Cultivate doubt

Doubt and undecidability are necessary in order for kindergarten employees to be able to take decisions and make ethical assessments, according to Ann-Sofi Larsen.


Photo: Freddy Wike


Researcher Ann-Sofi Larsen participated in departmental meetings in three different kindergartens. The narratives from these meetings cover a significant share of the pedagogical work in early childhood settings. This is where knowledge about kindergarten content and social interaction is created and shared.

Larsen became aware that staff members’ thought processes about pedagogical practice were constantly being disrupted by resistance on the part of the children. Children never stop challenging adults as regards what is normal and what is correct behaviour.

‘On that account, kindergarten life often moves in unexpected directions for staff members. While this can engender uncertainty and doubt, it also boosts productivity’, contends the researcher.


One of the situations recounted during the interviews took place one day when the boys in the kindergarten turned a doll’s pram upside-down and filled it with clay and water.

Immediately prior to the incident, staff had been talking about how many of the kindergarten’s toys were broken. None of the toys were used as intended. Early childhood educator Hanne started to respond to the pram incident by moving towards the children’s play area to say: ‘Don’t do that! That is a doll’s pram!’

Instead of stopping the children and their play, she stops herself. It is first then, during this pause, that she realises that the bottom of the doll’s pram is being used as a sieve. The children have made a machine for making apple juice! Many children are involved in pressing and straining the apple juice and carrying the clay – or rather the apples – back and forth with tractors, tricycles and trucks.

When the researcher asks why the teacher stopped, Hanne replies: ‘It was then that I recognised all the hard work they were investing in their project. I saw that they were working, and that they were very busy and involved.’

The teacher was uncertain about how to deal with the situation. This is what the researcher brands an “undecidable moment”, and it disrupts staff members’ thoughts about educational work.

‘My research indicates that staff members take such moments into stride. They think about them and use them in narratives that allow critical reflection on their own practices’, elaborates Larsen.


Another example the researcher gives in her study was when Lucas, one of the children, was going to show his teacher how he managed to get onto the roof. ‘We do it like this. We climb up on the fence and then pull ourselves up onto the roof,’ he says, as he sits on the roof of a playhouse, legs dangling, before asking: ‘Shall I show you how we get down again?’

The teacher smiles and nods, but is not sure whether this is the right response. Lucas sits on his behind and slides down elegantly. While this is happening, the teacher is confronted by a colleague who says: ‘I see your children are up on the roof of the playhouse. We have a rule that says the roof is off limits.’

The teacher makes it clear that he is rather uncertain about whether he is doing the right thing, what the potential consequences may be, and how he should respond. Should he be delighted like the children? Should he assume control of the activity? Should he comply with the kindergarten’s rules? Or perhaps there entirely different potential reactions?


Predetermined knowledge in the sense of this is how we do things here, can easily be perceived as rules for how adults should deal with children, and what should apply in different situations.

‘When Lucas climbs onto the roof, there is a shift in the relationship between the adult and the child. The notion that the adult teaches, imparts and transfers knowledge to the child is disrupted. The child is allowed to take a position where his knowledge helps provide insight for adults.

‘For that reason, something would be lost if the teacher failed to ask whether it might be possible to react in other ways’, Larsen points out. ‘Kindergarten teachers’ judgement calls allow room for responses that are not predetermined. This does not prevent them from acting, but rather opens opportunities for critical reflection. Such processes are nevertheless not without problems. Early childhood educators talk about the processes as challenging and demanding, at the same time as they feel they are doing something important and right.

‘If kindergarten staff fail to make judgement calls in situations as they arise, they are in danger of acting instrumentally. The goal is not to avoid rules in kindergarten, but for staff to continuously re-evaluate the rules, reasons and restrictions again and again.’


Today, people expect the time children spend in kindergarten to be filled with predetermined content.

‘Never before have so many taken an interest in kindergarten content. The impact of predictability and management by objectives can serve to undermine staff’s independence and authority to make judgement calls and choices.

‘It is critical when personnel lack the time they need to reflect on their own practices. In a field of early childhood education that strives to promote recognition for its complexity and diversity, time to reflect on practices accounts for a significant share of staff members’ responsibility.’