2012, Volume 15, Research Articles

Airplane Grows in the Tummy of Clouds..

Article Index

nzrece journal


Original Research Paper
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Airplane Grows in the Tummy of Clouds: Living Through Relations in the Early Years of Life 

By Karen Guo
Univeristy of Waikato

Full reference
Guo, K. (2012). Airplane grows in the tummy of clouds: Living through relations in the early years of life. NZ Research in Early Childhood Education Journal, 15, 31-41. Retrieved from http://www.childforum.com/research/2012-nzrece-journal-articles/884-relations-in-the-early-years-of-life.html



Using a child’s expression that illustrates his mental image of constituted relations of living things, the author conceptualizes relationality, an interrelated view of being, and its importance for early childhood education. The difference between relation and interaction, and the significance of inter-human relationship are discussed as significant aspects for early childhood teachers to understand as they work with children. In particular, this paper seeks to provide insights into the potential contribution of relationality towards early childhood teaching practice. 

 Key words:  Relationality, child view, teaching practice.



One day, my three year old son said, “Airplane grows in the tummy of clouds. Mum lives in the tummy of airplane. Baby stays in the tummy of mum’s”. A baby, as my son sees it, is somewhat related to clouds. He has expressed ideas like this on numerous occasions. Over the past years of raising this little boy, I have been fascinated by his hypotheses or discoveries about many mutually constituted relations. It seems that for him, “beings, or indeed any things or elements, are understood and generated only in relation to others” (Netherwood, Buchanan, Stocker & Palmer, 2006, p. 250). This is exactly the point revolving around the topic of relationality. Using his words as an example, this article situates relationality in early childhood teaching practice, providing reasons why a pedagogy of relations should be developed in early childhood education. 



There are generally two forms of relationality, the weak and strong (Slife, 2004). Within the weak form, relations are objective. The ‘relating’ process consists of interactions, but the interacting objects are independent individuals. They tend to only “act on each other from the outside” (p. 158). Much of what happens is simply a contact. The contacting parties position themselves as separate from each other. In Slife’s words, “weak relationality is ultimately a type of individualism or automism” (p. 158).

In strong relationality, “relationships are relational ‘all the way down’” (Slife, 2004, p. 159). Many, if not all the aspects of a being can be conceptualized along a relational line and they are transformable by relations. Using my son’s example cited above, clouds can become a tummy when relating to an airplane. Strong relationality, in its deepest sense, concerns the influence of connections on the connecting things. Cassirer (1953, p. 36) told us that “things are not assumed as independent existences present anterior to any relation, but…gain their whole being… in and with the relations”. A unique feature of the strong relationality in comparison with its weak counterpart is that surrounding others are fundamental sources of the existence of an individual.

The theoretical basis to strong relationality is, thus, essentially intersubjective, an explanation of how a state of being is created through constant impacts of the others. The argument developed in this concept challenges the assumption that separateness or boundedness is an appropriate way of denoting existence, living and being (Blackman, 2007). The relational paradigm does not accept that an existence is fixed and independent of its surroundings; rather there are continuous constructions of the self through others.

A relational way of being is promoted in many cultural groups. This orientation reflects a collective view that is grounded in a position of community of learning. Markus and Lin point out (1999) that “in many of the cultures of the world-including China, Japan, Korea, and South Asia as well as those of Africa, much of the Middle East, and Central and South Africa- the person is inherently and fundamentally connected to others” (p. 309).

In Maori worldview, human beings are part of the earth. The dimensions of God and Universe are essential components of one’s capacity to function. These physical and spiritual connections decentre people from their roles as the core of the universe by representing them as being simultaneously enmeshed in the coexistence of their surroundings, which is visible or not (Marsden, 2003).

This rhetoric of interrelation requires us to understand the role of others as vital parts of one’s existence, in line with the strong form of relationality. Within this conception, one’s connection with others defines its being. This concept has significant implications for early childhood education. It shows that young children’s learning has much to do with developing relations. Early childhood education, within this frame, functions as a unity of diversities, where mutuality, respect, reciprocity and equity are essential aspects of children’s learning and development.

