In my quest for a healthy work life balance I decided to combine a speaking commitment at Derby University, with a family weekend in Derbyshire. As with most family weekends, it was characterised by highs and lows. The cable car ride at Matlock Bath was a hit and the picnic in the sun and exploring Chatsworth’s beautiful grounds made up for the 11pm bedtimes! My trip also gave me some food for thought…
Amongst the carefully tended beds of the formal gardens, a daisy speckled lawn featured three magical looking circles, each a metre across. I found these glistening pools of waterlogged grass mesmerising and was clearly not alone in thinking this judging by the various children who slowly approached the shimmering circles before standing, walking and jumping in them! Mother Nature and our bountiful weather certainly know how to provide intrigue, awe, wonder and excitement in abundance!
Having explored much of the gardens we reached a series of bold metal sculptures near the magnificent house. Unlike the wonderful wicker sculptures whose bulbous curves intertwined around trees, successfully merging the natural and manmade landscapes, these hard cold sculptures stood stark and distinct. As my six year old ran to the first of these industrial-looking sculptures, we read the sign saying Please do not touch the sculptures and quickly stopped the inevitable touching and climbing. A group of ladies approached us and lamented the fact that children couldn’t play with the sculptures, ripe for climbing and playing on. It was then that I realised that while these crude sculptural pieces may not be to my personal taste, they would undoubtedly have been greatly enhanced and their relevance within the landscape increased, if designed for children to enjoy and be inspired by or for adults to pause and perch on. This would have instantly softened their hard edges and created a bridge between the beautiful landscape and its admiring visitors.
The fantastic children’s play area at Chatsworth showed just how successfully large architectural and industrial sized pieces can blend with the environment and offer heaps of play potential. Two working Archimedes screws, a water wheel and a series of robust metal channels and pools encouraged children to draw water from a babbling stream and direct it into a huge sand pit to be shaped with diggers, hands and minds. This provided an altogether different experience for children as they were invited not just to connect with the open ended environment but to actively shape it, something which children across the ages actively did.
All in all it was a magical day of exploration, sensory pleasure and play, only slightly dented by the four hour journey home!
These are my wonderful mum’s pearls of wisdom, and how right she is. She was talking about a picture of a magnificent specimen of Ceanothus, with pillowy mounds of undulating vibrant blue flowers, snapped on my walk back from school. This reminded me of the awe, wonder and pattern to be found everywhere in nature, from the regal candelabra flowers on the horse chestnut, to the delicate tapering fronds of soft lilac petals on the wisteria, draping lace-like over the fence. Speaking of lace, when looking at a fragment of dead coral the other weekend, my mum reflected on how this must have been the inspiration behind lace, its intricate repeating pattern just like a priceless piece of antique lace.
Like nature itself, children’s brains are programmed to seek out pattern to help make sense of their world. Not just pattern in the literal sense, differentiating between spots, stripes and checks, but also in terms of decoding the potential links between objects and events. We now understand that it is only through repeated exposure to a wealth of sensory-rich objects and environments that infants build up a large enough bank of rules about objects, such as dogs have four legs and a tail and a ball is round, to develop categories, (a complex neural filing system), in the brain. With enough rules and categories formed, they can then move onto making judgements based on the similarity between two or more things, rather than starting at the beginning each time they encounter an object. Using the analogy of dogs, with time and plenty of opportunities to encounter and experience different dogs, an infant will understand that all dogs share common characteristics and yet are unique. When encountering a dog breed which they are not familiar with, say a Dalmatian, given sufficient experiences their starting point will be this dog is spotty rather than what is this thing?
And this is where again we discover how wonderful nature is. Not just are children hardwired to explore and spot details in the environment all around them, but the ever changing outdoor environment, its flora, fauna and natural treasures offer infinite opportunities for exploration and discovery, perfect for captivating children’s interest. And so closes the circle as nature has perfected an environment which enraptures children and the human body and brain designed to capitalise on this, that is, if we adults allow it!
The incredibly sad news of Ros Bailey’s illness has prompted in me some timely introspection. After returning to a laden in-tray following a much needed break from work, I’ve found myself reflecting on my own work life balance and the need to live more ‘in the now’. The demise of our washing machine, great timing with three week’s worth of washing to sort, legitimised a dirty washing sculpture which, amoeba-like grew in the bathroom for a week. While using a laundrette brought with it an unexpected feeling of freedom from daily chores. And after temperatures of 40 degrees, the failure of our heating didn’t help ease the transition between holiday and work or school!
