‘Not doing’

 

Tempus fugit. And it flies filled, yet liberated from the frantic programming which drove our days in school.

As quickly as time flies do moods change: highs are checked by the reality of coexisting and finding space for ourselves as individuals within this new rhythm. I have had moments – a number of them – of doubt and worries, as I knew I would. These moments (or, more accurately, these nights; naturally, they usually come typically and frustratingly, at night, worries queuing up to plague me while I try increasingly frantically to sleep), are however, inevitably inverted fully by a conversation, an article, a podcast which convinces me yet again that this decision is right.

This absolute security is driven overwhelmingly by the growing body of evidence – psychological, anecdotal or fuelled by developments in neuroscience – that continually challenges preconceived notions about the ways in which children learn and seeks to move on or overturn the prevailing system of schooling. Over the last week, by way of example, I have been inspired, reassured and motivated by articles such as Jo Boaler’s research into the ways in which our brains are wired to think mathematically, by books such as Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, and by the Education Futures Podcast interviewing Peter Hartkamp in Beyond Coercive Education. Collectively, such reading and listening, supported by the unprecedented speed at which modern life is being radicalised by technological advances, reinforces my belief that ‘schools’ as we know them are on their way out. That is not to say that learning in communities won’t form part of the future of education, but these communities will look radically different from the way in which they look today.

This is not going to happen quickly, for one simple reason.

Risk.

Risk in innovation is good. Risk in business is usually calculated. Risk in banking… well, I won’t go into that one. But Risk, with a capital R, in education is unfathomably daunting. It’s daunting because people are afraid to take the Risk to ‘not do’. To ‘not do’ could define broadly what being outside mainstream education looks like.

Risking and thereby ‘not doing’ is daunting, for the simple reason that this Risk is perceived to be playing as at dice with our children’s future.

Inside mainstream education there is an overwhelming drive to ‘do’ rather than to ‘not do’. By ‘doing’ I mean these sorts of things: putting children in after school clubs, in breakfast clubs, slotting in extra lessons to catch up, extra lessons to get ahead, following after school clubs held at school with extra curricular clubs in the neighbourhood. Schools themselves drive this: if children are perceived as ‘behind’ (behind expected levels of attainment which have been determined at a national level, which define learning as linear, ascribe educational milestones to specific ages and fundamentally hold schools and de facto children accountable to test scores), those children are given extra lessons to catch up: they are put into more lessons, given less freedom, less play time, less autonomy in an effort to fit them into the (outmoded, in my opinion) system, which insists on boxing children into a post-industrial revolution educational model. They are put into these extra lessons because the system wants them to fit into a particular model, a model which insists, as Sir Ken Robinson reminds us frequently and eloquently, that children enter school at one point, travel through a system of specified milestones and are churned out the other end with a specific set of frequently tested, easily measurable body of knowledge. The knowledge so frequently tested and with which these children are equipped is, however, increasingly criticised by those in industry and business, who report regularly that graduates are ill equipped to work in the modern world. That knowledge has been gained all too often at the expense of developing far more difficult to measure soft skills, such as critical thinking, resourcefulness, resilience, the desire to continue learning, creativity, innovation, curiosity, empathy, self awareness, self regulation…

So, here are some examples of what ‘not doing’ the education system looks like.

 

 

It looks like taking our time to get to places, so we can leave on a Friday (a school day, in terms time), to stop off at Stonehenge on our way down to a weekend away with friends. We walk through the fields to the stones. Three children, equipped with three audio guides, listened to thoroughly unsynchronised, thereby allowing me to listen to the same audio in triple delay, gleaning nothing on my own and instead delighting when the children turn to me with nuggets of information – what the mounds around us are, who and what are in them; why that stone was called the blood stone; where the sun rises at solstice. We sit in the sun and the children draw: H’s sketch tries to take in the stone circle itself; P is interested in how the stones were put there and draws a diagram. We take our time wandering back, picking daisies. We stop in the visitor centre and watch the seasons change in the projected stones in 360 around us.

Not doing looks like exploring maths, art and nature as we draw out the Fibonacci sequence, then translate it into art and a Fibonacci view finder. We spend the day spotting the Golden Curve in art around the house. We take it outside to see if we can spot it in nature.

Not doing looks like seizing the chance to immerse ourselves in art and visit the Hockney Exhibition. P takes the audio again and tells me about key paintings. H is fascinated by faces. They sit and draw again. P’s is bright, colourful, with bold lines and strong sense of Hockney. H takes the chance to think again about how you draw people. S’s sketch catches the eyes of other visitors. I offer it up at a relatively low price – cash in now on an early SD?

 

 

Not doing looks like having a home day because we are tired. Taking the bikes out, falling off and P wondering ‘why do you cry when you hurt yourself?’ I don’t have much of an answer, but I know that doesn’t matter. Because ‘not doing’ also means undoing all your preconceived notions of education. Not doing and being out of the system is about not expecting to know all of the answers, but rather fostering the curiosity that drives the questions. P returns to his own question later, adding in other physiological responses to pain. I am pretty sure the thought will resurface and reconnect at another point.

Not doing looks like joining in everyday jobs too. We have to nip to the shops but we remember the watch batteries need changing. The children are delighted to wear their watches again. P tells me that at school they had only started to teach him quarter past and half past. He wants to know how to tell ‘all the times’. I’m driving the car. He would rather like to know now. I think about how I would have taught this if I’d planned it: with a clock, with several clock faces drawn on paper plates, with coloured pens and moveable hands. I can’t do that, because he wants to know now. So I try to explain, without taking my hands off the wheel to gesticulate as much as I would like. The rest of the day is punctuated by P. telling me what time it is: the learning is happening because it is real, driven by him. It’s not finite, he doesn’t definitively know how to tell the time, though I imagine if I had tested him on it that day, he would have done fine. We have and will continue to revisit telling the time, and have done – while waiting for trains, buses and tubes, when wondering what time our friends will arrive, or how long the pasta takes to cook. We tell the time in real time.

