Peter Kropotkin was an Anarchist and Philosopher in the late eighteen hundreds to early nineteen hundreds. Russian born, he spend a lot of his life in exile in Siberia as well as in England and France. He seems to have been a fascinating historical figure, his ideas and thoughts popular among revolutionaries and labour union movements.
He was particularly interested in communal relationships, where there was no hierarchy of power, or one person controlling the rest. He professed equality and maintained that those who created the product (the worker in his writings) should take ownership of it rather than someone else taking credit or ownership of it for themselves.
A lot of his ideas are worth exploring, and most of them are intended for economic or politically minded readers. I have however been able to draw some parallels between a few of his references and early childhood. One of those is the idea/theory/concept of mutual aid.
What is mutual aid?
Mutual aid is basically the sharing of knowledge, skills, talents and resources in order to further or ‘aid’ someone else. It is a reciprocal relationship without hierarchy or imbalance of power. It is using someone’s developed or acquired talents to benefit someone else and vice versa.
The animal species, in which individual
struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and
the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development,
are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous,
and the most open to further progress.
– Peter Kropotkin
Mutual aid is a relational concept, relying on collaboration, caring, self-determination and a sense of personal sovereignty over their ‘property’ which in the case of early childhood could apply to both their talents and skills and whatever they have produced through using their talents and skills. It is a sort of bartering system though instead of material resources, most of which is being exchanged is knowledge, skills, and expertise.
There are a few important aspects to utilizing the concept of mutual aid in economics, those are:
- Hierarchy of need
Although the idea of mutual aid is based on community and sharing of skills, it is fundamentally about individualism. It recognises each member of the group as capable, competent and individual, each with individual strengths, skills, knowledge and expertise. The onus once recognising the uniqueness of the individual is that they have the opportunity to share or aid others in tasks that requires their unique skill or talent.
Not only does the skilled person have the opportunity to share their talent, there is also an opportunity for them to share their knowledge or expertise with those they are aiding. In early childhood, it creates a knowledge/talent sharing dynamic between the child who is offering aid and those that are receiving it. This is important in the new acquisition of talent and skills, and an opportunity for the child offering aid to develop their leadership through sharing their knowledge with those receiving their aid.
A crucial aspect of mutual aid is the ability of those involved in giving and receiving aid to have ownership over what they are creating or the knowledge and skills they are sharing. Much like working theories, they are developed by the individual child and they are essentially the intellectual property of whoever created them. It’s important to acknowledge the ownership of ideas, skills, talents or expertise because it has meaning to whichever child has developed or acquired that knowledge or skill and affirms the process they have gone through to acquire it.
In the Māori world, the concept of Rangatiratanga sits well within this idea of ownership as it relates to ownership, authority, or ‘Chieftainship’ over whatever it is in their possession. A term I also like to refer to it as is personal sovereignty, a specific term based on the individual ownership of the idea, skill, or talent.
Community is central to the idea of mutual aid. There is an inter-reliance on one another, utilizing the skills and talents of each participant in order to further (or progress) the whole. It is similar in the context of an early childhood environment. The children become the community, the centre becomes the whole. Teachers are integral as part of that community, after all, we do have skills and expertise and we are often presented the opportunity to aid others who may request it from us.
Knowing right from wrong, having a sense of justice, recognising what is fair and what is not is important in mutual aid because there are no police officers, there is no central authority to mandate appropriate behaviour or the ‘rules’ when it comes to giving and receiving aid, there is just the individuals participating in the exchange of skills and talents. The implication for early childhood is that children are competent beings, able to regulate, problem-solve and recognise when they are being treated unfairly and others should be able to recognise it also, so if during the exchange of aid, there is an injustice, it is noticed and more often than not – righted.
This is the mutual in mutual aid. The sharing of skills, talents and expertise relies on the sharing of those to further the community. If aid is given, then it becomes a social expectation that aid will be given in return through whatever skill, strength, talent the one who has received the aid possesses. In early childhood, we can see and should encourage this kind of reciprocity or sharing of expertise as often as we can. And example might be:
Sally is exceptional at swinging across all of the monkey bars. In fact, it takes her half the amount of time that it takes anyone else to traverse the distance from one end of the apparatus to the other. James is just beginning his monkey bar swinging journey and noticing this, Sally asks if he would like her assistance to swing across the whole distance. Jim accepts happily. Standing below Jim as he sets off across the monkey bars, Sally offers advice on how Jim could swing his body for momentum, where his hands should be placed as he moves from one bar to another and reassures him by holding her hands to either side of him, offering security if he suddenly loses his grip and falls.
After successfully moving across the monkey bars several times, Jim has decided he’s had enough for the time being, thanks Sally and moves off to play elsewhere. Later on, Jim notices Sally becoming a little frustrated in the ‘construction area.’ She is trying to balance wooden blocks as she builds the highest tower she can. Jim moves over to where Sally is sitting and offers his help, he is of course an expert in construction. Taking his time, Jim explains how using two smaller blocks and one longer one on top of them creates better balance and stability for the next tier. Sally follows his lead, carefully placing two blocks to either side, the one on top before she has built her tower as high as she can reach.
Mutual aid often doesn’t happen at the same time. We remember though, when people have offered us assistance of support in the past, and days, months, years later we are still able to re-call those moments because they have meant something to us and most of us wouldn’t hesitate when re-calling that help to aid those who have helped us when they need it. Viewing children as capable and competent, the same can be said in these seemingly unrelated occasions of support and collaboration.
Mutual aid requires no ultimate authority, no dictator or social ruler. There is no patriarch or matriarch of hierarchy of power. There is no one ‘teacher’ who holds all of the knowledge and imbues everyone else with their wisdom. Mutual aid is a concept built on the understanding that everyone is equal, no one skill or talent is considered better than another. In fact as you will see with the hierarchy of need, it can be quite the opposite. Children become leaders when aiding others, but they are also participants when receiving aid from those they have aided, and those they have aided previously then become the leaders (personal sovereigns).
Hierarchy of Need
This may be a contentious aspect depending on how you view ‘need.’ However, I believe need is relevant and even though we are each competent and capable, we each of our own talents, abilities and skills, we each in turn have needs. Mutual aid proposes that those with the most need are provided aid first. Those most disenfranchised or marginalised, those most susceptible to ‘the system.’ In early childhood the same applies and we an see that quite often in play. When new children are settling, initially there is what appears to be disengagement by the other children, but soon enough relationships are formed, those with experience in the centre and those who are confident will soon support the child settling into their new environment. Where the need was so great, it was recognised and responded to, the settling child aided to become more comfortable by the seemingly simple gesture of the child who recognised that need to play.
Mutual Aid in Early Childhood
Mutual aid as a practice and concept has been around since the beginning of civilization. It has been proven to be. It goes against the theory of natural order and the survival of the fittest and sees people and in the case of early childhood education, it sees children as individually talented, knowledgeable and skillful.
Mutual aid happens on a daily basis in our centres already, in fact it should be part of our teaching philosophies and whatever curriculum is guiding us. More known terms for similar concepts are reciprocal learning relationships or ‘Ako.’ The problem has been traditionally and I believe even today, the view of children as competent, capable and possessing such rich knowledge and skills, and particularly the ability to have ownership over that knowledge and skill rather than teachers trying shape that knowledge or impose authority over that knowledge under the pretense of scaffolding or ‘extending’ it.
The role we play in promoting mutual aid in our early learning environments is to recognise when it is happening, commit ourselves not to intervene but to consider how we can encourage aid to be shared between children, acquired knowledge and skills to be cherished used as a way for individual children to participate and contribute to further the centre community.