Looking Closely at Children

Children’s Conversations

What can we discover if we investigate the depths of young children’s conversations with each other? Could we adjust our assumptions about what schools do?

More Than Cute

Marriage #1

A conversation involving Reed (boy, age 5), June (girl, age 5) and Fiona (girl, age 5), recorded by Victoria (adult)

Reed: Well, anyway, if you want to come to my house, you have to give me candy and then you can go in my hot tub.
Fiona: What kind of candy?
Reed: Like MnM’s or something.
June (to Reed): I’m going to your house and we’re going to marry.
Reed: No.
June (to Fiona): Are you going to marry Reed?
Fiona: No. But I’m going to marry a boy.
June: Right. Because girls marry boys. I don’t think girls marry girls.
Fiona (to June): Do girls marry girls? (to Victoria, adult) Vicki, do girls marry girls and boys marry boys?
Victoria: Well, they’re working on that right now. In most states they can.
Fiona: Maybe they can just go to the mountains and marry.
June: Yeah.
Fiona: And, anyway, I’m going to marry a boy.

I wondered what would arise if we studied conversations like these between children, so I included this topic in a class I taught at North Seattle College, entitled Cultivating Conversations. Over the years I collected transcriptions and the conclusions the participants in those classes constructed.

I wanted to be able to create an opportunity for early childhood educators to undertake a community project despite people all working in different settings with different ages of young children. I thought we all could record children in their own schools talking to each other and bring a transcript to share with the class. As a large research team, we could see what we had gathered and develop further inquiries. I trusted that we would develop a more sophisticated awareness of children’s conversations and eventually co-construct a guide for ourselves as listeners and researchers. To this day I remain amazed by what the children said in their conversations with their friends.

After we discussed the collected conversations, we returned to the children and played or read their conversations back to them, recording what happened when the children heard themselves. This is what Reed and June had to say several days later when Victoria played their Marriage #1 conversation to them.

Marriage #2

June: When I get older, I’m going to marry.
Reed: Not me.
Victoria (adult): Do you remember a while ago you two talked about marriage? I have that conversation. Here. Listen. (plays tape of Marriage #1 above)
Reed: Well. I’m going to marry Freya.
June: I’m going to marry… um… my dream… because… you have to have dreams and you gotta find them.
Reed: That’s not for me. I’m not gonna! No! No! No!
June: You’re not gonna dream?
Reed: I’m just gonna dream and not find it. Because dreams don’t show up. You don’t want to find your dream, because my dad says they never show up when you find them.
June: Good dreams or bad dreams?
Reed: Both. They won’t show up.
June: Oh. I will find mine.

So what can we conclude about children’s conversations by looking at Marriage #1 and #2? Although we cannot know everything, we had these agreements.

  • It is readily apparent from their tenacity that they were seriously invested in what they said.
  • They cared about the topics and each other.
  • They we’re amazingly receptive of other’s viewpoints while being assertive of their own.

I think most people would agree more generally:

  • Children have a powerful voice.
  • They know how to listen to others.
  • They want to be listened to.

A Window into School

This conversation project arose from Carla Rinaldi’s challenging work A Pedagogy of Listening.

If we agree that children are social beings, strongly attracted to the ways of communicating our culture has produced and strongly attracted to other people, both adults and children, we educators would benefit from listening to them in all the ways we can.

Conversations are hot stuff for them, and if we can listen, we just might energize a shift in our understanding of what schools are for. We often don’t hear these conversations, which are vital to them and may, in their minds, be the reason they want to go to school. It takes hard work to capture them for study. Carla Rinaldi has done it and helped others make the effort, too.

“It’s a difficult path that requires efforts, energies, hard work and sometimes suffering, but it also offers wonder, amazement, joy, enthusiasm, and passion. It is a path that takes time, time that children have and adults often do not have or do not want to have. This is what a school should be: first and foremost, a context of multiple listening.”