 

Not doing looks like deciding they want to sew. P. makes a heart cushion ‘for the kittens’. He draws out the template, folding the heart in half (symmetry), cutting template and material, working out how the machine works. He’s off. He runs upstairs to find his Boys Craft Book, pulls out an old t-shirt and runs himself up a drawstring bag, cutting it to size (measurements). H flicks through craft magazines and wants to make a padded bag. We work through the pattern, measuring our materials, working out how we need to pin the pieces together and why. The sewing machine breaks. It’s frustrating. We turn to hand sewing for a while and P embroiders letters in chain stitch on phone cases that he has carefully measured out 2 cms wider and longer than a phone.

Not doing looks like taking the local preschool up on the invitation to share some of our Italian with the children there. H. leads a session, carefully introducing why we are there, including all the children in the session, thinking of activities that will involve them. They sing their hearts out – Italian nursery rhymes the tunes of which the children will know from English, followed by a beautiful solo by P. The preschool children would like them to go back to teach them numbers. H and P would be delighted, they say.

We’re not doing and, on balance, we’re loving it. We haven’t done many – any – worksheets and not a great deal of writing. It would be hard to mark what we have done against a set of prescribed metrics. I’m not sure the activities could be divided up according to subject silos and I haven’t a clue whether the children are a level 3, 4 or 5. Instead I know that we have created and made, food, art, woodwork and crafts. We have questioned, wondered and marvelled. We’ve been out in the real world and had real world conversations. My brother has a poster on his wall: ‘Do what you love and the money will follow’. I am considering making my own, slightly altered version: ‘Do what you love and the learning will follow’.

 

 

 

 

A New Journey

14 March 2017

It was the fronted adverbials that did it. For every jittery moment I had in considering the next leap we were to decide to take as a family, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and spelling lists involving such vital everyday words as ‘quoits’ continually resurfaced in my mind. In the dark hours of the night these thoughts confused themselves with Gradgrind’s exacting definition of a horse, (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive….’*), and I would wake with resolve. Education has to be about more than this, right?

I was on the edge of tears when I handed the letter in and spoke to the children’s teachers. I actually like schools. Correction, I like the potential that learning in and being part of a school community has to offer. I like shared values, collaborative learning, the energy and inspiration of the most passionate teachers. I like access to resources, shared spaces, singing together, performing, assemblies. I like my children finding role models in other adults. I like the idea that one moment, one teacher, one idea can be a turning point in a child’s life. I like celebrating beautiful work through displays, I like choosing themes and exploring them through myriad connections. I like proud parent moments. And possibly more than that, I used to like proud teacher moments. I liked mentoring children, discovering new ways of helping things to click. I loved those light bulb moments. I loved it when I’d managed it and they’d been inspired.

In short, I am not anti-school.

But I am thoroughly disillusioned with the way in which the system is moving. Happiness classes being trialled for 8 year olds, stress and children’s mental health disorders costing the NHS £105 billion a year, children needing to be ‘school ready’, and the red thread linking all the reports, articles, comments… the red thread is the constant need to test, to measure through testing, to drive results upwards and forwards, at the cost of – of learning being defined by a symbolic badge, demonstrating little more than the ability of a small being to regurgitate specific information at a fixed moment in time in response to a specific question. Education has been reduced to the acquisition of a grade, of passing a test, of getting a certificate.

I want children to learn more than how to guess accurately an answer that is in my – or the examiner’s – head. And I feel the imperative for this ever more acutely when I see the rate at which the world around us is changing. As technology disrupts every area of our lives, the primacy of a knowledge-based education has to be challenged. Ironically, even as technology such as a translation ear piece reaches accuracy which will radicalise communication, mainstream education takes a step backwards, insisting on rote learning of facts, on drilling and testing. It’s the old fashioned model of children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with predetermined information, rather than the consideration of children as naturally curious, naturally ready and hard wired to learn, to question, to inquire.

I recently read a perfect analogy for the futility of constant testing: weighing yourself daily doesn’t make you lose weight. Precisely: weight loss can be sought more reliably by moving more and eating less. And testing will not lead to better results any more than weighing will lead to weight loss. Better ‘results’, or more accurately, better outcomes, or children who are better learners, more eager to learn, more able to ask pertinent questions, more inquiring of mind will be and are the natural results of environments which give children opportunities to do what they do naturally and very effectively, namely, to learn.

A few weeks ago, H. came home and told me that ‘you can’t “crash quietly into a tree.” Excuse me? H. insisted that no, you cannot, under any circumstance write the descriptive phrase, ‘“I crashed quietly into a tree”, because, Mummy, a crash is noisy, so you can’t do it quietly.’ Why not, I asked her? If you wrote that for me, I would be delighted – perhaps you would be trying to express the terrifying internal silence as your life flashes before your eyes just before the crash. No. Her teacher had said you can’t write it. So you can’t.

I don’t have issues with the teacher, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. I take issue with the fact that creative writing has become prescriptive, and at such a young age. It was bad enough at GCSE when we taught children to write for a specific reason (writing is grouped into a purpose, fitting neatly into a pithy triplet – to argue, persuade, advise or to inform, explain, describe; any child who veered off into imaginative territory which didn’t fit the marking criteria would miss the grade, however engaging, stimulating and original the work), but at least at GCSE there is the hope that you can tell the more creative students just to play the game this once and then get back to their interesting writing. H.’s comment was an insight as to why September generally began with Year 7 English classrooms filled with the same exciting simile: “I ran as fast as a cheetah.” To this is creativity in writing reduced.

So I arrive at a point in which I am by turn petrified, ecstatic, excited. I feel liberated and freed. We have stepped out. Out of an institution and into a story which we will co-create. I am under no illusions: there will be whole chapters in which I will be exhausted, distressed and questioning why I haven’t just sent them all to school to give myself a break. There will be whole chapters in which I will struggle to be teacher and mummy and still find moments to be Amy.

