On the potential ineffability of children's various wisdoms
‘In giving primacy to adult knowledge, to our ‘grown-up’ ways of seeing the world, have we forgotten how to value other kinds of wisdom? Do we still care about the small secret corners of children’s wisdom?’
- Sally Jenkinson (2001)
Food for thought.
This led me to consider what these secret corners of children’s wisdom are. What do they know that we, as adults, have forgotten? To answer this I must search the databases that are my playwork journals and playwork memories. There follows a currently small, but building, and somewhat esoteric collection of mostly anecdotal text which is in no way intended as exhaustive or conclusive. I merely offer examples in writerly reflection.
Children know about words
Between all of us who know children, we have countless anecdotes of children’s usage of words. For example, O. (8) was playing with another child, tying him to a chair with a bundle of netting: the captured child exclaimed that he was, in fact, Houdini. O. replied quickly that, in accordance, she was ‘small-dini’. The speed of her reply must have confused me as much as her actual words. It took me days of reflection to finally link the fact that ‘hou’ is very close to ‘huge’ and that her playmate was, in fact, a physically bigger child, O. being relatively slight as she is.
Children know about importance
In Bremen, Germany, walking along the path at the river side, J. (7) took to moving small fallen branches from one place to another for no apparent reason, banging his spade on the ground every few steps or dragging it in the dirt or sand. His mother let this go for a while – the spade banging - and then asked him if this was necessary (‘Musst es sein?’), to which J. replied, ‘Es muss’ (yes, it’s necessary - being the apparent translation). He didn’t elaborate. Later he was asked why he was doing it. He said, apparently, that he was practising. Again, he didn’t say what for.
Children know about magnitude
In conversation with J. (5), on what he considered to be the biggest thing in the world, I was told with speed and assurance and maintained eye contact that it was, in fact, love.
Children know about being
S. (5) found an air pump with a long shaft, which we used to pump up the space hoppers. Before long, he and his playmates had found a further two of these pumps from crevices of the play space I knew nothing about. S. placed the pump’s end on my foot and went about the business of re-inflating me. The play frame waxed and waned, and the next time I took notice of S. he and his playmates were wandering around the space, in their aimless, chaotic but somehow organised fashion, with the pumps up in the air in front of them. S. exclaimed, in passing, ‘I’m a pest controller’. They were all pest controllers too. They scattered off in search of whatever they deemed to be pests.
Children know about quietnesses
After undertaking observations at an adventure playground in London, I reflected, ‘On walking round the site . . . there was a fair amount of just lazing around on the platforms [by the children], watching the actions of others (rather like lions in the sun in a zoo).’
Children know about signs
I had just parked up the minibus and N. (10) was sat behind me. We'd had a disagreement about something or other in the days before this and she was still grumpy with me. Then she licked her finger and slid it down the side of my cheek, sitting back looking somewhat satisfied. I took it as some form of reconciliation, touch as such, because other touch was not the way this communication should happen; though, in truth, I'm still not totally sure what exactly N. had loaded into her sign.
Children know about others
At Amsterdam airport I was sat on the back seat of the plane, bored as we taxied on the runway. A young girl, about 5, sat on her own on the other back seat across the aisle. She caught my eye and didn't say anything, yet she seemed to have the wit to know that I may not speak her language. She motioned to the door just behind us and behind the stewardesses. I had no way of knowing what it is she was intending to communicate, of course, but in the moment I interpreted how she was telling me that that would be a quick route off. I was impressed by language in the lack of language, comprehension of my mood and her lack of apprehension at this stranger.
Children know about the flow of now
At the train station I was waiting on the platform, walking slowly up and down, bored. There was a girl of about three years old and her family nearby. I didn't connect with her. I walked along the drain gutter, one foot carefully in front of the other, sort of balancing in the channel. I turned around and saw that the girl was following and copying me, her head down. She looked up, we made eye contact, and she went off back to her family a couple of yards away. The father showed that he'd seen my eye contact with the girl by looking at me.
Children know about children
I was sitting in a pub and a boy of about four came in with two women. He was wearing a Spiderman costume. He was attracted to the lights on the fruit machine, and the women left him to it as they ordered at the bar. A little while later, a Japanese couple came in with a girl, not even two yet, I guessed. Spiderman boy noticed the girl as she tackled getting up the side of a high stool and as she stood by the soft chairs. He made tentative eye contact with her but didn't engage her in conversation. The girl was a little wary (I supposed this because she didn't return his cue straight back). The boy started bouncing between the soft chairs, tapping each, moving around her. They were, by now, quite definitely engaged in some play frame. I thought about how children are able to just strike up play with others they don't know.
Children know about the immediacy of senses
When I walk with J. (11), and ever since I've known him he does this, he will click his fingers close to his ear every so often, or he'll walk ahead and then stop to feel branches and leaves and smell his fingers. There's no commentary to this, no eye contact: it's all just part of his natural passing through the landscape.
Children know about possibility
I was working at a nursery and became drawn into a minor moment of amusement that K. (4) was engaged in. He was non-verbal in his communications, but he didn't need words as he spent several minutes just laughing whilst intensely focused on the cracks in the paving slabs (or, this is what it appeared to me to be, at least).
Children know about contact
On a train, stood near the doorway, I saw a young child, about two years old. He was stood between his seated father's legs. The father wasn't paying him or anyone else any attention. The child said 'Hiya' to everyone he saw; or rather, he said 'Iya'. He smiled and seemed to want to connect. I interpreted a connection without rules, in a fluid space. He caught my eye and said 'Iya'. He said it again and again, smiling, every so often. I didn't reply, though I wanted to. So I just smiled at him.
