Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Official stories shape kids' minds: expert

Thesis compares tales to communist propaganda.

Monique Raynel's actions help to bring stories to life. Photo / Christine Cornege
Monique Raynel's actions help to bring stories to life. Photo / Christine Cornege

Children are being moulded into desired citizens at preschool through government-funded literature focusing on emotions, says an award-winning thesis.

Researched over three years by University of Auckland childhood studies lecturer Dr Marek Tesar, the thesis delved into the effects of the former Department of Education-commissioned stories aimed at helping young children understand and express their emotions.

Dr Tesar, originally from Czechoslovakia, compared the books written before 1989 to those read to him at preschool in 1970s and 80s communist Eastern Europe and found the only difference was the messages.

"In the communist system the scale of the propaganda was huge in shaping children to be desired subjects.

"But what I found out in New Zealand was that it's the same, just a little bit toned down.

"For example in New Zealand you don't talk to children about [Russian communist leader Vladimir] Lenin or becoming a defender of the Soviet Union.

"However we talk to children about moving on to school when you turn 5 or, for example, you need to go to preschool because your mum's going back to work."

Dr Tesar, 35, said children became "victims, supporters and rebels" of the non-neutral stories.

"While children accept and are victimised by these stories, they also support and enjoy these stories ... and just outside of the gaze of the teacher they become rebels of these stories. They call it childhood underground where children have their own performances and understanding of these stories."

The thesis has won the American Educational Research Associations qualitative dissertation award, Auckland University's vice-chancellor's award for best doctoral thesis, the Dean of Graduate Studies dean's list award, and the the New Zealand Association for Research in Education Sutton-Smith doctoral award.

Many of the stories came from the Learning Media My Feelings series designed to stimulate discussion about big issues young children may have to face, which Dr Tesar said made life easier for adults.

"It's like we are trying to make children and childhood something we can govern in a certain way.

"We don't try to encourage alternative solutions to these problems, like for example, what if mum stayed at home longer with the child?

What if the child stayed in a preschool for a couple of months longer because it wasn't ready to transition to school? These stories have expected outcomes."

He said the stories, which are still used in early childhood education today, were not a quick fix for children's emotional needs.

The Ministry of Education's early learning, parents and whanau deputy secretary, Rawiri Brell, defended the stories, saying the aim of the series was to provide a range of books that can enable educators to work through different emotions a child might be feeling.

"Young children can face a wide range of difficult and challenging situations such as family violence, separation, moving homes, death of a parent or sibling, or having a new sibling in the family," Mr Brell said.

"Children need a variety of rich learning experiences."

It's our culture, says teacher

Newcastle Kindergarten head teacher Monique Raynel says the government-funded stories examined in Dr Marek Tesar's thesis are a valuable resource for teachers at the Ngaruawahia preschool.

"The children can relate to the images in them because they're indicative of our cultures in New Zealand, especially in Ngaruawahia where we work with a lot of Maori children."

Mrs Raynel said teachers at her decile one kindergarten read the children a variety of books, including the Learning Media stories.

The books included the likes of Two Homes for David, about a boy whose parents split up, and The Pyjama Hunt about moving to a new town, which captured changing family trends, Mrs Raynel said.

Sophie's Mum and the Dinosaur features a girl who uses her imagination to overcome her fears when her mother doesn't arrive on time to collect her from kindergarten.

"These books are about real life issues. When you read these stories they relate to kids because they're about kids, for kids and lots of children these days have all these different family models. It makes what they're going through normal."

- NZ Herald

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