I hope I will remind myself in these moments of the following:

  • Before the children went to school, they actually learned a great deal. All of it without any direct instruction. They learned by imitation and experimentation, by trial and error. They learned to sit, then crawl and onwards to walk and run. They learned to speak and once they could, a whole new world of questioning was theirs. They learned lots of right and when they might have transgressed the boundaries to wrong. They learned masses about their own small world and a great deal about this massive world around them. They noticed and compared, commented and thought. They decided what and how they wanted to play.
  • I have questioned from day one whether teachers at the school really know my children or are really able to help them flourish and develop their talents. Aged four to five, H. used to create poetry books in her own time, carefully stapling pages together, writing short poems and illustrating them. This stopped with the onset of Year 1. I have wondered about a system which hasn’t the time or inclination to nurture the interests of the children within it. I’ve wondered why my children are being told to write in a prescribed way when they are in the full throes of creativity.
  • I have always been surprised by the teachers telling me what my children are capable of, as if I don’t know and then telling me what they think she/he can’t do, simply because they haven’t been privy to the insight I have.
  • Slavishly following catatonically boring reading schemes has done nothing to inspire either of my oldest two children to read. In my humble opinion, it has achieved nothing but the opposite, reducing  the fascination and wonder of words to a mind numbing linear process of decoding.
  • Although I am aware that my children would, more than likely, have left school largely unscathed and with fond memories, they would also have left thinking that learning is only learning if it is validated by a test and a mark. They would have left thinking that learning is work, to be got out of the way before the real stuff – play – can happen. The distinction between work and play was already apparent. Play was happening at home and work happening at school. Play was become what ‘I choose to do’ and work is what someone ‘makes me do’.

This is not the route I saw myself taking, but I hadn’t accounted for quite how comprehensively the national curriculum and the obsession with testing can pervade an education system. It’s another unknown and another potential risk. Today, though, the sun was actually shining brightly – quite literally. The sky was cobalt blue. It felt auspicious.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times

La Nostra Vendemmia 2016

There was no stopping the industrious P. at the land on Saturday. Replicating the vendemmie observed recently, he diligently set the crates out along the vines and grabbed his forbici for cutting.

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Tom was still asking me whether we knew the terms of Carlo’s wine offer. Would we get to taste our own wine or were our grapes going into a sfuso mix? Would he store it for us? Would he bottle it for us? For my part, I was relieved that Carlo, to whom I already felt considerable homage, was doing the first stage of the wine making process.

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There is a meditative peace to harvesting – or rather to a harvest small enough not to be overwhelming and on which one does not rely for one’s livelihood. Standing low in the field, the children’s voices faded to an incoherent babbling, interspersed with the odd rippling giggle. I wrapped myself in the gentle calls of the birds and the slice of secateurs as I snipped the grappe, my fingers gradually dirtied and roughened from picking off unwanted grapes. The rhythmic repetition of the task, as with all manual labour, is liberating. At one and the same time the mind focuses the hands on the task and yet is free to wander through thoughts, memories, possibilities. In turn and in time, this, our first vendemmia, will become the focus of reminiscence, for all of us.

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Later, the clouds draw in and we smell the rain in the air. We have stopped for lunch, the blanket spread under the fig trees, and we hungrily devour Tuscan bread and pecorino, with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh tomatoes.

The children, joined by friends helping us, are filthy, their hands stained with purple grapes and their faces streaked with dirt; they have abandoned the vendemmia now and are digging in a huge pile of unwanted sand. They create a kingdom with underground tunnels, secret passages, a domain for each of them, interconnecting paths. Their play becomes ever more elaborate. They find discarded bricks and pieces of wood to stabilise walls and passageways. Theirs is a private world, it is not ours to enter and nor do I want to. This is how the play of childhood should be: unguided and uncensored, inaccessible to adults and unrestricted by time. I feel a clarity again: this is what this year and this space has offered us. The separation from the pace of life we had. The separation from the need to be, to do, to say, indeed to perform in a certain way at a certain time. I feel more urgently than ever the prodigious need for childhood to be childhood. I feel the incongruity of the choice afforded by modernity juxtaposed with the pressures the same propagates. Gains sit uncomfortably next to losses. The paradox that our choice to come here was facilitated, even made possible only because of, our access to the very modernity we are trying to escape.

 

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The clouds look increasingly ominous. The children, cocooned in their imaginations are impervious to our voices. We leave them to their own creation, their mini-adult world and return to the vines, working with increasing pressure to fill the crates and strip the vines of the grappe before the rain sets in. We stack the crates inside the stone house and the air turns cold with the impending storm and the whole group, children included now, comes together to finish the last fila. The children join forces to haul a crate up the hill and we count them up. Fifteen crates. ‘Poci, pero’ buoni’ says Vincenzo. A small harvest, but a good one. The grapes, it seems, particularly for an amateur, are fine, good, even. Vincenzo drags his boys away from their play, they are stained with sand, inside and out. Dirty children: a direct correlation to a happy day. Adrian helps us load the crates into the cars and our neighbours come up to see how we have done. ‘Congratulazione – la vostra prima vendemmia!’ Harvesting, the coming together of the year and the bringing together of a community.

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Carlo’s cantina is in the valley below our land, with a work space inside and the equipment for the first stage set up outside, under the pergola. Crates of white grapes stand waiting as Carlo bustles around with red flexi piping. The welcome is immediate and warm. We are strangers united by this experience and I try to explain how grateful I am. Carlo is a delight: he started making wine ‘quindici anni fa’ (fifteen years ago) with ‘niente’ (nothing). This was new to him, he learned, not from his father, but from scratch. This is his passion. This and snow: wine making in the summer, ski instructing in the winter. A kindred spirit indeed for Tom. He is alive with the excited energy of a school boy about to start a science experiment. He checks the equipment, ‘speriamo’ he says – let’s hope. It should all work, but there is often something ‘impreviso’, something unforeseen. He will press the white first then move onto ours. There is a final check of equipment and several sallies back and forth into the cantina itself.

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I love the peculiar conflation of the semi-professional cantina, with the huge stainless steel barrels inside waiting to ferment the wine, and the beautifully make-shift approach, as the red piping needs to be artificially shortened, to which end it is coiled back on itself, snakes round the floor and is then strapped to a pillar, the mouth opening into the waiting barrel.

Finally, the machine is turned on and the first crates of grapes are thrown into the container at one end of this machine. Next to this is a square container, which on closer examination reveals a revolving toothed mechanism. To one side of this is another revolving toothed mechanism, opening into an empty box. From the other side the red corrugated piping leads to the waiting vat.

