Little boy feeds a goose on a grassy park

Habitus, Nature, Skills, and Development of Young Children. Feeling the Flapping Wings of a Hundred Geese Taking Flight.

Habitus, Nature, Skills, and Development of Young Children.

Feeling the Flapping Wings of a Hundred Geese Taking Flight.

Suzanne Major, PhD

Anthropology of Early Childhood Education

This is the seventh of a series of eight discussions on principles, processes, and strategies involved in early childhood education, including environmental education. The last discussion was titled "General and Specific Educational Objectives and Strategies in Baby’s Education to the Environment. How it’s all about tasting snowflakes!" It examined general and specific educational objectives defined within three interlocking bodies of knowledge of the concrete mind (thinking with our whole body, using our senses and intuition in the learning space between our body and reality), literacy/alphabetization (thinking with our intellect in the learning space between our intellect and the intellect of others) and opsistiation (thinking with our affect in the learning space between our affect and that of others using images and sounds on computer screens).

The social and physical environment of the home, the daycare room, or the preschool classroom offers young children, as suggested by Pierre Bourdieu, different types of “cultural capital”[1], meaning social and physical information and knowledge. Access to nature in the backyard, the outdoor play area, or the playground provides elements for the development of a “biophilia capital”[2], meaning information and knowledge from nature. Environments, their contents, relationships, and potential experiences compose different “habitus”, defined by Bourdieu as “systems of durable dispositions, structured structures inclined to function as structuring structures, meaning as a principle of production and structuring of practices and representations”.[3]

In other words, the “habitus” is the environment where the child learns to communicate, speak, walk, and run. It is the environment where children learn to hold themselves, move, react, and how to use all the different possible gestures to interact.

It is the environment where they learn to calibrate, at the very beginning of their life, their “circadian, biopsychological and physiological rhythms”[4], which allow them to live their life. It is the environment where the child learns “the practices as principle generating strategies to face unforeseen situations determined by the implicit anticipation of consequences”.[5] What the child learns becomes a principle of production that continues to educate the child. This principle is integrated and unconscious. Each “habitus” - a child living in a house in the city by a lane with both parents and many neighbours, a child living in an isolated house by the seashore with his mother and grandmother, a child living in a house in the forest with siblings in the proximity of wild animals, etc., offers different capital of information and knowledge. The environment with everything in it, or the “habitus”; there lies the genesis of the child’s development!  

Young children acquire a very first identity from their “habitus” within their family, then a primary identity in daycare services, and a secondary identity in preschool and school settings”.[6] Their education is informal and democratic in the family environment, but it becomes gradually more formal and pedagogical as they go from daycare to school settings.

In the family environment, they are educated about the collectivity of the family and life. In educational settings, they are educated about individualism and society … in modern society, of course! By nature, the family environment is safer for children as it allows them to be themselves and take their time to grow and develop. An attentive parent knows their child by heart, can explain every feeling, emotion, or mood, and can even predict the child’s reactions if placed in specific situations.

Educational environments are more “precarious”[7] because the children are never fine as they are. They are expected to go through stages, structure their knowledge, and build on their experiences. They are encouraged to reach educational norms and perform in accordance to pre-set goals defined by dominant sociocultural agents of all sorts: educators, teachers, social workers, community health administrators, doctors, and psychologists. The child is never left alone to enjoy the simple act of living and is always expected to do better or at least to do what is expected. The focus is on the development and not on the being; on the future and not the present; on what others want and not on what the child wants. Educational environments “deprive young children of their human freedom to choose to what they measure themselves to and to construct themselves in those relations with things, beings, and nature”.[8] Bourdieu writes about the misery of the rapport to school for children where “social destinies are made, but also where the image of what people see of those destinies (is made)”.[9]

Children and very young children cannot intellectually explain that “misery”, but they can understand it affectively and emotionally.

In modern society, playing outdoors in the backyard or in the playground is often the only opportunity offered to young children to encounter nature and discover their roots, given that this activity is valued by adults. If young children’s habitus are only composed of educational environments, they acquire important “cultural capital”, but their humanity (their mind) is altered forever. The possibility of developing their “biophilia capital” is diminished or lost. There are no norms for developing “biophilia capital”, no timeline, and no stages. The knowledge comes with the experiences tuned with the things, the beings, and nature in the natural environment the children are part of. And there, children are always “fine as they are” and don’t need to do anything else. One must wonder if young children feel the “misery” of being isolated from nature and experiencing the freedom of exploration.