For the rest of the article, I distinguish between ‘relation’ and ‘interaction’, two commonly used relational terms. I explore human relations. These ideas then will be used as a basis for the theorization of a pedagogical position on teachers’ work with children.


Relation and interaction

Relation seems fairly easy to understand since it is a familiar subject. For many, it is constituted within interactions or social practices (Hinde, 1996). While it makes sense to say and think about interaction when considering relation, the assumption that relation and interaction are similar terms is misleading. Interaction is only one part of a relation.

Interactions are temporal events, whereas relations are ongoing, dynamic and involving processes (Hinde, 1996). A series of interactions constitute a relation. The nature, pattern, strength, frequency and the diversity of these interactions determine the quality of a relation. The point here is that a relation exists only when earlier interactions of the partners influence later ones. Another related point is, then, a single interaction does not make a relation. There are many interactional occasions when the circumstances are such that to carry on the interactions is simply impossible. It is only in the light of in-depth connections across times, boundaries and spaces that a relation becomes possible.


Human relations

The idea that interaction is not the same as relation also appears in the literature on human relations. According to Buber (1988), human relations fall into two dimensions: the social dimension and the interhuman dimension. One way of distinguishing between these dimensions is to think of them as rooted within two different social practices: sharing and integration. The social dimension is essentially individualistic, in that it refers to “shared experiences and reactions but not necessarily any kind of personal or existential relation” (Buber, 1988, p. 63). By contrast, the interhuman dimension is related, being essentially concerned with the nature of interconnections between individuals. The notion of interhuman revolves around the connection of whole beings (Sidorkin, 1995). It encompasses the aspects of recognition, mutuality and transformation, and therefore offers a more holistic conceptualization than the narrower, more individualistic social dimension. Interhuman is concerned with equity and partner relationships (Sidorkin, 1995).

The attempts at recognition and an ethics of otherness involve a commitment to respond not only to one’s own uniqueness but also the distinct set of roles and traits of the others. Drawing on Slife’s notion of “community of depth” (2004, p. 168), interhuman relations establish a true community. They build on differences and lead to changes. The very idea of interhuman relations carries with it a number of significant undertakings: connecting, cooperating, converging, and changing.

Within the interhuman conception, ‘others’ are understood as a diverse and multifaceted collective.  “Every significant other you bring into the relation has a flock of other significant others behind her back. In the interhuman we communicate to the throng of different people... and ultimately, to the entire world of human beings (Sidorkin, 1995, para. 15). For this reason, we are each constituted by others, as well as the others of others (Buber, 1988; McMamee & Gergen, 1999). Thus, building interhuman relations is not a matter of relating to a single partner but of a complex relational world of another being.


Early childhood pedagogy of relations

Attending to relations

Consideration of relationality gives rise to significant pedagogical insights for working with young children. From this perspective, early childhood pedagogy should pay as much attention as possible to assisting children to learn “through responsive and reciprocal relationships with people, places and things” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 14). Such a pedagogy of relation is premised on a belief that it is important to see each child as a nexus of relations and to help the child strengthen these relations.

But how do early childhood teachers provide children with these relationships? We now recognize that the above quotation from the New Zealand Ministry of Education has only served as a taken-for-granted principle (Education Review Office, 2008). Most early childhood teachers practise it as a ‘given’ without reflecting more philosophically on the relationality it implies. The point is that when teachers work with children, or talk with them, their relationships may not become responsive and reciprocal. The relationships are ‘real’ only to the extent that teachers are engaged in the ‘real world’ of the children. Baker, Grant and Morlock (2008) remind us that real relationships between teachers and children have a high degree of closeness, warmth, trust and a low degree of conflict. This kind of relationship does not rule out teacher management of children’s inappropriate behaviours so that they can avoid conflicts. Instead, it highlights the importance of teachers’ knowledge about how different values and beliefs may impact on learners and their learning (Timperley & Alton-Lee, 2008).

Problems regarding the implementation of responsive and reciprocal teacher-children relationships could also arise because early childhood pedagogy has been heavily influenced by behaviourist psychology, which has distracted teachers from their awareness of relationality (Dahlberg & Moss, 2005). Behavioursim is very top-down and power over. Adults assume the right and responsibility to ‘shape’ children’s behaviours through external means. As a result, the way that early childhood teachers understand children’s learning and development can involve a lot of attention to children’s behaviours. Typically, such an attention tends to privilege some types of behaviours at the expense of others. Furthermore, the real goal of this teaching action might be known only to managing behaviour problems (Miltenberger, 2008).

