archard, 2003, p. 12). It can hardly be doubted that the New Sociology of Childhood’s declared aim to “shift to seeing children as social actors” (James, 2009, p. 34) was an attempt at overcoming this passive and dependent image of the child (Watson, 2009, p. 5). The impact this has had on society’s attitude towards children is however, less clear. For example, the recent Children and Family Act 2014 (CAFA 2014) (Department for Education, 2014) is still conceptually based on the Children’s Act 1989 and it could be argued that it makes use of a deficit model of the child as opposed to a more socially constructed one (Department for Education, Ministry of Justice, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Department for Work and Pensions, & Department of Health, 2014). In this act, a distinction between adults and children’s rights is being made. Children’s rights are mostly about access to provision and protection (Alderson, John, & Gayton, 2008, p. 78). When rights to participation are defined, this is different to adults. A good example of this is a looked-after-child’s right to contact with his or her birth family. In the CAFA 2014, children’s contact with their parents has to be decided with consideration to the safety and best interest of the child (Department for Education et al., 2014, p. 21), while parental rights to contact with their child who is looked-after are spoken about as an entitlement (ibid, p. 24). This small example reveals how the promotion of children’s rights cannot be seen as a counterbalance to the prevalent image of the ‘neediness’ of children, as children’s rights are still framed by, and in relation to, their adult caregivers (Alderson et al., 2008, p. 176).

b) The sacred versus the financial value of child. Another continuum of themes in apparent opposition in the literature highlights the worth of children in society. Is the child sacred, priceless, or has the child a financial and political place in society?


A publicity campaign in London underground © Care International (Care International, 2015)

This image’s meaning plays on this ambivalent relationship: the innocent Elsa has to work and live in dire conditions. The layers of association are multiple here and laden with racial connotations, but I would like to focus on the common assumption that children should not have “drink problems” (i.e. alcoholism), should not work, and the possibility of ‘purifying’ Elsa that is given to the donor to repair this disturbing anomaly. The innocent, white, natural child is a theme that has been recurrent since the 18th century in the West and started with Rousseau’s Emile (Neiman, 2015; Taylor, 2013). This idyllic vision has had long lasting effects on our conception of childhood (Stables, 2008, pp. 67–75). First of all this innocence implied that race, sexuality as well as rationality (Cassidy, 2007, pp. 63–75; Piper, 2000) are mutually excluding each other, as the latter are presented as maturing in the child and only fully developed in adulthood. Containing the child within this “sacred” sphere is not without difficulties, as the will of children can lead them to act in ways that are in contradiction to this sacred, innocent construction. This needs to be “tamed” (Stables, 2008, pp. 100–101; Watson, 2009, pp. 6–28). Aided by this sacralisation, and often associated with the rise of capitalism, authors have described how childhood has gradually been restricted to certain domains of society (Cassidy, 2007, pp. 45–56; Leverett, 2011). Specifically, representations of children are absent from the economic sphere (Watson, 2009, p. 2), and if one is presented, just as the image of Elsa is in the campaign above, this is shocking. This tension between the sacred child and the value of her contribution to society are expressions of questions around the contribution of children to society. This is strongly held by adults who are in control of the power balance, and problematised through the subversive nature of childhood (Blundell, 2012, p. 28;159). To conclude, it is interesting to hear what a sixteen year old girl from the United States thinks about this: We do need adults’ support in some way. We need adults to give us money, because we kids have no money. We need adults to drive us around and feed us when we have meetings and things like that. But it’s very important that kids have their own groups, that kids are speaking to kids. If adults are involved there are too many just adult-kids conflicts that come into play. (Grunevald, 1985. p 15 in Engeström, 2014, p. 128) Many more dialectical relationships are noticeable in practice and reflected in the academic literature. For example, the developmental conceptualisation of the child as opposed to the child as meaning-maker may be interesting to consider. The implications of such a relationship for special education are vast (Reid & Weatherley Valle, 2005) may emerge during the workshop.


