Tracing purity in Andean early childhood  

While children at Santana are physically close to the place that surrounds them, everyday pedagogical practices are not necessarily attentive with place and the contentious, interdeterminate relations that are so active here. Prior to the start of the first school year, Santana’s classrooms were embellished with popular Western symbols of childhood, and languages of developmentalism (Burman, 2017): age-appropriate toys of popular children’s characters, unified crafts made of glitter, pom-pom and pipe-cleaner, and child-sized desks brightly painted in the primary colors of red, blue and yellow are a few examples. A strong aesthetic attention was curated around images of the innocently fun and happy child, and in conversation with a pedagogy that pursued such ‘freedom’ through the purity of early learning (Vintimilla, 2014). Situated within a large fenced patch of land that has been completely clear-cut of trees to make space for newly constructed lawns, playgrounds, sandboxes, and a cement area for bike-riding classes; the juxtaposition between institutional spaces and place was profound. Outdoor pedagogical experiences also marked a dichotomy between nature and culture as recess and lunch hours were carefully scheduled to avoid times of intense, high-altitude sunlight in the afternoon when the deforested school yards provided little shade.

Suited in nylon rain gear and clunky rubber boots, we followed the trajectory of the small stream in search for what we hoped might be a larger flow of water in the dense Andean forest that neighbours us. With the educators, we walk passing the walls of the school yard. Patricia uses both hands to jostle a weighted brass lock linking large metal chains that secure the gate to the forest, ‘Call Juanito! The gate is locked.’ Pausing for the arrival of the groundskeeper, hands are in pockets, upon hips and scrolling through cell phones as feet alternate the weight of waiting bodies. We stand on the pavement of the school parking lot, its mixture of black asphalt and tiny stones form a well-manicured line at the meeting place of mud and overgrown grass that marks the beginnings of the path to the forest. Juanito joins us with his gaggle of keys that unlock every door of the school. As the gate slides open, educators peer through small wiry holes of the towering chain linked fence to a narrow passage that runs between the parking lot and a pasture of horses that belongs to the farmers next door. Across the way, a young child is standing with his father, holding a large machete to aid in the trimming of the long grass.

Encountering place meant to encounter difficulty. We met much tension and hesitation as educators, children and families navigated spaces that did not allow for the smooth efficiencies we were accustomed to in the predictability of an educational project grounded in child development. Initially, we moved awkwardly through the forest as fingers were pricked by thorns, hair and jackets were caught in branches, toes were stubbed by hidden rocks, and tired muscles grew vocal along the hills of the Cabogana. These first encounters with the forest were brief, lasting 30 minutes or less, and were often cancelled due to rain, a cough, or another more desirable activity happening in the day. Our walks aroused serious concerns from parents over consistently muddied clothing, sickness from the outdoors and, most significantly, a worry that children were not learning what they were supposed to learn. Educators shared many of these concerns; several of them voiced urgent discomfort, guilt, even fear, of being unable to remain in control of the encounters that emerged in the forest. These worries were compounded after some events that prompted sheer panic along the pathway. The first week, we unknowingly trespassed through the territory of two aggressive dogs and were frantically chased back to the safety of the school’s gate. The second week, during a ‘family walk’ that sought to involve parents in our pedagogical work in the forest, an educator stepped on a bees’ nest and activated the attack of a swarm that, again, sent us running.

Documenting the pure child situated in innocent nature

Yet, in revisiting together the documentation of these eventful walks, the tensions and troubles that were so robustly obtrusive were replaced with peaceful images of children being delicately ‘touched’ by nature and narratives that spoke to the freedom and liberation that can be found in the simple enjoyment of ‘getting dirty’. Despite the disruptive decentering of the human and acute vulnerability we felt so poignantly in the forest, the child was somehow still positioned as the sole protagonist and beneficiary of ‘harmonious’ nature in all pedagogical documentation we carefully constructed. Patricia and Cecilia speak of this innocence as they narrate the ‘wonder’ of children’s curiosity in nature.