I would argue that it is not enough for early childhood teachers to only focus on children’s behaviours. From a relational point of view, behaviours go beyond the simple presentation of ‘facts’. Attending to behaviours without considering children’s relational experiences runs the risk of capturing only observable, if not superficial scenarios. Given that relations organise the primacy of being (Slife, 2004), all efforts should be made to learn about children through relations. Sidorkin suggests, “if we can get teachers to pay attention to relations rather than behaviours, it will be a step forward” (n.d, p.4).


Listening to children

My son’s words reported in the beginning of this article have practical teaching implications. He showed me how a young child was engaged in processes of relation formation. While I did not quite have the ability to see things as related as he had, I repeatedly found myself looking at the world through my son’s eyes, which for an adult, was surprisingly fascinating. In connection with my experience, I would like to advise early childhood teachers to appreciate, listen to, and respond to the children’s hypotheses and theories of the world (Riley, 2003).


Developing inter-human relationships with children

There are all sorts of reasons for early childhood teachers to engage in genuine inter-human relationships with children. This, as discussed earlier, means more than sharing or being part of an interaction. It requires all the skills involved in leading the involvement of “the whole person in their social world”, for both teachers and children (Grey & Clark, 2010, p. 3). In a relational pedagogy, teacher-children relationships are natural and sustained living events, rather than a learning condition that provides, for example, ‘guided participation’ (Rogoff, 2003). The concept of relationality is more encompassing in intent than that of guided participation, a popular sociocultural approach to learning and teaching, because it includes more than interactions or learning arrangements. In pursuing an inter-human relation with children, the purpose for teachers is to live with them, not simply to guide, teach or work for them.

Unfortunately, the field of education has been traditionally approached in the form of taxonomies. Teaching practices tend to involve an authoritarian model with teachers as experts, and children as novices. When we operate within taxonomies, the focus is on ‘making’ children a homogeneous learner group. This practice lays the ground for the inattention of teachers towards important differences among children, which justifies teachers’ minimal attempts to form relationships with individual children. Furthermore, Garner and Waajid (2008) claimed that the difference between the position of teachers and that of children has been a clear-cut one and is a representation of stereotypical division of their specific roles. Partnerships between teachers and children do not usually happen as natural events but after a decision about whether they are needed and how they can be possible.

By taking the relational view of “I am who I am, because of who you are” (Slife, 2004, p. 166), it is not hard for teachers to understand what they do with children. If the emphasis of teaching shifts from working for children to living with them, there may come to be fewer attempts of teachers to design and implement early childhood programmes in teachers’ ways. The early childhood sector is a relational community. Part of the teacher’s role is to establish an environment in which children’s learning is characterised by their growing consciousness of others in relation to themselves.


Building a relational community 

The core task of a relational community, for Slife (2004), is to “protect difference and otherness, so as to form the complementary functions of a richly textured community” (p. 169). The establishment of community connectedness within diversity provides significant insights into teaching practice. This involves supporting children’s development of an ethic of care for self and others. According to Noddings (2007), the care-about and care-for practice can be seen as an essential part of education itself. She provides teachers with four specific strategies: modelling, dialogue, practice and confirmation. By demonstrating what it means to care, engaging children in dialogue about caring, providing children with opportunities to care and think about care, and gaining knowledge about children and others, the critical perspective of care can lead teachers in a significant way of practice. Ritchie, Duhn, Rau and Craw’s idea is that teachers help children develop an understanding that “self” stands for more than “I”: caring for self means caring for those who are part of the immediate, day-to-day kindergarten or centre community” (2007, p. 2).