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The machine groans into action and immediately the raspi are spat out into waiting box – the stems are bared of their grapes with remarkable speed. The machine spits them out frenetically and the children soon gather round the crate, collecting stray raspi and tidying them into the box. Tom helps to throw the grapes in at the other end, I am called upon to hold the red piping up – it keeps threatening to break loose and flood the floor with wine, but we catch it just in time.

As the last crate of grapes is loaded in, Carlo turns delightedly to us. ‘Sai cosa abbiamo fatto?’ I love his eagerness to explain and in explaining, to share his passion with us. This first stage separates the ‘raspi’ from the rest of the grapes. Now we have the ‘uve’ with their ‘bucce’ (skins) and the ‘semi’ (pips). These white grapes will be kept in the container with their skins on only over night. The juice will then be drawn out and the grapes pressed again to remove their seeds and skins. Carlo gestures to an old fashioned looking press outside, which will be used for this process. The red grapes, conversely, will be kept in the container with their skins on for approximately 10 to 14 days. Carlo breaks open a red grape to show the clear flesh inside. The only difference between red and white wine is the skin colour. The colour of red wine is achieved through this longer period with the skin on, which also gives the red wine more tannin, the natural compound in grapes responsible for the dry taste in the mouth when drinking wine.

The white wine is finished and there is another flurry of activity as we stand by, waiting for instructions. La Principessa has woken up from her nap in the car, and is ‘in braccia’ now, partly snuggling in for warmth, partly an embrace forced by us to keep her away from the grapes which she is keen to tuck into. ‘Not eat uva, make vino?’ She asks, pouting slightly.

Stretched out to its full length, the red pipe now leads into the cantina, where it hangs over another empty barrel. Carlo explains that he will be harvesting his Sangiovese grapes next week. This barrel is for our grapes. Naturally, he cannot add his grapes to ours next week, to do so would be to ruin the quality of both wines. Tom and I exchange excited glances. The irony of worrying for weeks about the practicality of turning our grapes into wine and now, how we have fallen on our feet, being directed to Carlo at the eleventh hour. Too late to do anything, I nevertheless check with Carlo, ‘Sei sicuro? E vi si imbottigliare anche tu?’ – Are you sure, and you will bottle the wine too? ‘Ma certo!’ – Sure.

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Carlo is vibrant with energy, absorbed in the wine making process so when I propose the 50/50 share of wine which is standard here, he shrugs his shoulders: ‘Ma perche? Tranquilla’. Don’t worry – he is happy to make the wine for us. Seeing we are onto our grapes now, H. and P. rush over to help lift the cassette up, hauling the grapes into the barrel. Carlo gestures to la Principessa, offering her a grappa to throw in, making sure we are all part of this wine making process.

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And it’s finished. The crates are empty. The uve and bucce separted from their raspi. We all take a look in the barrel at the beginnings of our wine. Carlo is dragging the red piping out of the cantina. So, what next? I ask – we come back in April? ‘Ma non! Venete in due settimane’ to see the drawing off of the juice from the bucce. It is as important to Carlo as it is us that we are part of this process. ‘Ci sentiamo’, he says – we’ll be in touch. It’s raining now as we leave and the lightening forks over Montegiovi. We arrive home, wet and cold, but bubbling with the exhilaration from this day of bounty.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest; the same word is also used for ‘vintage’ as in Vendemmia 2016

Transitions

As those of you familiar with some of the best of Italy’s wines might expect, the drive from our house to Montalcino is populated by an exceptional number of vineyards. As we head down the hill, the patchwork of olive trees and vines of our panoramic view is gradually replaced by increasing numbers of perfectly pruned, immaculately kept vineyards, the precision rows of which appear to stand sentry, proud custodians of the finest Brunello di Montalcino. The Brunello di Montalcino, makers of which smile benignly down on the Val d’Orcia inferiore: the Sangiovese grape grown where we live will apparently never be capable of producing such a taste.

 

I am coming to love this drive with its infantry of vines, a guard which seems laced in a fragile irony, its grapes at the mercy of the elements. As a friend of mine said to me yesterday, he is playing a waiting game heavy with nerves. It’s a protracted game, against a powerful and unpredictable opponent. The crop looks excitingly good, but until the grapes are ready, they cannot be harvested. And until they are harvested, anything is possible.

 

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Autumn skies on the evening drive from the school home

Daily the drive is taking us longer, as more and more vineyards decide the time is most propitious and cars succumb to tractors and camions preparing for, or coming from vendemmia*. We slow down to a mild 20 miles per hour (mind you, we are still overtaken by those Italians insistent on taking the racing line and overtaking simultaneously, those who will not be slowed down by anyone’s vendemmia), and daily take stock of the status quo. At the week’s start, red crates appeared at intervals along the rows, anticipating the cutting of the grappa, hanging tantalizingly above. Today, driving home, many vineyards looked curiously barren and I realised how accustomed we have become over the last few months to turning our eyes subconsciously to bunch upon the bunch of purple grapes. The great cycle of life turns again; the end and the beginning and I feel supremely fortunate. This is what harvest means, this is what autumn signifies. Somehow my usual mixed September emotions, as I reluctantly let go of sultry summer days and yet revel in the burning beauty of autumnal richness, make more sense. The end and the beginning. The bringing together of a year’s labour, the excitement of the fruits yielded as the revolution is completed, only to start again.

P. conscientiously preparing to start school - his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

P. conscientiously preparing to start school – his new school, my school, an exciting transition for all of us

It resonates particularly now as I consider how far we have come since September 2015. It resonates as I stand in the kitchen at dinner time and prepare dinner, while the children sit together, building coronets from tiny bricks, chattering away in their mother tongue, intermingled with Italian phrases aplenty. Last night, disturbed in my sleep as I often am with three children, I couldn’t help but smile – P., who so often talks in his sleep, was muttering in Italian, ‘non, lo facciamo cosi’!’. It resonates as I hear H. in the bedroom giving S. her own private tutorial, the result of which I experience shortly after, ‘Mamma?’, ‘Yes, S.’, I reply, ‘non, Mamma, say, “si”’, she insists. S. sat with me at lunchtime yesterday and picked up the lemon, ‘Dat, “limone”‘ she pointed out to me, in precision perfect accent.