“As children represent their mental images to others, they represent them to themselves, developing a more conscious vision (interior listening). Thus moving from one language to another, and reflecting on these shifts and those of others, children modify and enrich their theories and conceptual maps. But this is true if, and only if, children have the opportunity to make these shifts in a group context — that is, in and with others — and if they have the possibility to listen and be listened to, to express their differences and be receptive to the differences of others. The task for those who educate is not only to allow the differences to be expressed but to make it possible for them to be negotiated and nurtured through exchange and comparison of ideas.”


The Investigation Questions

As we saw above, children’s discussion of marriage and dreams became a window for our own understanding of what is deeply significant for the children, more than what we could learn by talking directly with them. The deepest conversations you have with your close friends or life partner are reciprocal: learning goes both ways — you learn from the other person, and you learn about yourself as you hear yourself speak, so we generated these questions to begin our inquiry.

  1. What evidence is there of exterior listening, where the children really listen to others, expressing their differences and being receptive to the differences, with a sense of joy and passion?
  2. What evidence is there of interior listening, where the children are hearing themselves and shifting into a more conscious understanding of themselves?

It is interesting to read what Benjamin and Sophie said to each other with those two questions in mind.

Play Partners

A conversation involving Benjamin (boy, age 5) and Sophie (girl, age 5)

Sophie: Benjamin, I don’t like it when you don’t play with me.
Benjamin: But I do not want you… I do not want to play with you the whole time.
Sophie: Why?
Benjamin: Because I’m… I’m not like it.
Sophie: Like what?
Benjamin: Because it is tiring to do that all the time.
Sophie: I’m making letters.
Benjamin: Those are not shapes of letters. Letters are like this. Those are letters. You can draw them in the sand.

Here are the comments contributed by groups of educators after talking together. Initially, they all agreed that they have absolutely no idea what is really going on in these children’s minds. Nevertheless, from the outside, they had these thoughts.

Sophie adores Benjamin. Benjamin feels limited by the friendship which he finds difficult to explain. Possibly he enjoys playing other things than what he and Sophie have shared to this point. He recognizes that Sophie probably wasn’t the kind of playmate who did everything.

Sophie may have been expecting their best playtimes to continue; they were important times for her. Since they were not happening, she openly inquired about the reason for his behavior. Sophie probably has had past experiences talking with other girls about relationships.

Talking about relationships with a boy was more challenging perhaps. She may have recognized she wasn’t going to get more clarity about a reason for not being included. Sophie may have recognized that “it’s tiring” was as much as Benjamin could say, so she picked the letters topic she in all probability knew would engage him right now. She knew how to “get him.”

Benjamin seemed to recognize the importance of the question for Sophie, but it was hard for him to formulate an answer. Benjamin probably heard himself unable to explain how he viewed their relationship, so he jumped at at the chance of the letters to be back in a comfort zone.

The result could be viewed as a positive experience for Benjamin in that he could stand by his past decisions and still maintain the friendship with Sophie. He heard himself work at sensitively conveying what could be a hurtful thought to Sophie, and it worked out. In that respect, he demonstrated his compassion.

It was a positive experience for Sophie to learn that she could be assertive in a sensitive area for Benjamin, hear from him, and remain with him without damaging the relationship. She remained assertive even though he was bossy, self important, and lacked compassion at times.

Question: How does any friendship evolve through difficulties and stay lively?

This is one example of the discussions educators may have responding to documentation. Whether one agrees or disagrees, the thoughts of others spark new thoughts and lead us in new directions. This process matters, for it is the co-construction of meaning by those who share in creating and evolving their own culture. A meaning agreed upon alters the culture of the school. When all educators agree that the children could be saying important things, they begin to listen. The more they listen, the more they create that pedagogy of listening.

