Creating a Relational Universe 

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A study of social pedagogy

with Gabriel Eichsteller

After finishing school Gabriel Eichsteller worked on a big red double-decker bus in Karlsruhe, Germany. The red play bus was full of sports, tools and play equipment. Afternoons were spent playing, building things, jumping on the trampoline and hanging out with young community members. The bus turned into an imaginary pirate ship. The children crossed a wild river full of crocodiles as a team. Eichsteller observed. 

“There was just so much about it that really fascinated me.”

Eichsteller was determined to add to his knowledge and give greater clout to play. Afterall, from all that he was seeing, it had greater power beyond that which the word conveyed. 

His studying sent him abroad to Copenhagen, Denmark for six months, followed by a further six months in Portsmouth, England.

“It was a life-changing opportunity, both because I met my future wife and because it gave me a much deeper insight into social pedagogy from different cultural perspectives.”

Social pedagogy is a broad concept, and yet it intricately examines the cultural folds and layers in which we live.

“One of the key aspects of social pedagogy is to do with upbringing and recognising that upbringing isn’t just the responsibility of parents but that everyone within a community can make a contribution, no matter how small that might be,” said Eichsteller.

“From a social pedagogical perspective, our task as professionals is to support people in cultivating their relational universe: to find some kind of equilibrium within those dynamics, recognise which relationships are enriching and which ones are abusive.”

One of the models Eichsteller and his colleagues have developed is called the Relational Universe. Eichsteller said that it is quite fitting when we talk about technology and the modern world.

“Technology can enable us to connect to each other, but it can also increase social isolation. The idea behind the Relational Universe is that every person is connected to a range of other people – family members, friends, people in their community, professionals who might be supporting them. These are all part of that person’s universe.”

Social pedagogy aims to stem inequity and promote the inclusion of people from all walks of life. Play and social interaction form a big part of the social pedagogy philosophy. Naturally not all members of society are afforded a positive social environment, nor a safe environment. Sometimes that is out of our control. Our lives are in a constant state of change and nobody is immune from suffering. Social pedagogy operates under the belief that the better we understand individuals needs within our societies, the better their relational universe can be. Eichsteller bases his practice on this.

“The central idea is to work within people’s ‘lifeworld’, to try to better understand their lived experience, their social context and the situation they find themselves in.”

“This is the starting point for any support we might give to individuals, families or specific groups. By understanding their lifeworld and what matters to them, we can start to recognise their resourcefulness and potential, and we can then begin to strengthen and amplify this.”

This requires some nous: “In this process it’s paramount to be non-judgmental and empathetic, which is easy to say but challenging to do in an authentic and genuine manner, so that people feel we treat them with dignity.”

Social pedagogy is reflective of the idiom ‘it takes a village’. It requires an array of different people in the community to acknowledge and support one another in varying ways. It requires members of the community to recognise the human condition, and to not exclude based on status or hardship or difference. 

“There’s so much that connects us and so much to be gained when every person feels able to make a contribution, using their unique inner resources,” said Eichsteller.

The learning process is never about following the manual though and Eichsteller adapts social pedagogical thought to the situation at hand: “its principles need to be actively translated and contextually adapted to ensure they’re meaningful.”

“We’ve been fortunate to have worked with so many amazing practitioners working in children’s homes, as foster carers, family support workers, social workers, etcetera who have embedded social pedagogy in their practice in ways that reflects the unique characteristics of their practice settings as well as the central values and principles of social pedagogy.”

These diverse experiences have helped to shape and refine the social pedagogical framework.

Eichsteller is part of a social enterprise, ThemPra. Its purpose is to support the sustainable development of social pedagogy in the UK, and sometimes beyond. As Eichsteller prepares to pack his bags for Melbourne next month to speak at the Playgroup Victoria Conference he is eager to learn how social pedological ideas are fashioned in the Australian environment.  

“In my experience, social pedagogy offers a useful perspective on how we can promote learning, well-being and social inclusion not just at an individual level but at a societal level. These ambitions are universal, because we’re all human. We all want to be treated with dignity, we want to have opportunities to unfold our potential, we want to enjoy a meaningful life, and we want to feel connected.”

Sometimes Eichsteller draws on experiences from his own life, with his son. Challenging behaviour can make situations difficult but Eichsteller tries to avert conflict, creating opportunities for dialogue and learning. The ‘Diamond Model’ builds on this idea- a metaphor used to illustrate the connection between the aims and “the fundamental concept of children as intrinsically rich, resourceful and full of potential.”

In the globalised world, the way we interact and share ideas is greatly uncensored, its more cyber existent and more fluid. It is a cross cultural world. Yet, all this considered, the fundamental existence of a child is variably unchanged. They are still born into the world, innocent, curious and vulnerable. They still must learn from the very beginning and source love in the same ways.

As society surges forth, progressing with pace, social pedagogy does well to remind us that we too need to be vulnerable and loved, we too still learn things from scratch. We still need to connect in real life and look after one another. Technology supports this but is not the whole. As the world changes, it is the human responsibility to look for the greater good and share common experiences, for without, we are all the poorer for it.  

Article by Sinead Halliday