 

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

Looking from the top door of the tiny house over the land

It resonates as I pick up the phone to negotiate a deal on taking our own grapes to be pressed and take stock that I couldn’t have done that a year ago – neither in terms of owning the grapes, nor in terms of conducting the negotiation. This but one conversation in the many negotiations concerning our tiny casa rustica, standing on our hectare of olive trees and vineyards; conversations convoluted in Italian bureaucracy  which generally leave me exhausted less by translation and more by the absurd idiosyncrasies of those translations.

 

 

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Changes to our tiny casa rustica – gone are the rats and cobwebs…

 

It resonates personally as I stop for a caffe’ with our Italian neighbours and share a joke in Italian or as I feel the glorious delight of culture and communication when the owner of a local agriturismo comes over to chat to us at the village’s ‘Festa della Bruschetta dell’Olio Nuovo‘.

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Olio Nuovo, as green as it gets

Later, all five of us – la principessa included, eagerly taste the freshest green olive oil and all five of us give our opinions, coughing slightly on its coveted bitterness.

A ‘mastery’, for want of a better word, of some sort of the language is fundamental to my autumn harvest, all the richer because I know this is but the beginning: the bounty of language is endless. But harvest this year feels rich beyond language and beyond words. It cuts to my heart with that beautiful pain reserved for the most precious of bonds when I look at the children and remember where we were a year ago. I think about the ‘salto nel buio’ we took in coming here. A leap into the dark which was, on reflection, fairly brazen in its naivety and from which we are now reaping our harvests. As with all harvests – particularly of farmers with a variety of crops – there will be fruit which we would rather not keep. It is, naturally, far from perfect but it is plentiful and, right now, as the winegrowers of Montalcino revel in their purple grapes, I too am taking a moment, to pause, to reflect and to appreciate. To feel fortunate and to thank – whoever and whatever we believe in – the freedom we had to choose and the choice we made. I want to bottle the richness of this harvest, I want to lay it down with the best ‘riserva’, to be brought out in that intangible future, when memories will give succour to tired minds.

*vendemmia – the grape harvest

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How P. Will Beat the Captain and His Hired Sportsmen*

I am forced to do exactly what I’ve been harping on about for all these years.  The force is self induced: the choice to put myself in this situation was taken entirely freely.

I am being made to consider what it really means to say that in England, children learn too much, too young and my guinea pig is P.

For years I’ve struggled with an education system which brings children in at the age of four and pretty quickly subjects them to tests, from the faintly annoying to the utterly absurd.**

For years I have thought it at best risible that there can be 364 days difference in the ages of children who are arbitrarily put into a class based on their age on 1 September from which point they are measured against one another, regardless of well-intentioned teachers’ attempts to the contrary.

 

So, on a blind wing of faith, we came to Italy, a bizarre conflation of the ridiculous (a clunking, archaic state system) to the sublime  (pockets of progress, change and innovation such as Reggio Emilia). We chose Italy thinking that we would be liberated from the shackles of the English system and we would worry about inevitable adversities later.

It would have been virtually impossible to appreciate fully, until we lived it, quite how comprehensively Italy would throw P. into a radical ‘slowing down’ of his formal education. Thus  last September, when his English peers were sitting at desks, heads down, P found himself ‘back’ in materna, ‘only’ dealing with the challenge of learning a new language, in a system which is adamant that children should not learn formally until the age of six.

It means that P. is, to all intents and purposes a year ‘behind’.

He is a year ‘behind’ where he would be, or would have been forced to be, had we been subject to the English education system. He is a year ‘behind’ the parameters, standards, deadlines and requirements of a system obsessed with measurable standards. So P. hasn’t been forced to read and write so called number sentences, interpreting ‘mathematical statements involving addition, subtraction and equals signs’, he hasn’t been forced to sit down on a chair, at a table, to ‘describe position, direction and movements’, or ‘count in multiples of two, fives and tens’.

He hasn’t been made to write stories according to requirements to inform, describe, imagine, explain or whatever arbitrary writing objective has been chosen that day or week. He doesn’t have an assessment number or letter marked beside his name. He hasn’t sat down to toil over English language incongruities that could confound the mind of a boy who would rather consider the nautical purpose of the buoys he sees floating on the sea than concern himself with the illogical spelling exemplified in this sentence.

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Instead, out of school, in the long holidays and in weekends which we have reclaimed as ours, P. has climbed rocks at the rate of a mountain goat, explored rivers, built dams alone or with friends, working collaboratively or independently, he’s found some little mission and worked out how to solve it.

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He’s wondered over the changes wrought by nature through the seasons. In doing so he has – unbeknownst to him, started to play with Heraclitus’ philosophy of continual flux – wondering if it is possible to stand in the same river twice. He has wondered how the sea can be salty when the rivers are not when the rivers flow into the sea. He wonders if lightening is sharp and what exactly is air?

He has dug the earth disturbed only by the constant singing of the cicadas in the trees above him. He has, he believes, communed with deer and eagles who have befriended him, his imagination always alert to the possibility that the former could have eaten from his hand or the latter might have landed on the bench next to him. Coping with the loss of our own cat while experiencing killing of animals in the tradition of the ‘caccia’ as hunters circled the hills around us, we have talked about reincarnation. Teetering on the edge of high sensitivities, we have wondered about the potential of other lives and of what the idea of an afterlife means…

He has watched the stars at night, marvelling when he identified Mars above us and wondering what it means to be part of the solar system; he has interrogated what the idea of a black hole means: how could this world we know ever end if the star on which we rely burns out. He has tried to align his growing understanding of science with his sense of faith – how can humans not exist, if our spirits live on after we die, Mummy? You said that Zephyr’s spirit lived on. You said that we would go to the same heaven. How can there not be a world if we carry on as spirits?

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He has set up experiments with ice and water and challenged me to make vinegar react with bicarbonate to make his jet boat go, modifying constantly his own experiments. He has moved from one compulsive obsession to another, wondering how the boat we take to Elba floats on the water and then constructing his own fleet of ferries from Lego when we come home, displaying them according first to design, then to size.