Altered Practice Evolves from Co-construction of Understanding

I wish to demonstrate here how the study of children’s conversations requires more than simply reading them by yourself. I invite you, therefore, to talk to others as you step into this. Students always said at the end of the course that the reason this class was powerful was the opportunities they had to discuss the conversations and hear the views of others. Once the various contributions were made, the group was in a position to create generalizations that had enough weight and truth to guide future practice.

The cooperative effort to share and listen to a wide range of perspectives, including disagreements, paves the way for constructing shared conclusions which in turn can guide the creation of relational spaces and the facilitation practices of a school for young children. When those shared perspectives become constructed generalizations, they build an evolved view of what is “true for us at this point.” They become more than descriptions of a factual reality. They are a socially-constructed reality — a shared norm built by the classroom team, which changes how they listen and how they respond.

You might be able to experience this evolutionary change for your school, too, if you took the time to talk about these transcripts as we did. In a team meeting, you can propose that you read these one at a time keeping these questions in mind.

  • What evidence is there of deep external listening and valuing differences?
  • What evidence is there of internal listening, hearing themselves and shifting to a more conscious understanding of themselves?
  • What are the dimensions of actions educators might take to facilitate in some way?
  • How could we describe the adult role?

Gift to Maia

A conversation involving Anais (girl, age 4) and Nyal (boy, age 4)

Anais: Nyal, I’m making this for Maia.
Nyal: Why?
Anais: Because I love her so much. I love her.
Nyal: I… well… I really like her.
Anais: But I love her.
Nyal: But she doesn’t live in your house!
Anais: That’s why I am sending this to her, Nyal.
Nyal: Oh! Yeah. Then write some words.
Anais: You know I don’t know how to write words, Nyal. You know that.
Nyal: Oh yeah. I forgot.


Amy Wier collected this conversation between two four-year-olds.

Girl: I like your shoes.
Boy: My mom does, too.
Girl: My mom likes my shoes, too.
Boy: Mine are better. They are blue.
Girl: So?
Boy: OK.
Girl: I still like mine.
Boy: I do, too, sometimes.
Boy: (Gives Girl a hug.)
Girl: What? (with a questioning look)
Boy: I just wanted to give you a hug.


A conversation recorded by the educator, Xinh Nguyen. Taiviera is 5 years old and Kume is newly 4 years old. Today they are having a problem in the house corner.

Taiviera: We’re only using the blue dishes on the table. I only like blue dishes.
Kume: I like yellow dishes, too.
Taiviera: My mom says we can only play with blue dishes. (She sets the table with blue dishes while Kume watches silently.)
Taiviera: See, the blue dishes are prettiest.
Kume: (Silently places a yellow cup on the table.)
Taiviera: (Removes it and puts more blue dishes on.)
Kume: (Her lower lip begins to quiver. Finding herself overruled she approaches me.) Tiaviera won’t let me play with the yellow dishes.
Ms. Nguyen: How annoying. Did you talk to her about it?
Kume: (Puts her thumb in her mouth and shakes head ‘no.’)
Ms. Nguyen:  It looks like that is pretty upsetting to you.
Kume: (Nods her head ‘yes.’)
Ms. Nguyen: You want to play with the yellow dishes, but Tiaviera says no. Do you have to do what Tiaviera tells you to do?
Kume: She won’t let me.
Ms. Nguyen: It seems to me that it is up to you to make that choice. What do you think?
Kume: (She sucks on her thumb and thinks about it. Soon she returns to play with Tiaviera. She picks up a yellow dish and puts it on the table.)
Taiviera:  I told you we’re only using blue dishes.
Kume:  (In a stronger voice) I want the yellow dishes, too.
Taiviera: (Shrugs and continues setting the table, accepting Kume’s yellow dishes on the table.)

Later, it is lunchtime. Tiaviera is sitting at the table. Kume comes in and sits next to her.

