The theory and practice of love

Having attended the TACTYC Annual Conference in London this weekend, titled “Principled Early Years Practice: Valuing our past, debating our present, inspiring our future”, I would like to share the findings of one of the key note speakers, Dr Jools Page, who presented “Love in a cold climate: constructions of care, intimacy and love with a contemporary early childhood discourse.”

Dr Jools Page is an academic at the University of Sheffield and has previously worked in both policy and practice roles with young children and their families.

Jools recently embarked upon a research project exploring early years practitioners’ views of love, care and intimacy in early childhood care and education settings in England. The project titled “Professional Love in Early Years Settings” centered around three overlapping key ideas: 1. the situation of love; 2. the ‘furniture’ of love; and 3. the theory and practice of love.

Before describing the project findings, Jools asked the audience “why love?” She went on to explain “relationships are the key to everything…and love is not a problem until it goes wrong in some way.” Perhaps because of an inequality or blurred relationship boundaries.

Jools does not consider love to be “operational”, there is a contextualisation to love which is situated in every setting and despite attempts made by policies to define and impose parameters on the concept of love, “it is still not easy to talk about love around children.” However, Jools does not believe we can stop talking about love as this would be a refusal to acknowledge it exists and the project has in fact demonstrated there to be a close relationship between theory and practice in terms of the love, care and intimacy agenda.

Jools worked for five months in collaboration with organisations such as the National Children’s Bureau, Nursery World and Early Education alongside the project’s external partner, the Finnies group of nurseries. The project began with an anonymous online survey in March 2015, followed by in depth interviews with early years volunteers, moving on to a thematic analysis of the professionals’ narratives, and finally focus groups were formed to discuss these themes.

The narratives rising out of the survey and the interviews suggested diverse opinions on the role of love in early childhood education. Several discourses are outlined here.

  • The degree and type of physical affection should be limited.
  • There is a fear of saying “I love you” to a child as there are concerns about perception. Only 50% of practitioners would respond with the same words while others would use diversionary phrases and 1% would rely on a non-verbal response.
  • Practitioners feel they need to protect themselves through fear of allegations / safeguarding concerns.
  • Male practitioners “could not win” and it would only be a matter of time before accusations are made.
  • Learning might be hindered through too much attachment to a practitioner.

The findings showed Jools and her team that in considering safe, intimate and loving practice, some of the narratives suggested there was too much emphasis on the practitioner and an insufficient focus on the needs of the child. So in a risk averse climate, how could love and intimacy be imparted to children?

The practitioners involved in the project were asked to define “professional love”. Some respondents used the words “care” and “kindness”. Others thought the word “professional” undermined love. Unsurprisingly, practitioners recognised the importance of developing an attachment and generally thought their own practice complemented rather than undermined a parents own love for their child.

Discussion amongst focus groups was multi-layered but principally highlighted the practitioner’s desire for further information about the theory of relationships so that they could grow in confidence and be firm in their decisions relating to love, care and intimacy.

Jools emphasised the importance of challenging common practice but that practitioners still need support “to develop the practice of love.” To do this, you need to shift your thinking Jools explained, “de-centre, through a type of motivational displacement”. You need to be strong in your own emotional resilience and be intellectually capable of understanding yourself. By stepping out of our frame of reference, we need to be non-judgmental and imagine the other person’s position. “We immerse ourselves in the needs of the other.” Jools believes the key to being able to “emotionally invest” is understanding ourselves first.

So how do we love in a cold climate? Practitioners need to build “authentic reciprocal relationships” which are enduring and secure for the child and yet risky for the adult in terms of the emotional burden the relationship imposes. Once this affectionate bond has been built, an adult is likely to have come to love the child in a “professional sense.”

Another key finding of the project was the desire by practitioners to learn how to apply theory in practice. Jools asserts that although ‘attachment theory’ has a place, being crucial to understanding human relationships, theory cannot be looked at in isolation.  She states “caring is as equally important as education” in her opinion and “there is a place for feelings. Feelings matter.” Professional development aids such as the ‘attachment toolkit’ and a ‘reflective practice proforma’ have been developed as part of the project to help practitioners apply theory to practice. (

Jools goes on to say she is acutely aware that what is missing from the project is the voice of the child and that space remains for debate about “pedagogic love”. She questions whether we can teach practitioners to love, acknowledging the task to be problematic as no skill set can be identified.

Jools concludes her presentation by reiterating the importance of practitioners receiving support, space to talk and time to reflect. Being mindful of the conference theme, Jools states that although historic theory has a place in our thinking, we should take comfort in the current contemporary practice of constructing love and continue to look forward rather than back.







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