Still on my theme of A. S. Neill’s work, from around the 1920s, I move from thoughts on education and parenting to a more general idea of ‘connectivity between generations’. I find there are links between some of my long-held own beliefs and ideas, and what I’m discovering as I read. So, in writing, I explore this further . . .
Whilst Neill was writing for The New Era: an International Quarterly Journal for the Promotion of Reconstruction in Education, in the early 1920s (a bit of a mouthful of a magazine title, admittedly!), he went out and about visiting and reporting on various establishments. One of these places was the Montessori Department of the Brackenhill Theosophical Home School in Kent. Maria Montessori had come to England in 1919, and interest in her methods was just starting to spread. I was interested to read of Neill’s observation and opinion on his visit to this particular school:
‘I spoke not a word. In five minutes the insets and long stairs [presumably forms of ‘didactic apparatus’, as named by Montessori] were lying neglected in the middle of the floor, and the [children] were scrambling over me. I felt very guilty, for I feared that if Montessori herself were to walk in she would be indignant. I cannot explain why I affect [children] in this way. It may be that intuitively they know that I do not inspire fear or respect; it may be that they unconsciously recognise the baby in me.’
What Neill seems to have experienced here is something I’ve also known for a long time, but never been able to pin down the exact reasons for either. Countless times I’ve visited a school or playscheme or some other play provision (and I’d never met those children before), and when I do I often try to keep out of the way, and before long, almost without fail, I find a paintbrush being poked in my ear, or I’ve become co-opted into a play-fight-dance, or I’m being told life histories by five year olds, and one way or another all form of previous structure and order breaks down in the immediate area around me.
It happens when I least expect it to (though I should be used to this sort of thing by now). Even just the other day, out at the park, attendant three year old leading the way, we ended up in the fixed equipment area, on the tarmac mound, and before long we were surrounded by a small group of other younger children. Admittedly we were in the middle of a form of crazy golf play (with proper golf clubs and fluorescent yellow balls), but I wasn’t doing anything really: just rolling the balls back uphill, then sitting down in the sun on the slope. The children slowly gravitated over. I did a quick sweep round for the parents the children had brought along, but no-one showed any signs of ‘man in the playground, panic!’ so I talked when talked to by the children, listened, got the balls if need be. That part of the playground became the crazy golf place (not what ‘normally’ happens in such a fenced-off designated area for designated play). After a while, one of the girls took custody of the least favoured golf club, another girl took a golf ball under her wing, and the play just scattered to other parts of the space.
Sure, on the face of it, there’s the obvious unusual occurrence of golf clubs here, but there’s also the unusual occurrence of someone being at eye height and actually listening and talking and taking notice. I’ve always wondered if there was something more to it too though. Back to this again after a swing back around Maria Montessori.
Neill notes, with some degree of concern, that Montessori’s term ‘didactic apparatus frightens me’, and that education is ‘more than matching colours and fitting cylinders into holes’. This is not a post about education, but it is about play. I’ve always had similar reservations about Montessori children’s play. A while back I was visiting students in a Montessori nursery school (I was working in the field of pre-school at the time). I was shocked, frankly, by the robotic nature of the three year olds there who, without any adult prompting, would float over to a bland pale wooden shelf, pick up a bland pale wooden object on a tray, and come back to a table, sitting down with it. The child would neatly stack blocks from one place to another on the tray, or pour water from a jug into a cup and then back again, and repeat it over and over. Then they’d put it back on the shelf.
This was not the world of three year olds smeared in jam and snot that I knew, or some years later, the three year old playing crazy golf in the fixed equipment park, shouting at the ducks to wake them up, or walking along the High Street blowing bubbles into chocolate milkshake, laughing at the newly discovered sound, smeared in saliva, snot and sun cream!
For the sake of noting some small degree of pro-Montessori methodology, I did learn a rather neat way for younger children to put their own coats on (by putting the coats on the floor, outsides downwards, arms spread out; the child then stands at the head end, slots their arms in, bends down and flips the whole coat over and on!) That, though, is the sum total of my pro-Montessori leanings.
We shouldn’t foster robotic children, and we shouldn’t foster children fearful of adults or what those adults might say to or about them. Why do children gravitate over to some adults? Of course, the physical level of the adult helps, as does the listening and the talking with the child, if wanted by that child (talking ‘with’, I’ve always felt, rather than ‘talking to’ and definitely rather than ‘talking at’); I have, for a long time, held the belief that children ‘see’ the play awareness of certain adults.
I observe good playworkers I sometimes work with, and some excellent parents, and other adults who are neither or both of these, and I watch the way that children seem to appreciate them, ‘see’ them, ‘know’ them, ‘get’ them. It’s this ‘gettingness’ that has fascinated me for a while.
The adult who tries too hard will soon be found out by the child; the adult who’s playful, up to a point, before adult sensibilities kick back in again, will be found out and discarded; the adult who just doesn’t ‘get’ play won’t even be tolerated. There are deeper reasons why some children ‘get’ some adults, perhaps: the possible unconventional looks and ways of the adult, as compared to the child’s forming stereotype, can be part of it; there may be attachment needs not served by other adults in the child’s life; there may be a raw but developing comprehension that a rebellious or unusual streak is the ‘play way’, and should be embraced when found in any other person; there may be other, more indefinable reasons.
I don’t know, but it’s an ongoing process of trying to find out. If I’m ‘in tune’ (and some days I’m not, for whatever reason), I can be minding my own business on the bus, concentrating on collecting golf balls, sitting talking with other adults in a play space and giving no outward signs that ‘I’m playing now’, and before long I have tongues stuck out at me; or I have children gravitating around, without words, not always with a need for the play objects themselves; or I find glue and glitter being surreptitiously spread up my arm.
Like Neill, I can’t fully explain the reasons for these sorts of things; I do know though that I hope children don’t become robots, and that they do just express themselves in their play. Why? Imagine a world full of robotic people unable to connect with one another at all.