Taiviera: You can’t sit by me. I hate you.
Kume: I can sit here if I want to.
Taiviera: No. You can’t sit here.
Kume: Yes, I can.
Taiviera: You can sit here if you only play with blue dishes.
Kume: No. I like yellow dishes.
Taiviera: I really mean it. You can’t be my friend anymore.
Kume: I’m sitting here. That is my choice.
Taiviera:  I hate you.
Kume: I hate you, too.
Taiviera:  (Turns to Ellen sitting nearby) I will play with you after lunch.
Kume: (Turns to Ellen, too) I can play with you, too.
Ellen: I will play with both of you.

Bunk Beds

A conversation involving Melanie (girl, age 6) and Edward, (boy, age 5)

Melanie: I like your Pokemon cards.
Edward: I like them too.
Melanie: I like your bedroom because you have a bunk bed and I’ve got a bunk bed. We are really like each other.
Edward: I like my bunk bed better.
Melanie: Yeah. You sleep up there and Jesse sleeps down there, but you switch every night. But Edward, I really like your bunk bed better. It is really handsome and I like your lunchbox better, too.
Edward: I do, too. I like your bunk bed better.
Melanie: Me, too.
Edward: Because it’s metal and mine is wood.
Melanie: Thank you. I wish that we can be sisters and brothers forever. I don’t… I… um… I want you to stay with me because I just like it when you are my friend.
Edward: I am going to stay with you.
Melanie: I know, but when you’re going to be dead, I’m going to cry, cry for you.
Edward: You’re going to be dead before me because I’m only five years.
Melanie: But you’re going to be six in October and I really, really why, there…
Edward: Uh huh.
Melanie: And I really, really like… you’re, you’re handsome stuff that I am forgetting.


Collected by the teacher, Saliha Khaiti between Rashaad, boy age 4.5, Kamila, girl, age 3.5

Rashaad: I am drawing my own house. I am a very good artist, right?
Kamila:  Me, too.
Rashaad: I’m the biggest artist ever. (laughs) You’re so funny.
Kamila:  No. I am not funny.
Rashaad: Yes you are.
Kamila:  You are not in my world.
Rashaad: I’m four and a half years old.
Kamila:  I am three and a half.
Rashaad: Baby.
Kamila:  I’m not a baby.
Rashaad: You are mean.
Kamila:   You are meaner. You are a baby.
Rashaad: No, I am not.
Kamila:  You are a baby. You cry all the time. I don’t cry.
Rashaad: You are not a nice friend.
Kamila:   (whining and sad) Yes, I am. Teacher! He told me I’m not a nice friend, but I am a big girl. I am a nice friend.
Saliha: (motions to the other teacher to not respond)
Rashaad: I am sorry. You can’t color the whole circle.
Kamila:  You don’t say that to me please. You are a very bad boy.
Rashaad: No.
Kamila:  Well! The whole daycare doesn’t like you. (pause, goes quiet and sad) I like you.
Rashaad: Well! I am sorry.
Kamila:  Me too.


A conversation recorded by Jennifer Warrick, a Head Start teacher

Maia: I don’t want to go home today because what if the mean lady with the blue clothes takes me away just like my daddy?
Sophie: Where is he?
Maia: He is in jail. He borrowed someone’s car. He’s a good daddy. What if he doesn’t come out?
Sophie: Did he go there another time?
Maia: Yes, but I’m not supposed to talk about it.
Anthony: My daddy’s in jail. He done nothin’ wrong. He’s a good daddy, too.
Sophie: My mommy says jail people are bad. That’s why they live there.
Anthony: My daddy’s good. Bad people take him away.

The next day Jennifer reads the above exchange to the children.