3. Freire’s pedagogy of relationships: how to promote a reading of the world that minimises oppressive relationships. I have presented two continuum of contradictory themes and examined how they were manifesting in practice. Those dilemmas present themselves as questions, such as “ why do I want to discipline this child, and how do I do it?” or how can I keep this young person at risk of sexual exploitation safe, while upholding her right to free movement? Freire’s intention when presenting themes in dialectical opposition is to understand the questions they are meant to address. With regard to Rights versus Needs, I do not believe that capacity is the central question that is being addressed. Indeed, if rights to welfare are to be granted to the child, this still places the child in a passive position, presumably still because of biological immaturity. Rather, it is the dependency of the child to the adult that binds those two apparently opposed positions. Freire calls those “limit situations”, and he sees them as key to understanding reality critically and overcoming oppression: In general, a dominated consciousness which has not yet perceived a limit-situation in its totality apprehends only its epiphenomena and transfers to the latter the inhibiting force which is the property of the limit situation. […] When people lack a critical understanding of their reality, apprehending it in fragments which they do not perceive as interacting constituents elements of the whole, they cannot truly know that reality. To truly know it, they would have to reverse their starting point: they would need to have a total vision of the context in order subsequently to separate and isolate its constituent elements and by means of this analysis achieve a clearer perception of the whole. (Freire, 1996, p. 85) Later on in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, as well as in other publications, Freire dwells on this methodology of “ascending from the abstract to the concrete” (Freire, 1996, p. 86, 2005, p. 35) as fundamental to his critical pedagogy. It is this process I suggest could be used to make Malaguzzi’s rich child a tool to overcome the oppressive relationship between children and adults. To use Freiean terminology, the ‘rich child’ can be used to decode the existential relation between adults and children and through this ‘reading of the world’ understand the mechanisms that keep children within their narrowly defined place in British society. Before suggesting how this could be done practically, it is important to understand what this process entails.

4. Ascending from the abstract to the concrete: a theoretical tool to understand the fullness of our oppressive relationship with children Freire ‘ascending from the abstract to the concrete’, is a methodology used by Marx to come to his understanding of the capitalist system. It has also been used within education as a learning process (Allman, 1999; Davydov, 1988; Engeström, Sannino, & Virkkunen, 2014; Vianna & Stetsenko, 2011). The process is, in a nutshell, one that takes the analyst on a journey from her sensory perception and any knowledge gained through contemplation to an abstract notion, a generalisation or a word that is then confronted with social reality and its understanding checked, enhanced and changed by observing and understanding its relationships to other aspects of real life. In order to understand a concept truly within this specific, dialectic methodology, an examination of the relationship between separate chaotic sensory perceptions is the beginning of this journey. This should lead to an abstract notion that will only take the shape of a concrete concept by being tested against reality. In this mode of thinking, abstract and concrete do not hold their common sense meaning. To take an example, a group of workshop participants were asked what their ‘image of the rich child’ is. Descriptions related to innocence, capacity as well as imagination, with one participant saying that “a child who's rich is a child who has opportunities to be part of the world, to be social, to be engaged in things but also to have a place and to be respected. That would be my rich child”. That participant then was asked to dramatise a dilemma, or limit-situation she experienced when working as a residential care worker with children with special needs and disabilities. She chose a situation where she was in a disagreement with a colleague over what was in the best interest of a child. In the specific scene she depicted, the child was present, however when transforming the situation she used play to separate what adults and children were doing and to be able to speak of the needs of that child without her being present. When this discrepancy between her “image of the rich child” and her use of play as a purposeful means to segregate that child from adult’s conversations, her awareness of the relationship between adults and children took a new dimension. This process was difficult for her (she described what she had done as ‘almost cruel’) yet through this new awareness she should be able to choose a different course of action in a similar situation should she wish to do so. In order to fully understand the concept of ‘ rich child’ in its concrete reality, the process needs to be repeated until all aspects of ‘rich child’ have been explored. As mentioned earlier, writers others than Freire have used the process of ascending from the abstract to the concrete to facilitate learning in different settings and different audiences. They mostly involve textual and discourse analysis of group sessions facilitating the reformulation of an abstract notion to its concrete application within a specific setting (for examples of studies using Cultural Historical Activity Theory, see Virkkunen & Newnham, 2013, pp. 117–238). One aspect that is overlooked when focusing mostly on verbal and written exchanges is the importance of embodied action, yet this has been shown to play an important role in adults’ relation to children, where oppression can easily take place (Castañeda, 2002; Henry, 2014). Freire however offers a way to overcome this by suggesting that the codification of situation can be done in a variety of channels, i.e. visual, tactile, auditory (Freire, 1996, p. 102). Indeed, Augusto Boal, the famous Brazilian dramatist and Vereador (member of Parliament) of Rio de Janeiro (Boal, 1992) used his Theatre of the Oppressed as part of Freire’s pedagogy. It is Boal’s theatre techniques that offer a practical way to explore the concrete ways in which children’s place in society is embedded in their relationship to adults, and to become conscious of possible oppressions.