A new experience started when in one of the walks to the forest, we encountered the river. The children’s enthusiasm, imagination, and questions prompted them to feel curiosity through discovering matters related to the river. This is how we were motivated to explore in the forest of the school everything that we can find in the river”

When we encountered this land, we all enjoyed its existence, we played with her, we got dirty. We could feel its texture and softness which created a moment of great happiness and imagination.

Stengers (2015) proposes that the capitalist sorcery at play in purity narratives funnel heterogeneity into terms that better suit the vocabularies we are already versed in. That which does not serve the pleasing imaginary of the smoothness of neoliberal life promised through education becomes invisible; the outlier does not fit the fable and becomes cast as a satellite. In meeting these logics, we started to recompose the vocabularies available to us by gathering this excess, both material and semiotic, toward a storying of this river that proposed not a friendly world, but rather what Stengers calls an ‘unhealthy milieu’ and the subjectivities that are required to live well in what are often inhospitable worlds.

Two months into the project, we turned our attention to the specific ontological and epistemological orientations that made it impossible for us to notice, however slowly, toxic collaborations that constitute this place.  Making a commitment to notice the “complicated, often ugly, and humbling” connections of the place (Tsing, 2015, p. 33), we began by disrupting the commonly held notion in early childhood education that positions the child as innately innocent, where children’s ideas are regurgitated from some intrinsic, inner place of imaginative purity (Kind, 2018). We invited educators and children to pay attention to the impurities present in the river. This form of paying attention disrupted the idea of curriculum as based on children’s interest and opened up a space for reconceptualizing curriculum as a medium for coming closer to the world through other ways of seeing that bring other ways of being (Nxumalo, Vintimilla, & Nelson, 2018).

With educators, we read discourses of children’s ‘natural’, inherent purity as intimately entangled with Rousseau’s construction of childhood, figured as a distinct and separate period in the span of life and untainted from the social and political milieu in which humans and others live. Erica Burman’s (2016) writings aided us to notice that this image of the child “functions politically and rhetorically within national and transnational projects of (neo)colonial, heteropatriarchal, [and] late capitalist expansion” (p. 269).  As we revisited photos of our walks, we resisted ‘the young pure and inherently creative child divorced from culture and joined to nature’ reading that we were accustomed to. We reminded each other that this angelic picture of the naturalized child reinforced what Val Plumwood (1993) has called the ‘sphere of inferiority’, in which women, racialized groups, children, animals and ‘natural’ others are subordinated within Cartesian dualisms of culture/nature, man/woman, master/slave. In Cuenca, a city with strong catholic inheritances, these dichotomies are further emboldened by Judeo-Christian formations of purity that continue to preserve childhood as a projection of modernity. We made an effort to think with the idea that technologies of developmentalism, paired with the modern educated child discourse in Cuenca, are deeply encoded in purity logics that function to serve a trajectory of colonial growth via capitalism (read individualism, competition and accumulation) (Douglas, 1966; Kirby, 2017; Shotwell, 2016). As common worlds educators and scholars, we became interested in the making of more ethical relations that sustain heterogeneity, “inconvenient and disconcerting cohabitations” (Taylor, 2013, p. 1457). Yet, we kept aware that this desire for connection across otherness all too often is poeticized as mistakenly harmonious, and possibly veils the tensions and contradictions that form the places we share and shape unevenly (Taylor, 2013).

Revisiting data from our walks through processes of pedagogical documentation, dissensus and dialogue, we were able to notice the ways in which we are haunted, however unwittingly, by anthropocentric discourses that perpetually separate culture from nature and distance us from our relational accountabilities to the river as a place of intra-dependency among non-innocent, often messy human, material and more-than-human worlds.