Jennifer: I bet your daddies miss you and love you very much.
Maia: I am mad that daddies are gone. (Cries.) I want to see him.
Jennifer: My daddy goes to the hospital sometimes because he has a disease called PTSD. His brain is jumbled up, but he still loves me. I know it. We send each other cards. That’s how we know.
Anthony: What if the bad people don’t give him the card?
Jennifer: The police and the doctors are people who try to help someone. The police hope that daddy will not make mistakes when he gets out of jail. A lot of people have gone to jail. They are good people, but they need to learn a new way of doing things, that’s all. It’s ok to make mistakes, if we learn from them.
Sophie: Mummy was wrong?
Jennifer: The people aren’t bad, but the behavior was not following the rules.
Maia: I am going to follow the rules.
Sophie: I’m not going either. The kids and the mommies are so sad.
Anthony: Me, too.
Jennifer: Me, three.

The Clay House

The teacher, Xiaona Li-Brun, recorded this conversation between Olivia and Brianna who are 5 years old. They are looking at a house Olivia is making in ceramic clay.

Olivia: Brianna, this is my grammy’s house.
Brianna: I like your grandma’s house.
Olivia: My mom, me and Andrew stay with Grammy again. I am sad.
Brianna: You don’t like your grandma?
Olivia: I love my grammy.
Brianna: But you said you stay with your grandma, you are sad.
Olivia: Not because of Grammy. When Mom and Dad fight, we move to Grammy’s house. Mom cry. My grammy is so mad. I am so scared.
Brianna: My mom and dad fight, too. Me and my sister hate that. My little brother cries. They stop the fight.
Olivia: Your mom and dad listen to your little brother.
Brianna: No, they don’t. My little brother doesn’t speak. He screams.
Olivia: Me and Andrew cry, too, when they fight, but they don’t stop. My grammy said my dad is bad. May I have some clay?
Brianna: Sure.
Olivia: Thank you. This is a door. I don’t want my dad to come in.
Brianna: You can have my clay. Make a big door.
Olivia: Thank you. Can you help me?
Brianna: I don’t want to play with clay. I want to draw a picture.
Olivia: You are not my friend.
Brianna: I am your friend!
Olivia: You don’t help me.
Brianna: OK. I’ll help you make a big door. Then I can draw.
Olivia: I will draw a picture, too. I want to draw a big flower for my mom.
Brianna: We can draw a picture together. Make a card for your mom.
Olivia: Draw one for your mom, too.
Brianna: One for my dad, too.
Olivia: One for my grammy.

Twins #1

A conversation between three-year-old twins, Sa’Tiea, the aggressive twin, and Sa’Dajia, the submissive twin; recorded by Mom, Nitikka Hoyer, upon arising in the morning.

Sa’Tiea: Sa’Djia, come here so I can dump the toys on you.
Sa’Dajia: I don’t want the toys on me.
Sa’Tiea: Well, I want to do it, so come lay down on the floor.
Sa’Dajia: Can I dump toys on you?
Sa’Tiea: No.
Sa’Dajia: Why not?
Sa’Tiea: Because I don’t want them to fall on me.
Sa’Dajia: So you want them to fall on me?
Sa’Tiea: Yes.
Sa’Dajia: How about we dump some on you and some on me. You go first.
Sa’Tiea: Never mind.

Twins #2

Playing in the living room.

Sa’Tiea: I want to hit you with some toys.
Sa’Dajia: What do you mean?
Sa’Tiea: I need you to stand right here, and I am going to hit you with a ball.
Mom: Sa’Tiea, it seems as if you always try to trick your sister into letting you do something to her that you don’t want done to yourself.
Sa’Tiea: Sa’Dajia don’t listen to what I be telling’ her to do.
Mom: About two weeks ago you guys were discussing the same problem. This is what you two talked about. It would be a good idea to listen close so you can hear exactly what you said. (plays audio recording of Conversation #1)
Sa’Dajia: You are mean to me all the time.
Sa’Tiea: No, not all the time. Only sometimes. Only when you don’t listen.
Sa’Dajia: You always try to make me do things that are bad. I don’t want to do them.
Sa’Tiea: I tell you what to do, ’cause sometimes you don’t know how.
Sa’Dajia: I do know how, because I am a big girl, so you let me do what I want, because I know how to do it right, OK?
Sa’Tiea: But sometimes you get it wrong.
Sa’Dajia: But you are not in charge of me so you don’t bother me. Only if I ask you.
Sa’Tiea: But what if you don’t know?
Sa’Dajia: Then I will ask Mommy or Daddy. Then I will ask you.
Sa’Tiea: OK (stated very doubtingly)