A few years ago, a group of three-year-olds was on an Easter outing on a farm, a trip organized by their daycare service. They had arrived very early that morning and were walking by a huge barn set in a large field of cut corns and plowed earth. The children were left to run free in the wide-open space as they were untied from their walking rope. At first, they just stood there looking around. But soon enough one of the boys walked away, followed by the other children, looking at the open field. They had not seen the hundred or so geese that stood still, watching, their white, brown, and black feathers camouflaging them against the plowed earth. Suddenly, as the children ran onto the field, the geese lifted in unison, spreading and flapping their wings to achieve lift-off, honking loudly as they passed overhead. Each flap of their wings sent bursts of air against the children's faces. Each passing bird added to the rack with the air passing through their feathers sending out waves of zezezezezeze sounds. The children were dumbfounded for a second, then started screaming and running in all directions.

One boy stood his ground, wide-eyed, in total delight, seeing the big round bodies bopping in the air with their black webbed toes dangling beneath.

The geese flew away, then came around again trying to gain height, sending the children in the second wave of screaming panic while they ran toward the barn for shelter. It was quite an adventure for these three-year-olds. Most were stunned. Some were crying. A few were frightened and one was delighted. The educators did not anticipate the event, but the children would talk about their experiences for weeks to come. They were told that they did not need to be afraid of those birds but for the three-year-olds, the sheer size of them was very impressive. Their wings span as wide as the children were tall. And the noise of a hundred honkers, well!!!

Their imagination would later soar as they came to wish they could also have wings to fly away. That day, this group of young children surely added to their “biophilia capital”, especially since “three-year-olds are specifically sensitive to sounds”.[10]

Their educators, as they did their pedagogical follow-up after the outing, took notes about the children’s reactions, and spent a lot of time analyzing their emotional and affective reactions particularly. They also took notes about the children’s specific interests in the size of the bird, its flying abilities, and its habits. The educators then provided all sorts of related activities to discover and appreciate the animal.

Going beyond information and general domains of child development, it is interesting to document young children’s basic abilities of “visual attention, reaction toward interaction, behaviours of affiliation and capability of imitation and reproduction”.[11] What did they see when the geese flew away? The bodies, the wings, or the feet? How did they react? Did they jump out of the way, dropped to the ground, or ran away? Did they call for help? Did they “search for looks in the eyes of the adults, were their own eyes wide-opened or closed, did they mimic gestures, did they make noises, vocalizations, or screams, did they reach for comfort”[12] from the adults or their young friends, did some of them “try to reassure or console”?[13] All these, as Hubert Montagner explains, are preverbal communication behaviours worthy of documentation. Did the children wonder, later, looking out the window, what else was out there? Did they consider themselves as being part of what is out there? Maybe not three-year-olds!

SM/sm blog 15 (7-8) April 2022





[1] Bourdieu, P. (2000: 256). Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique. Trois études d’ethnologie kabyle, Éditions du Seuil, 429 pages.

[2] Bourdieu, P. (2000: 256).

[3] Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. The Human Bond with Other Species, Harvard University Press, 176 pages.

[4] Montagner, H. (2006: 61-65). L’arbre enfant. Une nouvelle approche du développement de l’enfant. Odile Jacob, 353 pages.

[5] Bourdieu, P. (2000: 257).

[6] Major, S. (2014: 176). Mamès, profèsorn oun kinder likth. Éducation en petite enfance en CPE. Le cas des femmes hassidiques Belz en services de garde en milieu familial accrédités, Ph. D. thesis, Université de Montréal, Anthropology, 294 pages.

[7] Bourdieu, P. (1998: 99). Contre-feux, Raisons d’agir, 125 pages.

[8] Major, S. (2014: 172).

[9] Bourdieu, P. (1998: 49).

[10] Thériault, Lavoie (2002 : 43). L’éveil à la lecture et à l’écriture. Une responsabilité familiale et communautaire. Éditions Logiques. 149 pages.

[11] Montagner, H. (2006: 174). L’arbre enfant. Une nouvelle approche du développement de l’enfant. Odile Jacob, 353 pages.

[12] Idem, Montagner, H. (2006 : 229).

[13] Idem, Montagner, H. (2006 : 233).