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Childcare professionals from all over the globe can find common ground at conferences, says Helen Penn.

Academic life is about the knowledge and ideas that underlie practice, and about putting practice to the test to see if it does what practitioners claim it can do. So conferences are a kind of lifeblood, an important opportunity to exchange information, present research, discuss new ideas and plan future activities.

I have just come back from an outstanding multi-disciplinary conference in Sweden entitled 'In the Name of the Child'. Researchers from a variety of disciplines - psychologists, historians, sociologists and statisticians - presented their research on subjects as diverse as working children, theories of childhood, identity in different cultures and contexts, historical perspectives on children and disabilities, children and punishment, children and health, children and the visual arts, and of course, early childhood.

The researchers came from all over the world, many from the USA and Europe, including eastern Europe and Russia, but also South America, the Far East and Africa.

A conference like this makes you realise that on the whole, we think and move in very small circles. For example, it is so easy to forget history and think that the everyday problems we face today are new. So it was particularly interesting to hear about research into the early kindergarten movement in the USA in the 1920s. At this time kindergarten teachers were preoccupied with teaching English to immigrant children and creating an ethos where children from very different backgrounds could mix together and forge a new American identity.

It was also good to consider how architects and Her Majesty's Inspectorates in the 1950s in the UK dedicated themselves to understanding young children's movements in the classroom. They went on to produce some of the most innovative school architecture that there has ever been in the UK - Sure Start notwithstanding!

Another stimulating paper explored current understandings of child-parent relationships in Ghana, and what the notion of obedience entailed. Children are obliged to be polite and respectful to their parents, and cannot contradict them, but only if their parents fulfil their side of the bargain by feeding the children and looking after them. Obedience is regarded as a kind of unwritten contract on both sides.

I came away realising that there are many complex ways in which children and adults live and work together, and it would be foolish to suppose that we have any kind of monopoly on what is right or proper.

Helen Penn is professor of early childhood studies at the University of East London.

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