He has started to uncover ancient Rome and the empire, standing in the amphitheatre at the Roman ruins local to us, he has interrogated the joys of a superlative acoustic space. He has visited Venice, experiencing its mesmerising beauty. Choosing his mask he engaged with the notion of disguise and playing, admiring the exploitation of subterfuge when Venice was a bustling port to the rest of the world.

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So, no, P. cannot yet write number sentences, or chant his multiples of two, he doesn’t know that the books we read together have been defined by the powers that be to have a specific purpose – to entertain or inform, apparently (it always amuses me how mutually exclusive are these definitions of the purpose of writing).

No, he cannot perform these prescribed tasks, because he’s been too busy playing. He’s been too busy tinkering with Lego or moving rocks by the river. He hasn’t watched the clock tick slowly in a classroom, his bottom wriggling with pent up energy, because he’s been too immersed in exploring, creating and pushing his boundaries.

So now, I have to have the courage of my convictions. I have to believe whole- heartedly in the very instinct that brought me here. And that means to believe that it will all come good, that the application of ‘formal learning’ doesn’t have to be imposed – too much, too young. I have to walk the talk of Finland, albeit I am doing it against the grain of the system in which we will ultimately have to operate.  I have to resist comparison to his peers, whose parents are my friends, and not succumb to the competition to be measurable and measured that is insidiously eroding the true meaning and value of learning. I have to believe that now, ripe with curiosity and bursting with questions, he will be best placed to allow the ‘formal’ learning to slot into place and overlay this year of constant play. I have to have courage in my own conviction that his intrinsic love of discovery will carry him through.

*It’s a slightly elusive title if you aren’t familiar with Quentin Blake’s tale of Tom, who spends his day fooling around, tinkering and playing and never doing as he’s asked. His stern, authoritarian aunt despairs of him, but guess who comes out trumps?

** Take the Year 1 automaton, sorry, ‘reading’ test, which requires children to decode so-called “words” which don’t even exist.

Setting up School

Our immersion in Italian bureaucracy a few weeks ago, when buying our piccolo fabbricato rustico, is naturally but the beginning of a segue into what we are fondly calling our bella avventura.

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While we have been fast track learning how to prune olive trees and keep vines, I have also been intrigued by my collaborations with a culturally different mindset, joining up with a small group of Italians and internationals to set up a progressive, independent school here in Tuscany.

In attempting this, I am struck by how very much more possible things are, on one level, with how very much more complicated they are on another. Thus I alternate between being inspired and frustrated. Establishing a school, albeit a modest prototype at present, ironically feels infinitely more possible here than it would do in the UK. There are laws here, but there are also interpretations of laws and there are the odd laws that are more ‘belle’ than ‘brutte’. So while the state school system is rigid to a T, and entering a regular state school classroom would remind one of 1950s England, a key law governing education of children states only that parents have a duty to ensure that their ‘child is educated’. This is markedly different from a law saying that parents have a duty to send their children to school. So far, not so very different from UK law which allows for children to be homeschooled.

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The school building, set among fields and vineyards.

What marks Italy as an interesting place in which to try to do something different is the way in which it is possible to move from homeschooling (and frankly, anyone who can homeschool his or her own child deserves to be kept in mind for canonization) to setting up an establishment which can deliver education, but is not subject to the application forms, red tape, rules and approval that would be needed to create a Free School in the UK or indeed the regulations that a quick google reveal are required to establish a UK based private school. Thus here, an associazione is formed, fees for schooling are taken in the form of monthly subscriptions to the association, of which all parents and children attending school automatically become members. The school is therefore established and run in essentially the same way as a sports or social club, with a committee of a minimum of three named persons responsible for finance and administration thereof. The school’s articles, which we have written, are as wide and all encompassing as possible, allowing for the school to diversify as it grows.

Bingo, we are essentially setting up a very, very small quasi-private school. Freed from the fetters of state education administration, we are freed from such absurd rules as that which requires permission for a parent to donate to pupils photocopies of an educational book on growing your own vegetables…For sure, there will be stumbling blocks ahead and Italian bureaucracy will no doubt frustrate frequently, but within impossibilities here, it is the glimmers of possibilities which have allowed us to get this far that we need to pursue.

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Clearing the building

Bringing an Anglo-Saxon mindset to a meeting with a group of Italians on getting the school up and running, however, is another story. I am drawing on all my Arab blood and background to try to bring to the fore a mentality more akin to the Italians in the group. An early meeting was a perfect illustration of the confusione we have to overcome to make this project operate. Present: two Italian from the north; one Italian from the south; one British-other (that’s me; I feel the ‘other’ Arab blood is of particular importance in such circumstances); one Swiss/American (C.); one British/Ukrainian (A.) and one British (N.) who has lived here for years, speaks fluent Italian and has agreed to coordinate and facilitate meetings and the cultural exchange.   The distinction between the Italians from the north and from the south is important, the mindset of Italians being so regionally specific.

Arriving home from the meeting, which had run for two hours, and would have continued had we not curtailed it, Tom asked me how it had gone. I was, rarely for me, a little lost for words. Finally, I came up with ‘indescribable’. Under the impression that the meeting’s purpose had been to distill the school’s philosophy into a succinct and marketable form which could be used to attract more parents; to consider in more detail what the school day would look like; to allocate specific roles to group members and to discuss the development of the website, I felt slightly detached from myself as the ‘meeting’ unfolded before me. A. opened the meeting with a clear statement and focus, but within minutes we seem to have digressed entirely from any decision making on the point made, and thoughts flitted about, covering the teaching day, drawing parents in, what we wanted children to feel like.  All lovely points, but none of them particularly to the point.  As the discussion descended into a debate between the northern and southern contingents of the group, A. and I tried to bring the meeting back to the focus, and I tried to translate mentally, contribute verbally (my Italian feeling hopelessly broken and inadequate) and respond to endearing comments la Principessa’s was whispering in my ear.  This cycle of a point being made, followed by elaborate and inconclusive discussion repeated itself throughout the meeting, to such a point that when A. asked N. for translation of what exactly was going on, N. laughed that he couldn’t really translate, there not even being agreement between the Italians. C. went off to stretch in despair at trying to operate like this and I continued to feed rice cakes to la Principessa, who was blissfully unaware of any sense of lack of achievement, happy to have me sitting still in one place for more than five minutes so that she could keep up with her running commentary, (‘Ah, Mamma, num-num. Nice num-num. Mamma no eat num-num? Me more num-num.’ And so on)

Just as A., C. and I were at the point of deciding to quit while ahead and take our toddlers home to bed, there was a flurry of action and a delegation of roles: A. and I were to work on distilling the philosophy, I was to work on curriculum overview and A. was to take on the website development.

