The key to a Chattoist [see text below] approach is your eye. This eye is a special eye — it is the eye of a Hockney. It’s a Zen eye, a beginner’s eye: developed by an expert, who has spent years developing it, so that it is almost exactly the same as, and as good as, a child’s eye.
Arthur Battram (private communication — unfinished blog, 2012). Ways of seeing: the craft of management/ways of seeing: the craft of playwork.
Following on from my recent blogs (whose overall themes can be boiled down to the way that adults might negatively perceive children’s play, or try to control it), I’d like to ask you a question: how do you ‘see’ the children around you?
Do they frustrate you with their energy, please you with what they’ve learnt from you, confuse you with their thinking? Do they make you smile with their random interactions, annoy you with their stubbornness, make you laugh out loud at their peculiarities — though you don’t know why?
In truth, perhaps it could be all of these, and more . . . but wait. Drawing from John Berger’s 1972 book and BBC series on viewing art, Ways of Seeing, some parallels can be derived when thinking about how we adults see children. Berger notes that:
(i) We see first, and then we use words to explain what we see. (So, we add our own words of interpretation onto what we see children doing: the affect on us of their energy, learning, confused thinking, random interactions, stubbornness, peculiarities).
(ii) What we know or believe affects the way we see things. (So, what we believe affects how we see children — children are, supposedly, energetic, able to learn from us, confused in their thinking, random in their interactions, stubborn, peculiar or individual).
(iii) What we see (or perceive), and what we know, can be two different things. Berger uses the example of ‘seeing’ that the sun goes round the Earth, but knowing the opposite. (So, we ‘see’ children being energetic, learning from us, confused in their thinking, random in their interactions, stubborn, peculiar or individual, and yet we might ‘know’ something quite different).
What we ‘know’ comes from somewhere different to where the words we use (to explain what we think we see) come from. That is, call it some intuition. I deliberately write this word here to give this paragraph some meaning in a way that many will understand; I use a word to explain something that maybe can’t be explained. In reality, what I’m writing about here is perhaps beyond the word-label that is ‘intuition’ — what this ‘knowing’ of children is about is maybe unwriteable, though I’ll try.
Beth Chatto, gardener, as described by Arthur Battram ‘has an incomparable skill in working out how to nurture a garden in any conditions: an example being a cold wet, dank corner of her own garden, starved of nutrients by- and shaded by- huge trees. Years of patient experiment, based on years of observation, is her secret.’
In my previous blogs, I’ve highlighted adult perceptions of children that aren’t in this Chattoist model of patience: that is, ‘do not play with the leaves because I don’t want you to’; ‘children’s play is increasingly seen as something for adults to decide upon’. Examples such as these are not the stuff of beautiful relationships. Here we get to the nitty-gritty of this blog post: what I ‘know’ is that children love.
This is a strong word, and adults are often scared by it. It’s confused by adult concerns of protection, fear, wrongdoing. In reality, children love. It is my years of patient observation that have shown me this. If we see the world just through the eyes of protection (or over-protection), fear, or wrongdoing, the words we use to explain what we see will reflect this way of seeing.
Similarly, if we only see what children do in terms of how they affect us, the words we use to explain what we see will reflect this: children frustrate me with their energy; please me with what they’ve learnt from me; confuse me with their thinking; make me smile with their random interactions; annoy me with their stubbornness; make me laugh out loud at their peculiarities.
If we open up to seeing in a different way, what might we then know? When I feel I get it right, with my child’s eye understood by the children I’m with, it’s like a scene from The Matrix! There is a shared knowing in operation, or so it feels: the child, or children, and I operate in a bubble of comprehension. They know that I know, and I know that they know. They ‘get’ me and vice versa.
Recently, it turned out that I got my ways of seeing right. I only knew this for sure when the play had unfolded as fully as others had allowed it to, or when I could read the signs in the play.
At a school, I hadn’t done anything particularly active in the space, but I had developed a space in which play could happen. The children were beside themselves with excitement. It was novel for them, it was a space that buzzed. I stood observing carefully, because it was school and because it was novel and because I didn’t know what might happen. Play happened. Several children came up to me as I was packing away bits and bobs (the teachers were calling for the children’s time again). I was down at the children’s level, picking up, tidying up. The children told me, of their own volition, that they’d enjoyed their play that day. Two children wanted to spontaneously give me a hug. I kept a little distance; though on reflection, what this all amounted to was that these children seemed to have seen my child’s eye, known and ‘got’ me. It was their love that they wanted to express.
Another day, and other children I hadn’t yet met. I sat in the doorway at a friend’s house with the aim of supporting the two year old I did know in his shyness at new children around him. Three other children played. It only took a brief exchange of names, being at carpet level, and a child’s eye, I feel, for all four children to be offering cues and affections to me — by which I mean not the negative seeing of the word, but rather affections of understanding. It is a mutual knowing that cannot be fully written.
This Zen eye, this beginner’s eye, developed by someone who has spent years developing it, so that it is almost exactly the same as, and as good as, a child’s eye: this way of seeing has offered me these words I use to explain second what I see first; this way of seeing, this belief I have, affects the way I see things; what I see and what I ‘know’ have different qualities — I see a beauty of play, I ‘know’ something even richer taking place.
How do you see children?
* It has taken the best part of a week’s thinking and a day’s writing to craft this blog piece, and I still don’t know if I’ve laid the words out in ways that can be empathised with and ‘known’ by others. Such is, perhaps, the nature of the beast in question.