Mom wrote: “I have learned a great deal from children’s conversations. Previously, I would have injected myself into the conversation thinking that my younger twin would not defend herself. I always thought I had to protect her. As I listened to her talk, I discovered that Sa’Dajia knows how to express herself truthfully and honestly. If I had not been asked to record their conversations, I may not have figured this out. I would continue to shelter her thus not giving the opportunity to speak and express her ideas and feelings. I know now that I will no longer underestimate the communication levels of the children.” 

What we are coming to understand

  • Children’s conversations can deal with deep ideas such as friendship, marriage, loss, and rules; these are not minor topics.
  • Children are fully engaged in discussions with their peers.
  • Their conversations arise from their interest; they are not talking about these topics because adults thought it was important for them to address.
  • They talk freely and openly with each other, probably more than they do with adults.
  • They are willing to modify their thoughts rather easily when talking to their peers.
  • They behave in a way that shows they have a right to speak their minds, express their feelings, and convey their needs without fear.
  • Children engage in agreeable disagreements with love and affinity; the natural state is kindness.
  • Children seem to seek the participation of the other partner; they find it important to listen, reflect, and deeply connect with each other.
  • What we might have thought to be a cute conversation is now an essential event to capture and understand.
  • Documentation provides clues to extend opportunities for relationships.
  • It may be best to keep our adult mouths shut and listen.

We discovered

  • What may be uncomfortable for us to talk about is their living.
  • What the children feel is present and managed without having any pressure to describe their emotions to adults.
  • Deep emotional topics interest them; they seek to understand emotions and relationships.

We want children to

  • actively and genuinely participate in conversations with others in an environment that leads to the co-construction of their identity,
  • accept differences with others and value disagreement,
  • be thoughtful in hearing alternatives, negotiating differences, and taking risks,
  • speak with a self-confident, assertive voice,
  • reflect upon their exchanges with others, and
  • sustain their natural empathy and compassion.

Our guides for ourselves in the future:

  • We can rightly assume that the children are capable of forming their relationships and understanding their emotions without adult involvement.
  • If we wish to help, we can find ways to connect them with other children who might be likely to contribute.
  • We can help by sharing transcribed conversations with the group to see how others experience these things.
  • We are motivated now to capture children’s conversations; we know it is important to document them so we can discuss them with our colleagues; this will make our school better.
  • We aspire to do the same in our own conversations with each other.

The culture changes

When constructions like these are built by a pedagogical team a shared intentionality emerges. As Carlina Rinaldi puts it in The Pedagogy of Listening:

“Not only does the individual child learn how to learn, but the group becomes conscious of itself as a ‘teaching place’, where the many languages are enriched, multiplied, refined and generated, but also collide, ‘contaminate’ and hybridize each other and are renewed.” — Rinaldi, C. (2006) In Dialogue with Reggio Emilia: listening, researching, and learning. Rutledge Press. p. 67


I will always remember The Clay House conversation between Olivia and Brianna. It was shocking and alarming. One of the reasons I admire and respect children so much is that they have to deal with just about all the stuff we adults deal with without any of the experience we adults presume makes dealing with life easier. At times they seem to do it so much better. They keep it real when it comes to their feelings. I sometimes think I’m working at catching up with the children. — John Griest

It was an amazing experience for me to begin to listen more closely as children talked to each other with understanding, respect, feelings, and emotions. I now put unusual things out on a table as conversation starters as the children arrive. — Basma Faraj


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