So that’s all good then.

And thus, it seems to me, we played out the physical equivalent of an Italian newspaper article, in which the ‘noce’ of the story is often completely obfuscated within elaborate, embellished, albeit beautiful, language and style. Precision and focus in writing is perceived as cold and the same, I feel, would be true of a meeting driven by a clear, formal agenda. Yet at the end of the meeting, there was a sense of movement and progression. As my friend, married to a Sicilian, pointed out to me later, it’s about putting aside the Anglo-Saxon expectation of how things ‘should’ be done, and recognizing that there is more than one way to operate. The Italian interest in the ornate linguistically transposes itself into its modus operandi. There are many challenges ahead in bringing this school to fruition, not least the culturally different mindsets of those of us who are involved. But, handled correctly, the conflation of the organizational discipline of the Anglo Saxon mindset and the internal know-how and sensitivities of the Italians, could ultimately be the strength of the school. Indescribable, yes – or rather, not something I would describe as a meeting… but mulling it over since, I have hopes that our diversity could prove the strength to realise the vision, and in this little corner of Tuscany we will found an exciting, inspiring and progressive educational experience.

 

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Rainbows

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mission Outdoors. Part 2

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Mission Get The Children Outside continued at the end of winter with Strand B: Bring the Outside into the School Day. Naively, I thought that this might be relatively straightforward in a senza zaino school. Instead, I have stood face-to-face with what it is to be culturally at odds with the place in which I am living. I have felt keenly the British-ness of my blood even as the same blood fires up in the passionate emotion I attribute more readily to a different heritage.

One of the foundations of a senza zaino school is the involvement of parents and the community. Thus it was that I mooted, en passant, with the maestre, the possibility of spending more time outside, particularly given that there was, thus far, no provision for ‘ginnastica’ in the school week. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate misunderstanding, control over the school day or lack of experience of teaching within this type of system, but the suggestion was pretty much rejected. Even under the ‘banco del tempo’, apparently we parents cannot simply come in to play ball games with the children in the field. I rather wondered to myself why not, but for now, left it at that, even while the teacher continued to exspostolate as to how cold it was outside, apparently further fuel to their belief that the children’s health is protected by being inside.

Thus it was that the group of like-minded and, it has to be said, mainly international parents rallied together to consider how we might address this situation, all of us aware of the detrimental effect of limited time outside on our children’s behaviour.

One of the very lovely banco del tempo projects of last school year was the orto or vegetable garden, developed using traditional permaculture and organic methods. Embraced by parents and teachers last year, everyone seems keen to maintain it this year. Thus it was that we decided to try to extend the project and begin it sooner, in order to get the children outside from now, ahead of our schedule to dig the ground over and think about earth, water and planting from early Spring.

So we planned to begin with the children and the community: a core value of the senza zaino school is to harmonise links between school and community and the majority of local children are from farming and agricultural backgrounds. I ran this idea past the teacher…. and was disappointed to be met with, what I considered a fairly luke-warm response*, mainly concerning the number of projects running in the school and the potentially compromising effect this could have on learning… argh, my Italian lets me down again: surely such a comment rather misses the point of senza zaino, where learning should be happening through diversity of projects and a range of non-traditional teaching methods. I showed the teacher the orto plan and suggested ways in which we could bring the curriculum in, there being opportunities for maths and science a-plenty, to say nothing of related writing activities. No, it is ‘piu commodo’ apparently, to teach inside in the classroom… The case for outdoors just grew stronger: such a comment is fuel for my fire. I re-organise my strategy:

  1. get the children outside for the orto project;
  2. try to build some maths into the orto project;
  3. demonstrate through this that it is possible for children to learn through experience, outside;
  4. use the senza zaino philosophy and vision slowly to try to encourage the maestra to have the courage to teach differently.

I start with a) and b); c) and d) are longer term aims. I think I will have to move piano piano, with the support of as many other parents as possible, if we are to make progress.

But it feels like a golden opportunity. This senza zaino school is young, only in its second or third year of being. We need to harness this novelty and surely we should aspire to it being practically and truly a senza zaino school, moving it away from paying lip service to the theory and only implementing those elements such as classroom arrangement which are easy to enforce. The real value of this kind of education lies in how children take responsibility for their own learning; how a school engenders in children a true love of learning by engaging them in their education; how a small school setting can offer an education which is less restricted by formalities and therefore more open to diversity of teaching ideas and methods. So, now it’s time to try to negotiate labyrinthine Italian bureaucracy in a bid to affect small changes…

*More on this next time… suffice to say, for now, that it’s interesting trying to interpret and understand properly nuance and intended meanings cross-culture and language.

Loving Language

 

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I was delighted to read in a (relatively recent) paper of the beneficial effects on the brain of learning a second language.

A tangential segue here into newspapers: I miss them. I have tried reading them on line, but I’m afraid it doesn’t cut the mustard. Newspapers, like books, need to be held. Newspapers enjoy being rustled and flicked out peremptorily, if necessary. Headlines like to be scanned in a way which just isn’t satisfied by scrolls and clicks. Suffice to say, therefore, that I am always delighted when a copy of one of the big UK dailies makes its way over to me, albeit days or weeks in arrears.

This particular article cited ‘good evidence to show that bilingualism could protect the brain in later life’ with Professor Antonella Sorace of Bilingualism Matters Centre at Edinburgh University saying that, ‘bilingualism opens the mind in a very fundamental way’, improving mental ability and warding off possible mental decline in later life. Nowadays of course ‘studies into…’ are sometimes so ubiquitous that if one looks hard enough, it’s possible to find statistical support for even the most absurd life choices. However, as a fully signed up language aficionado, I naturally revel in this kind of study, particularly when said professor is reported recommending that children ‘learn languages from the age of five until they reach university.’

