Peer interactions among under three years old children in Malaysian childcare centres: A case study approach
Research on infants’ and toddlers’ peer interactions in childcare centres shows many benefits for children’s social competence. With increasing participation of under-three year olds in group-based early childhood services worldwide, there is also growing interest in the role played by childcare adults in supporting children’s social competence. In the Malaysian context, where the number of childcare settings is growing rapidly, early childhood research remains limited and is non-existent within the field of understanding the complexity of infants’ and toddlers’ peer interactions. At the same time there has been a mounting discourse by Malaysian economists promoting the benefits of non-cognitive skills to a country, thus focussing attention on social skills, of which peer interactions are a form. This study opens up this under-researched field in Malaysia through three qualitative case studies – one in each of three childcare centres in the state of Selangor. Each case study involved individual semi-structured interviews with the childcare practitioners, video-recorded observations of the children’s peer interactions, and video-stimulated recall interviews. A focus group discussion was conducted too with all of the practitioners after that. The aim of the study was to examine how practitioners perceived peer interactions among children under three years old in their childcare centres, and the kinds of peer interactions that occurred among the children. Drawing on constructs from a range of social constructivist theoretical perspectives, the findings revealed that at the start of the study, the practitioners saw themselves as promoting peer interactions by facilitating group activities and managing interactions between children by responding to their conflicts. The observations of children’s peer interactions revealed complex negotiations by the children who were actively creating a sense of belonging and togetherness at their childcare centres like embracing the centre’s routines, and responding to the needs of others including through humour and laughter. In the process of these interactions, children exercised their agency and learned the skills of becoming socially competent participants in their centre. Through video-stimulated recall interviews and focus group discussion, the practitioners deepened their thoughts on children’s peer interactions and saw peer interactions to be linked with learning around three main themes: learning through play; learning through gaining familiarity with others; and learning about having friends. My findings provide a picture of how the children’s peer interactions were understood by largely untrained practitioners, and how the complexity of children’s lived experiences remained hidden to the practitioners until they took part in the video-stimulated recall interviews; the latter opened up and deepened the practitioners thoughts about children’s peer interactions. This study differs from earlier studies in that it is based in Malaysia where the provision of group-based early childhood care and education services is still a relatively new social and educational endeavour staffed by largely unqualified practitioners. This has implications for future childcare training initiatives in Malaysia.