Unsettling purity through memories

In early November, we mapped the formations and pathways of empty waterways as Cabogana’s riverbanks were dry with the absence of rain. The children theorized that the river must have decided to leave, that it is far away but may come back one day. These early months of inquiry were difficult as educators tried to make sense of why we might choose to continue investigating a river without water. We bumped up against many barriers to emergent curriculum making in ways that stayed with the trouble of such a problem, as Haraway might say (2016), as they saw the literal absence of water as an indication to move on to another topic. We invited the educators to gather memories of their own childhoods around the rivers of Cuenca to think more about what the river does in this place.

Many times we often don’t notice, since we see it but we do not think about its true importance. The contact with nature in early childhood is an indelible mark, which is saved as seeds that will later germinate in good memories and important lessons. (Patricia)

I can ask myself several questions at the same time, but when I am in contact with it, and when I see its movement, when I see the water run, when I feels like it envelops me and covers me, it causes me a feeling of tenderness, a memory stored in my memory, which allows me to visualize the transit of my childhood, because life flows like a river, because rivers inspire life and reflection and there is no more beautiful and meaningful memory like that of my childhood when sharing unique and unforgettable moments, in which a river was present, eating near it, playing near it, watching my grandmother knitting, memories that will be engraved in my memory, causing feelings of love, peace and tranquility. (Cecilia)

We read and reread these writings with educators. We noticed that in the pursuit of purity, memory often has a tendency to clean up the less desirable place-stories we choose to forget. Place is a keeper of entangled threads of temporality where multiple, incommensurable components at play meet in a particular moment, and generate something greater than what was before. Tsing (2015) reminds us that these gatherings of the interdeterminate ‘here and now’ are also ‘past and future’.  We discussed how temporality at Cuenca’s rivers is neither static nor linear, as memory touches history and composes place as a meeting point of many times. Encountering Cuenca’s rivers cultivates these kinds of sticky threads of temporality where memory promises a return to better times, before the present scene that is so deeply marked by the stains of human progress. We noticed that river memories often craft the worlds we desire, rather than the world in which we live. Purity in this sense can function as an intimate tool in colonial place-making practices via human memory. As Shotwell (2016) tells us, memory is “a relational and situated process through which we collectively determine the significance of the past for the present as a form of forward-looking responsibility” (p. 48). At Cuenca’s rivers, memory often forgets stories of socio-ecological violence that are inherent in place, rendering the river as a place of unblemished joy.

Stengers (2015) argues that through this amnesia to impurity what we have lost is not our ability to pay attention, but the art of attention. Artful attention requires more than poeticizing a happy memory or the lovely story; paying attention is more a manner in which we are pulled a little closer into the world and provoked to thought that might produce a reconfiguration of what is already here. Yet, in leaning closer, it becomes visible that what is here may be past the point of a return to cleanliness; already is contaminated. In times of 21st century climate catastrophe, river memories create an illusion that we are able to stand outside of contamination, an essence of escapism made possible by purity ideals. Thinking with Sara Ahmed, Shotwell (2016) writes, “There are many ways of being oriented toward a future, some of which unfurl along an unexpected orientation, some of which deviate from the path laid out for us.” (p. 179). Yet, crafting new worlds in the ruins of the old requires an ability to inherit the traumas we may choose to forget toward futures that might activate a ‘wounded flourishing’ (Shotwell, 2016) – without any novel claim of separation from the suffering that already exists here. Contaminating memory in this way, is both restraining and enabling – it is a push and pull between a fraught history and how we respond in contingency within already poisoned worlds. Shotwell (2016) describes this process of reforming subjectivities as being situated in a ‘terrain of possibilities’ where knowledge is composed in the midst of past and present, damage and hope.

This piece is borrowed from a paper by Alex Berry, Cristina Delgado Vintimilla and Veronica Pacini-Ketchabaw (2020), ‘Interrupting purity in Andean early childhood education: Documenting the impurities of a river’. All names included in are pseudonyms.