Let’s face it, I don’t do face to face work very much anymore. I’m one of those fancy consultant fellers now. What I do is … hang on, I’ll just read the blub … erm, it’s ‘travel the world advocating, imparting knowledge and enthusing people around children playing’ (not play notice, important point there). Glad we got that settled.
But something happened the other day after a visit to an environmental park and playground in Perth, Australia, that I liked. A visit that took place with a pair of children unfamiliar to me and me to them. It took me back to my face to face work particularly with younger children yet it was subtle and fundamental, a deep kind of thing and I liked it. Let’s start at the beginning.
Over a year ago a concerned mother, let’s call her Candice (because that’s what her actual name was) wrote a question to an online discussion board about her four and a half year old daughter who she said was,
“… hiding things in her pockets to play with while she is supposed to be sleeping. It varies [from] crayons, food, things that she should not have. When I ask her why these things are in her pocket she says “I don't know”. I have taken the pants off her and took out what was in them and told her to put them back on. I have told her that she should not have these things in her pocket and they don't go upstairs with her.”
I’m pretty sure my mother wondered if I was normal too. Mothers do. Mine told me it was normal not to drop litter. She was adamant when I was a child that it was somehow fundamentally ‘wrong’ and so I would come home from wherever with pockets full of stuff - bits of this and that because I simply felt that to just throw it away was, well, just wrong. I still do this now.* Thanks mum (I think). It became a habit. But the objects in my pockets were not important to me. This was trash, rubbish, the normal detritus of the day that accrued in my pockets.
Anyone who works with children however, particularly younger children, knows that some of the objects that find there way into pockets no matter how small or seemingly incidental are clearly more than meaningless.
Okay, so children seem to have a natural habit of collecting things which in their middle years might be swap cards, or some kind of Japanese nonsense (also usually cards or, well, things with weird faces and special powers) but ask a younger child as they leave the setting to show you what they have in their pockets and it is likely to include (amongst the fluff and tissue) sticks, feathers, seeds, leaves and all manner of odd stuff. Chief amongst them, stones.
photo: stones fascinate children - Bronte Primary School, Sydney NSW
Stones have meaning for adults too and across countries, cultures and indeed over time where archaeologists have often ascribed ritual (yup, the archaeological catch-all) and mystical meaning to collections of and of individual stones sometimes precious, rare, and different but at other times ordinary and mundane.
At first the very idea of any connection between such mystic connotation and the pockets of a typical modern four-year old might seem tenuous but wait: the derivation of the very word mysticism with its Greek origins is one of ‘concealment’, a special something, a meaning hidden from general view that can only be discerned via a combination of special knowledge and searching. Once attained however it becomes a way of life.
Now, I’m not religious (quite the reverse in fact) and even though mysticism has a finger in the development of most of the theistic religious (three, for example, is a magic number as we all know) there’s something else going on here aside from the purely secretive nature of knowledge. It’s about ascribed meaning – why is THAT object important to THAT person at THAT time.
When Candice’s daughter reported that she didn’t know why she was collecting these objects to play with secretly a ‘psychologist’ on the discussion group said that, “Her answering ‘I don’t know’ is more of a way to get out of trouble.”
No it isn’t. It’s because she genuinely doesn’t know. It’s an impulse, and a strong one which is why we see children in various countries and cultures and through history similarly collecting special objects; and why some might speculate that such collections, particularly the stones, combined with this ‘I don’t know why but’ element could itself be at the root of mysticism.
One of the things I used to find fun when working in early year’s establishments was asking children just before they left for the day to show what things they had in their pockets, describe them and explain what they were. The reactions varied: some would clam up completely and be clearly embarrassed at the very idea that they might have stuff in their pockets; others would hesitate but show their stone before quickly putting it away; a few, very few, would go into great detail about where their finds had come from, what they had done with them throughout the day, and what they had planned for them next.
Whatever their reaction, these objects have meaning and any mysticism that lays in them for these children may be transitory (for them) but at the time any meaning they contain is as mystic as anything the major religions can throw up yet also deeply personal.
What is also magical (and I use that word deliberately) I think, is that adults in such establishments report that they frequently find things in their own pockets too – things not put there by them. Children it seems share these special, mystical finds of theirs and this sharing is often part of a very special bond – they believe, simply, that some adults understand the importance of these objects and their importance to them and so they share them.
Why does all this mysticism come to mind? Because the other day while here in Perth visiting this park and playground with two unfamiliar children I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We walked through the bush lined paths together, played in the water throwing stones and making dams, climbed VERY high towers and looked down on the world, made dens and cubbies, and generally lounged about and had a seriously great time.
And when I got back to my apartment at the end of the day there in my coat pocket was a stone, a small very water smoothed stone. And I didn’t put it there.