Body pedagogies: how children come to understand their bodies and their selves during and following a health intervention in a New Zealand primary school
Exploring how children understand their bodies and selves, the study adopted an interpretive epistemology which enabled children’s voices to be captured through an ethnographic methodology. The researcher spent extended time with a year 3 and 4 level class at Tuihana School (ages 8-9 years), and engaged with the broader school context over a two year period (2012-13). The study examined a Healthy Homework (HH) intervention, and whole school concepts of ‘Being healthy’ and ‘Being human’ and the interrelationship between these, and body pedagogies (Evans, Rich, Davies & Allwood, 2008).
Underpinning the discussion and investigation of body pedagogies are three message systems that influence a school culture and shape children’s learning - curriculum, pedagogy and assessment (Bernstein, 2000). The influence these message systems had on how children understood and saw their bodies were explored through two perspectives –considering performance and perfection codes (Shilling, 2004, 2010).
The study revealed the subtle and complex ways in which schools and schooling shape children’s understandings about health, food, activity, and their own and others’ bodies and behaviours. The socialisation of rituals concerning healthy food and exercise that were inculcated into the school culture were exposed, enabling overt and hidden messages to prevail, mostly centred on corporeal identity that privileges an unrealistic bodily ideal.
Discourses of healthism and obesity were clearly associated with and embedded in children’s thinking, understanding, actions and language. The concept of being ‘healthy’ was seldom espoused with any critical thought, suggesting that children were not exposed consistently enough, to sociocultural and critical pedagogy within their school environment, despite this being an intention of the New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007).
Futhermore, the study demonstrated that children’s (8-9 year olds’) knowledges were fragmented into discrete health topic areas that demonstrated an understanding of their
bodies and their selves. They perceived this as being separate from the social and cultural constructs within their learning environment and wider lives. This suggests there is an opportunity for teacher professional development in order to understand the philosophy and intent of health education and physical education within the New Zealand Curriculum.
A major recommendation based on the findings is for schools to consider adopting a kaupapa Māori approach to health pedagogy. Such an approach aligns with a salutogenic perspective on health, endorsed in recent studies (Fitzpatrick & Tinning, 2014; McCuaig, Quennerstedt & Macdonald, 2013). Ideally education systems need to encourage young people to adopt a critical perspective when considering body perfection and performance, that is, transforming their thinking through disrupting and dissecting the values and social connotations of traditional norms of body size, weight, scale, and participation.
Finally, schools have a responsibility to ensure that any health interventions complement the teaching and learning within the school curriculum and do not merely replicate popular media and health policy, and the discourses these privilege. Health interventions can have an impact on the micro-culture of a school, and the HH intervention provided a catalyst for a distinct focus on health enabling some understanding of bodily knowledge for children.