Without a word

Humans are social creatures. Small children try out different ways of being social long before they have fully developed their language.



Dag Øystein Nome is associate professor at the university of Agder. He has written a doctoral dissertation about the youngest children’s non-verbal social repertoire. In 2014 he did a month fieldwork in two Norwegian kindergartens. He made video observations of two groups, each of them with 14 children aged between one and three years old. The objective was to study how small children explore and try out different ways of being social.

“The most important thing I found, was that the social life between these children to a very large extent seems to be independent of pedagogical intervention,” Nome tells.

“They have a capacity or some tools enabling them to find out how they can be together in big groups and experience something meaningful independently of the pedagogical agenda.”

In four scientific articles Nome has looked at some of the tools the youngest children use when they are together in the kindergarten. It’s not about verbal communication with words and phrases, but rather a spontaneous way of being together, independent of language.


The first article looks at the kindergarten as a public place. Here Nome studies how children try to create more private rooms and relations. He describes how one child uses her toy pony in order to create private situations she can control. Since there is no question about who’s the owner, having access to it might almost be experienced as a private loan, according to Nome.

He also talks about private promises to visit someone in their home as a possibility for creating intimacy. Other options are to stick heads closely together, whisper or just hide away in small rooms and cells. All these strategies are about creating private rooms, close relations and building alliances. Where alliances are built, one risks being left outside.

“From time to time the game is characterized by everyone playing with everybody, then suddenly some kids become best friends. Then they often will withdraw and try to protect the relation by rejecting other kids who want to be with them,” Nome says.

“It seems like they do this as a way of taking care of something fragile which easily could be destroyed.”

Nome believes this should not be considered as antisocial behaviour. Learning to understand which relations one ought to stay away from, is an important part of the social exploration. The staff should guide the children and show them how to say no in appropriate ways and keep an eye on situations where they ought to intervene. If a child is rejected over and over again, one should of course do something.

Nome compares the children’s use of sounds with an orchestra. At times the whole orchestra plays together, or the children play solo parts or counterpoints occur.

Playing together and solo parts

In another article Nome describes how the children use sounds, rhythms and movements in their social interaction. Often, they use sounds and rhythms to create togetherness and take the initiative to a common game. Nome describes several situations where a child begins to make a song, a melody or rhythm which the others can join.

“If you want to take part in that activity, just sing and you are in. This is something we know from adult life. Look at football, how people sing at the tribunes. If you join the song, you are a part of the emotional experience and thus part of the community,” he says.

Or it might the other way around. Sometimes the sound is a way to interrupt a common play, to attain attention and an initiative to do something new. Nome describes a situation where a boy shakes a plastic apple in a kettle to make sounds wanting both to scare and play with two other boys. It is a way to initiate a game where he chases the others through the room while he has all the attention.

Nome compares the children’s use of sounds with an orchestra. At times the whole orchestra plays together, or the children play solo parts or counterpoints occur.


Nome wonders how the kindergarten can make room for the social life. “It doesn’t mean one has to do new and different things. It’s about taking care of the time with free play and reduce the eagerness to fill the days with pedagogical content. It would be useful for the staff to be reminded of the pedagogical and social potential in everyday situations and happenings”.

“By discovering the social attempts done by children in different situations, a substantial part of the kindergarten’s mandate will be fulfilled. I believe kindergartens are under pressure to implement standardized pedagogical ways of working, and maybe this study can represent a different approach to the understanding of pedagogics in kindergartens,” he writes.