Children know about the importance of finding
P. (9) was poking around under the conker tree, gathering as many conkers as she could. She'd found loads and couldn't fit them all in her pockets, so she came over to me and asked to fill the side leg pockets of my trousers too. When my pockets were full, I went off to find a wheelbarrow. Later in the year, in the winter, I asked P. about all those conkers. She shrugged and said they'd just gone mouldy.
Children know about individuals
In a club I visited, A. (4), was building small steps from foam dominoes and using them for balancing on and walking up. I put my hand out in case she needed a little support and she used it. She walked up the domino steps and got to the point where they met the low table. She put her toes on the table edge and looked at me. We both seemed to know the regular setting staff wouldn't approve if she were to get up there on the table. A look in her eye seemed to me to suggest that she saw that I was OK with the plan, if she chose to do it. A couple of seconds went by as we looked at one another. She took her foot off the table.
Children know about experiencing the world
L. (10) asked if she could sit by the window in the passenger seat of the minibus. This was her usual spot: it meant she could keep the window down and poke her head out, wind in her hair and face, like a dog often likes to do. When we parked up, she had her hair all over the place and smiled widely.
Children know about marking territory
At the park I took a shortcut through the fenced off fixed play equipment. The place was empty. I reached the other side of this area and, at the gate and on the floor, were a series of chalked drawings, one per paving slab, like I remember doing as a child: a car, a face, the word 'poo'. I was struck by the idea that these are not only markers of space, but artefacts of play in the study of forensic archeology: play has happened here.
Children know about alternate realities
L. (10) got into the minibus and pressed the horn whilst we were still in the schoool grounds. I was a little annoyed but, when we were on the road, I smiled because I realised that L. and his friend, J. (10), had made use of the spontaneous horn press in their play discussions, making up 'what if' stories all the way back to club: '[Because of the sound of the horn] what if the old lady falls over, what if the man falls off his bike?'
Children know about chance
At the airport I was transferring between buses and, as I walked along the concourse, I saw a younger child stood on the huge wide metal square of a fountain - or, as it transpired, lots of fountain jets. The jets went off every so often, spraying narrow streams straight up into the air. The child was running away from them and in between them.
Children know about textures and movement
In the cobbled street in Blankenburg, Germany, three girls of between about 3-7 years of age were with a woman. They laughed and shouted 'Papa, Papa'. Papa came. The girls were laughing and falling around in inefficiencies of movements.
Children know about rearrangement
J. (13) and his brother, J. (11), were intent and focused on pushing rocks and throwing sticks from the track at the edge of the hill, down into the stream and onto the bank.
Children know about focused interaction
A new child, M. (7), came to club. He was already labelled as having ADHD. M. wanted to play on the bike but, after inspecting it together, we found that the chain had come off. We decided to mend it and I sent M. off to find a screwdriver. He used the tool he'd found and together we got the chain back on. He was totally focused. Later, we did it all again.
Children know about expression
G. (5) and his sister, F. (7), were singing in the minibus, along the lines of: 'Superfragilistic . . .' G. got all the way through the song and then got one of the words out of place, to my ear, every time he sang the cycle again. In response to someone else's comment about his song, G. said: 'I can sing whatever I like.'
Children know about girls (or boys, as the case may be)
A gang of half a dozen or so girls, 12 or 13 years old, came into the pizza place where we were eating. J. (13) talked as if he didn't care when we had a conversation about girls, but he effected to smooth his hair quickly anyway, as they came in.
Children know about what just must be played with
Coming out of school, on the pick-up, there was a big pile of leaves that had been swept there into the fence. The younger children immediately ploughed into them and started throwing them into each others' hair. The play frame carried on all the way down to the car park on this windy day.
Children know about spontaneity
In the dark, I was sitting by the fire with a few children and their one-to-one adult supports. I sat on a log next to M. (about 12), who was in a wheelchair. I was told that she really liked to explore by mouth. M. really seemed to be enjoying the fire and the smoke in her face, judging by her expression. All of a sudden, she leant over, smiled, and grabbed me by the coat to suck on my collar.
Children know about the disposability of the transitory
In the cable car, J. (13) and J. (11) took pictures everywhere as we ascended. At the top of the mountain, in the café, the youngest boy took pictures almost constantly, of everything, on his mobile phone. He quickly discarded the pictures that didn't immediately capture his attention by deleting them.
Children know about the seriousness of play
H. (7) and N. (7) were playing football outside. N. was taking his time getting the ball out of his goal area: he was just keeping hold of the ball with his feet, moving it around. H. moaned at him to stop messing around and get on with it. He was getting quite anxious and frustrated.
Children know about love
I was at a club where I hadn't been before. I was just trying to stay out of the way. Several children gave me pictures - they didn't know me, nor did I think I'd done anything to warrant such gifts. The children decorated their pictures with hearts and kisses and the word 'love'. I was struck by how these children, innocently, seemed to mean this love, in a way that adults often don't, by contrast.
Children know about control
L. (10) was poking around in the grass and mud. She found what she called a 'stink bug' and covered it up carefully in her hands. She asked me to smell it, which I did. It was smelly, alright. L. showed her friend, I. (10), and she, I., tried to attack it. The bug fell to the ground and L. tried to protect it, but her friend stamped on it. There was no mourning, though.
Children know about trust
L. (8) was standing at the top of a piece of fixed equipment on a park obstacle course. Her feet were about as high up as my head. She didn't show any signs of being fearful up there. L. put her feet together and said she was going to lean off and that I should catch her. Before I'd even had a chance to speak, she did just this. I caught her, but my heart raced (so did my thoughts, thinking on just how much trust she'd put in me).
Jenkinson, S. (2001), The genius of play: celebrating the spirit of childhood. Melbourne: Hawthorn Press.
Joel D. R. Seath MIfL