‘You can’t totally avoid accidents. So how hard should you try?’
The question of ‘how hard should you try?’ to control accidents introduces a quixotic question which is grappled with daily by early childhood teachers. In the context of contemporary early childhood settings in Aotearoa New Zealand, young children are expected to be kept ‘safe’ and yet also to take risks through active play. When considered historically, ‘safety’ becomes evident as a socially constructed concept that holds paradoxes and ethical dilemmas. Both ‘play’ and ‘safety’ are difficult to closely define and their meanings shift with context. Drawing on oral history interviews with historic leaders of the early childhood sector in Aotearoa New Zealand, this paper explores how, with the presence of very young children increasingly in institutional settings, ideas about ‘safety’ have shifted. This is evident in how those settings are regulated, and in what is understood as ‘normal’ activities for children, and for adults – parents and teachers. Three overlapping discourses of ‘safety’ are suggested which reflect the sociocultural context, the professional status of early childhood teachers, and existential concerns.
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