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Graduating from what?

A few years ago, I was driving along a busy Melbourne road, and I noticed a giant billboard with photos of preschool children, adorned in formal caps and gowns. Those who know me, know that I am a protester of the Early Childhood Graduation Ceremony culture that has become popular in recent years.  People enthusiastically tell me that the ‘children love it’, but I want educators who are considering this absurd ritual this year, to critically reflect on why they are doing this.

What is the intention of graduation ceremonies?  What messages do these ceremonies convey to children?  Do we need to reward children at every stage of life?  Do educators talk about what children have achieved to justify this graduation?  Why take photos of children dressed like this and plaster them on billboards?  Is this for marketing purposes? Why would anyone objectify children in this way?

Graduation ceremonies evolved as a celebration in tertiary educational institutions for students who worked hard and met a set of academic or other criteria in order to receive a qualification.  Is this definition relevant for children who are making the transition from preschool or kindergarten to primary school? Does this practice celebrate resilience, commitment and grit? 

Supporters of this practice proclaim that:

  • The parents expect it - who created that expectation?
  • It builds community – how does it build community?
  • The children love it – well they love ice cream too!
  • It’s cute.

To undertake a ceremony because it is cute is not good enough.  What is the image of the cute child?  What kind of educational experiences and environments do we develop for the cute child? As educators, can we reject this image of the child and instead choose an image of the child as powerful, capable and competent?  Could we adopt an image of early childhood education as a significant stage in education, not, as many suggest, ‘preparation for school'?  Early childhood education as 'preparation for school suggests a belief that real learning begins when children go to school.  Does this belief dismiss the value of learning in early childhood educational services? And if so, isn't it an oxymoron to dress children up in a costume associated with academia when they have participated in play-based programs? 

Does the early childhood graduation ceremony also speak of commercialisation (graduation certificates and outfits), Americanisation (that’s where it came from) and marketisation (using cute photos for marketing) of children and early childhood? 

Surely there are other ways to celebrate the transition and learning of children from early childhood centres to schools other than a dominant discourse that dresses children up in academic caps and gowns?

Kerrie O'Neill, 2018.