a. Boal’s theatre of the Oppressed Boal worked as part of Freire’s literacy programme in Peru (Boal, 2008, pp. 95–96). While being careful not to let himself be defined by a single theoretical affiliation, Boal (2008, pp. 1-40; 70-93) is very aware of dialectical thinking and its application to theatre. This is linked, for Boal, to theatre’s long history of influencing and shaping society. Further, Boal is sensitive to a movement between abstract ideas, such as virtues, and their concrete embodiment through the actions and social interactions of a character (Boal, 1992, p. 174, 2008, p. 76; 149). While he does not refer directly to ascending from the abstract to the concrete, there is a very clear awareness of the potential of his theatre techniques to support exploration of the links between ideas individual hold in mind and their quite different social reality. Boal’s innovation is to refocus the role of the spectator from being the passive recipient of a cathartic experience portrayed by the main character of the play to becoming actor within the plot and influencing the arc of the story. Boal does this through portraying the activity of a single protagonist, whose role can be taken and/or directed by members of the audience or “spect-actors”. Spect-actors will therefore be in a position to rehearse different course of action to the problem faced by the protagonist. Boal describes this as “ training in real action (Boal, 2008, p. 98)”as the choice of the problem faced by the protagonist is carefully chosen to reflect the existential situation of the spect-actors. The closer to the participants’ social reality this is, the more potentially subversive the technique can be. One specific technique, called “Image theatre” “allows the group to concentrate very directly on a single problem, a single form of oppression, a single concrete case. Society is represented en bloc, in one single image (Boal, 1992, p. 174) By using a dilemma, a contradiction experienced in their daily life and working out steps that could be taken to reach an ideal solution, the participants are constantly working through the practical limitations they encounter in daily life. They are also gaining access, through a group process and dramatic representation, to wider, social meanings and significances that help them step out of their automatic response and seek novel ways of acting within the given situation. The example of a residential care worker using play to segregate a child from adults looking after her has been obtained through the process of “Image theatre”. This was done within a single workshop, however the process of teasing out the concrete implications of working from the image of the ‘rich child’ requires further analysis and a process drawn in time.


Conclusion Participants to the workshop will be led through games and exercises taken from Boal’s arsenal of the theatre of the oppressed with the view to gain awareness of the values, attitudes and meaning they attribute to children. This offers a taster of a longer, more complex process toexamine the concrete social realiy of Malaguzzi's 'rich child'. The process of ascending from the abstract to the concrete cannot be purely intellectual, it needs to be borne out in practice and the confines of the workshops do not allow to develop its full potential. I have been looking into ways of using aspects of Cultural Historical Activity Theory to further that process with professionals working with children so that they are given the space in which they can examine how their concept of ‘child’ is embedded in practice and decide what needs to be adapted to reflect Malaguzzi’s ‘rich child’. The workshop will be attended by participants whose cultural backgrounds are varied. The cultural and legal references used in this article are taken from British, and more widely anglo-saxon culture and society. One of the reasons why I believe that upholding children’s rights is a personal as well as a social commitment is that the process used herthrough which values and cultural meanings are embedded in social action and interaction


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