Many of you may have noticed the way children interact in front of mirrors in your setting with mirrors placed in the home corner or in children’s bathrooms. My interest in children’s mirror play came from my own Nursery children’s interest in selfies and their play in front of a mirror, including different expressions they tried out. Seeing this, as well as how children often find the camera function on iPads and posed with their friends and with other adults in the setting, inspired my MA research.
I found that children’s interest in mirrors, or ‘mirror play’ was a consistent part of children’s everyday lives, however there was very little research available looking at mirror play as a way for children to develop their sense of self. Much of the previous research looked particularly at self-recognition and self-awareness stages through a one-dimensional psychoanalytical lens. My research looked at mirror play through the development of identity and holistic development of oneself through indicators of self-regulation and metacognition.
Current practice alludes to the use of mirrors for physical purposes - light, space and interior design of classrooms. Mirrors are often placed in the home corner with the intention to support role play and imaginative play, but little attention may have been paid to the idea of what exactly children might be thinking as they look in the mirror when they are dressed up. Who do they see? Who are they becoming? What are they ‘trying out’?
Identity plays an extremely important role in this context, encouraging me to consider the various identities in my classroom and how children are represented in this space. Mirrors can feel like they reflect what we see in ourselves, and often conversations about eye colour, skin colour and hair were brought up. To ensure you are able to have these conversations about racial identities with children that are respectful and leave children feeling beautiful and valued you may wish to explore other articles to support you - for example Liz Pemberton's article here on the FSF How do I talk about race with children in the Early Years setting? or watch the recording from the Tapestry Education Conference: Reflecting on Anti-racism in the Early Years.
The reflection that children see in the mirror is, however, not a true reflection of themselves; it is how the world perceives them. Muller (1985) writes about the mirror showing a ‘documented self’ and possibly providing a deeper understanding of self-awareness. We might see children talking to themselves and making faces which can be identified as ‘private speech’ a characteristic of self-regulation and metacognition.
To explore this topic, I set the following research questions:
- In what ways do children use mirrors in my setting to explore their sense of self?
- What do children think of their mirror play?
I answered these questions by observing children interacting with a mirror and videoing the interaction. I then shared with children their video of their interaction and recorded their response to their play and asked further questions about their mirror play – this method is described as a Reflective Dialogue (RD). RDs have been used in various areas of practice with adults and with children to reflect on pedagogy and practice. These RDs give insights into what children are thinking and provide opportunities for reflection and to understand their metacognition.
To encourage you to apply my research in your settings, I have formulated my findings into 3 possibilities for practice. Mirrors are often not commonly used to explore identity, however reframing and highlighting the possibilities of a mirror may present an alternative view for the children to explore and of your perception of the children you work with.
Possibilities of a mirror: Place a mirror in the home corner
Many settings will have a mirror in the home corner to support dressing up and role play, however I hope to bring to the forefront of practitioner’s minds the careful observation that can enlighten us in understanding our children. By having props and a mirror we encourage the ‘trying out’ of identities, acting out different family members, and re-enacting experiences. Through this symbolic play, children use imitation or de-centring skills to understand other perspectives. By introducing the mirror into this space, we look to connect the idea of ‘self’ and ‘other’ to children. This then would support their role play and secondary representation in their play, demonstrating the interrelation of pretend play and the development of children’s understanding of oneself.
Possibilities of a mirror: Notice self-regulatory aspects of mirror ‘talk’
When observing children engage in mirror play you may notice characteristics of self-regulation and metacognition, such as children talking to themselves; this is described as ‘private speech’. The idea comes from Vygotsky’s idea of internalisation and what adults would call our consciousness or internal monologue. The theory suggests that children’s private speech are children’s inner thoughts and support them in self-regulation and are eventually internalised. Incidences of private speech are increased when children are role playing, or completing challenging tasks such as puzzles. By understanding the characteristics of self-regulation we may be able to apply this to the new area of the new Early Learning Goals which are introduced in September 2021.
Possibilities of a mirror: Use Reflective Dialogues in everyday practice
Many settings use video recordings for observation and assessment of children. In my setting, this is an embedded part of our practice and the children are very familiar with it. When completing this research, I showed the children the videos of their mirror play, and recorded their responses to my questions. The children used metacognitive language such as ‘thinking, learning and knowing’ about their own play and gave deeper insights to their play and understanding. Often I assumed what children were playing, learning or thinking however following the RDs, the children clarified and surprised me with their deep understanding and knowledge. RDs can be a tool for listening to children’s perspectives. By revisiting video observations children are given the opportunity to engage in higher level thinking and articulate their metacognitive language that may not have been so explicit before.
This research comes at a turbulent time in the Early Years with Covid-19, the introduction of baseline testing and the Early Learning Goal reforms. I hope to redirect to what is important and refocus on the child and how we can support in developing the essence of oneself. Mirror play refocuses the narrative towards the child and understanding the individual child in the setting, in that moment in time. I hope to encourage moments of reflection, time to stop and consider what is occurring when children are looking in a mirror and engaging with themselves and others and how does this impact of their identity, or developing their identity of sense of self. By bringing the holistic child to the forefront, we centre ourselves towards the child that is at the core of early childhood education.
This piece provides an overview of research I did as part of my Masters at the University of Roehampton in 2020, and may not provide as much detail; there are 1,500 words here and 10,000 in my dissertation! I’m happy to continue the conversation and go into details – feel free to reach out via social media or the comments section.
Thank you to Early Years Direct, who currently have mirrors available to purchase. You can get 10% off anything on the website using the code FSF10.