In an attempt to inspire my six year old to overcome his temporary ‘fear’ of reading, we’ve been reading together Danny Crates’ inspirational story of triumphing over adversity. Faced as he was with the loss of his right (prominent) arm in a car crash he went on to achieve his dream, and international recognition, as a championship athlete. It is stories like these that give a much needed reminder that life is no dress rehearsal. And this is where children have got it so right. We could learn a lot from children’s ability to live in the now, their immediacy and zest for life. With the lure of a muddy puddle or whatever else takes their fancy, children will typically act and play first and think about the consequences, like the washing later. And I for one am determined to take a leaf out of their book…
As an advocate of the potential for children finding enriching play opportunities everywhere, my recent travels around Thailand have given me much food for thought. While visiting the only Government run elephant hospital and centre in Lampang, Northern Thailand I observed a Thai toddler engaged in deeply purposeful play. Using the resources to hand, in this case some litter, the child had skilfully fashioned a collecting ‘tool’ from a small clear plastic bag and a drinking straw. Having secured the bag to one end of the straw they were using it much like a shop bought butterfly net to scoop up insects, petals and other litter. Crouched on the ground and with great manual dexterity they manipulated the implement to collect their chosen treasure. This same action captivated them for some time as each time the ‘net’ was full its contents were emptied so that the game began again.
The apparent simplicity of this wonderful play vignette masks perhaps the degree of sophistication and creative thinking involved, as litter was transformed by the child’s body and imagination. It reminded me of some Finnish research into children’s explorations of their local neighbourhood and how pre-school children’s fascination with detail manifested itself in prized collections of natural and man-made litter, (Raittila, R. EECERA 2010). Events like these reveal the wonders of sensory-rich play and the magic that these simple resources hold for children. Like the closely guarded treasures collected by these pre-school children, (classed as ‘litter’ by adults), a wooden spoon is rarely just that to a child but a resource for stirring, transporting, mark making, role play, magic, and so on.
As I look out onto the unseasonably grey and rainy day (after three weeks of tropical sunshine) it is clear that to live sustainably and better understand children we need to maximise the play opportunities freely found all around us. I guess for us Brits we can start by making the most of our abundant weather!
After a grey week spent to-ing and fro-ing from one event to another, I awoke on Sunday to glorious sunshine and the first day off in two weeks. With ‘Hardy’ like weather matching the joy of the weekend, a seaside February picnic beckoned. Little did we know how dramatic our trip would be as an RAF rescue helicopter gave a stunning show of mastery, dipping low over the shoreline and practicing air and sea rescue. After much excitement and a sandblasting from the eroding cliff, the airmen waved a final goodbye and looped out to sea, leaving my six year old occupied for the duration of our picnic, spotting which speck on the horizon was the helicopter!
With tingling fingers, wind slapped cheeks and a panting puppy, tired from barking at the waves, we stepped onto the smooth sandy beach, peppered with shells and stones. For us no trip to the seaside is complete without foraging for fossils and shells and so an argument ensued between my six and nine year old about one particular find. ‘I want the poo’. ‘No, it’s mine’, ‘Give me the horse poo!’ The subject of their battle was a heavy rounded object with smooth nodules, bearing a remarkable similarity to a fossilised hose poo! With careful negotiation, the nine year old secured this as a trophy in return for trading a large, complete whelk shell with pearlescent inside. The day was rounded off by a trip to a play area and brisk walk along the pier. I was intrigued to overhear a father playfully explaining to his children how they were going to walk along the beach to the cafe for a nice cup of tea. A suggestion met with disdain as his four (?) year old exclaimed ‘Oh, a boring walk then.’ I may be rose-tinting my childhood but can’t quite believe that the announcement of a trip to the seaside would have been greeted with anything other than excitement and joy. Reflecting upon our own trip, that nearly never was – neither child had been keen to leave the comfort of the house, they recounted their many favourite bits of the day and how they didn’t want to leave. If only I could bottle that feeling to avoid future battles!