Creating a relational community in early childhood education also suggests that teachers relate to people of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. In an immigration country such as New Zealand, there needs to be deliberate action taken by early childhood teachers to access the obvious, but mostly quiet coexistence, of immigrant cultural groups. In my own doctoral research on Chinese immigrant children in New Zealand early childhood settings, I reported on a characteristic of early childhood teachers to “treat children ‘all the same’” (Guo, 2010, p. 110). Teachers stated, for example, “We promote a practice that immigrant children are accepted and treated in the same way as ‘Kiwi’ kids’” (NZ mainstream cultural group). Chan’s (2006) study also reported that early childhood teachers tended to treat all children the same. This ‘sameness’ approach to teaching is problematic. It reflects a traditional mainstream psychological position of “abstractionism” (Slife, 2004, p. 157), and assumes that grouping is an appropriate way to connect some seemingly related categories. The attempts to group immigrant children with children of the mainstream cultural group result in the subtraction of immigrant children’s family learning experiences from their whole beings. If teachers are to provide immigrant children with realistic life experiences, this is all but impossible without including the children’s own cultural knowledge in their relational beings.

A relational pedagogy makes teachers’ attitudes a central theme. Sidorkin’s (1995) words “listen to me, but not to your feelings” (para.7) can be used to outline a solution to individual teacher’s biases for or against children. His idea is that in developing inter-human relationships with each child, teachers should put aside their preconceived opinions of the child and fully accept what comes from the child. While Sidorkin seems to have told teachers not to listen to their feelings, his point should not be taken entirely at face value. It is very unlikely that Sidorkin wants teachers to be totally objective because this is impossible. He might have also meant that in an attempt to fully engage themselves in children’s worlds, teachers need to work on their own feelings, for example, identifying when they have a reaction to someone from a different ethnic group, reflecting on why they may be carrying some kind of racial stereotype from their previous experiences. In doing so, teachers can best “abandon the security and certainty that comes from making the Other into the Same” (Moss, 2010, p.16).     

It is important to note too that although this article places a high emphasis on the interrelatedness, relations and connections in children’s worlds, it does not rule out the importance of individualism, but adds a dimension to that. Without clear acknowledgements of children’s own identities and individualities, any relationships teachers develop for and with children may be ineffective.


Sustaining futures for children through relationality

I will end the section with an acknowledgement between relationality and sustainability. Because of the limited space, I have concentrated only on relationality. I should add here, however, that when we start to extend this concept, another critical stance, sustainability, should be discussed. In recent times, there has been an enormous interest in foregrounding the idea that relationality is a prerequisite for understanding and discussing sustainability. Netherwood, Buchanan, Stocker and Palmer (2006) note that “a relational ontology can underpin education for sustainability” (p. 250). This emphasis on relationality highlights the need to continue elaborating on this important conceptual framework in early childhood education because it forms the basis of how teachers can assure a sustainable future for the next generations.



What are the lessons learned here about relationality? One has to do with the mutual constitution of relations that make up the reality of living, and as importantly, the interrelated and holistic nature of human relationships. Relation is a constitutive force, creating a particular theoretical stance towards beings and living.  

Thinking about the role of relationality in early childhood teaching practice will require a conceptualization not only of children as situated within a nexus of relations but of learning to be relationally constituted.  As with meanings, a focus on teaching practices should be an effort to support children’s learning through relations. This will be done through helping children discover the relational beings in their world, and establish their own relational experiences with others, particularly with their teachers. Occasional and one-off interactions between teachers and children are only a single step towards their inter-human relations. Inter-human relations are reliant on teacher and children’s unbiased, mutual and sustained interactions.

Another lesson is about the relationship with the Other. Instead of obscuring the Self-Other relationship, a relational pedagogy works on differences. Relating to others involves experiences that lead to knowledge of the distinctive individuality of each other, to notions of connection, and to feelings towards one’s own actions and the actions of others. Sidorkin (1995) claims that “the inter-human is an inclusive relation” (para.16). Carried forward on this remark is the pedagogical idea that teaching involves recognition, acceptance and protection of differences. From this perspective, we need to think about early childhood education not in terms of a period of shaping children’s behaviours, but in terms of a useful context in which to establish community connectedness.



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About the author

Karen Guo is a senior lecturer in early childhood education at Waikato University. Her research and writing interests focus around cultural diversity, internationalization and immigrant children and families. Karen became interested in the pedagogy of relationality from the experience of raising her own little boy and listening to his theories about the world. 



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