H. and P. are perhaps a little too young to appreciate the significance of the potential long term effects of being here, but with mental health issues so prevalent in the news, and having recently watched Still Alice (yes, yes, I know that, as usual, I’m at least a year late with anything vaguely pertaining to popular culture… ), it’s good to know that we are oiling the right cogs to improve cognitive function in later life.

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And it has indeed been fascinating watching and listening to all three children learn through this non-optional immersion, and particularly interesting to observe how each child’s age, previous learning experience and emotional response to the enormous change of moving here, has affected their responses to la lingua Italiana.

 

It would be fair to say that, until recently, P. superficially, at least, has been stubbornly refusing to admit to the young brain’s natural malleability and aptitude for language acquisition. However even his dogged determination* is belied by ‘off guard’ moments, such as that a while ago, when, overtired and overwrought, he went to bed worrying about school the next day, ‘I don’t want to go to school tomorrow, Mummy, I’ve got to talk in Italian all day and I don’t even know how to say “I don’t know”!’

I can help with that, I countered: ‘Non so.’

So automatic was Peter’s reply that he forgot to impose his self-regulated check: ‘“Non LO so” Mummy!’ he corrected me, nonchalantly inserting the article I am all too apt to forget.

It was one of those moments. He’d inadvertently given the game away and I tried not to let me my smile show. His accent was spot on: my ‘so’ sounded a bit like the English ‘so’, P.’s ‘o’ was short, clipped and Italian. What a gift: a mind malleable enough to absorb the accent so effortlessly and so accurately.

This moment, coming also at a time at which Tom and I have worked hard to try to assuage P.’s fears and help him respond to the change he has found so hard, marked something of a turning point for him and with some small differences at school and efforts at home, he is gradually letting down the language-resistant guard he had put up. Last week he happily told the teacher that, ‘il babbo viene prendermi prima pranzo oggi perché ce l’ho la tossa’. That’s quite a few words for a boy who has hitherto insisted he doesn’t speak the language. It’s amazing what one can communicate when one wants to…I have a feeling that he’ll be able to chat too, when he has a few snowboarding lessons on the mountain…

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From day one, H. embraced Italian, picking up bits and pieces over our summer of fun and building on this more formally from September in school. H’s situation has undoubtedly been made easier by age and circumstance: placed in the second school year in Italy and already a competent reader and writer in English, she has been able to slip into learning here, picking up the language through the curriculum without having to overcome the hurdles of learning to read and write and growing both linguistically and emotionally. Just last night, as I muttered to myself: ‘Dov’é i miei guanti?’, H’s automatic response was spot on: unconcerned by the whereabouts of the gloves themselves, she nevertheless quickly corrected me, ‘dove sono i miei guanti’. Of course, I’d used the singular instead of the plural of the verb. I stood corrected and very happy. Elsewhere, H has grown in confidence out of the home, thoroughly revelling in taking responsibility for ordering coffees, cakes and hot chocolates in Italian when out and about, booking restaurant tables over the phone and happily taking responsibility for bringing Daddy up to speed on various linguistic necessities.

Hwriting2The cursive script H. has learned at school here is a beautiful visual testimony to the working of a young mind ready to absorb learning. We came down from playing in the snow on the mountains yesterday to spot the first violets and crocuses of spring. Face turned to the first warmth of spring sunshine, H remarked: ‘I know why it’s primavera in Italian, Mummy – it means first truth which is right with all the life coming.’ Such moments are affirmations for me: this journey has been tricky at times, but how glorious to experience the connections being made in children’s minds and the learning that happens when they are given the space to absorb, move and respond at their own pace. The beauty of language and the beauty of life fused together in a passing comment which meant so much.

 

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*A symptom largely of his difficulty settling into the materna school and the confusion of being too young here in Italy to start Primaria before September this year.

 

 

The Great Outdoors

It goes without saying that immersing oneself in another culture serves to accentuate one’s own sense of identity, both personal and national. Immersing oneself with children amplifies this, particularly when said children attend school in another place.

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The kind of winter we’ve been having…

I am reminded of how strange I appeared to locals when living and studying in the Middle East. I would walk apparently unfathomable distances, setting off to tuts and mutterings that it’s ‘ba’ed’ – far away – and impossible to undertake such a journey without a car. Likewise, I craved light and the sun and would emerge from shuttered houses onto balconies long before locals set foot outside.

Similarly, here in Italy, my attitude to the outside sometimes seems diametrically opposed to that of the locals and nowhere do I struggle with this more than with the children’s school. The first few times the children told me they’d been inside all day, I shrugged it off and changed the subject. However, as the autumn days drew in and winter months arrived, I quizzed them a little more, to be met with their insistence that they were inside all day. This was puzzling because, while we have been coasting through the darker months – December, January and now February – winter itself has yet to make an appearance. Save a week in late January in which we were greeted with stunning displays of frost such as that below, I have been struggling to find a use for my woolly hat and thick boot socks. Even on colder days, there has been little rain to speak of, certainly none of the weather that might actually stop teachers in the UK from throwing the doors open and the children outside.

 

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And there’s another point: in the UK said children will often be outside in shorts and or skirts and socks, running around the playground, scraping knees and throwing coats off even while their breath marks the air before them. Indeed it is with a heavy sigh on days of torrential rain that teachers tend to resign themselves to the boisterous behaviour which usually accompanies days on which children have been cooped up.

Not so here: in Italy I have been scolded on mild and sunny October days for my children being outdoors without hats. One is left wondering if there is some bureaucratic legislation decreeing a date in the autumn from which hats must be worn and play must be taken inside and a date in the spring from which we can revert to lighter clothes and outdoor play.

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View from the children’s school 

I broached The Great Outdoors with the teachers one morning, asking if, given it was a lovely sunny day, P. could play outside. The school has a lovely field overlooking the glorious valley. It’s a travesty not to use it. My query was met with exasperated looks and the same explanation I have heard innumerable times since: ‘if the children go outside, they will get colds and coughs; we have some children who had bronchitis last year, how can they go outside in the winter?’ This is where I find my Italian lets me down, frustrating my ability to articulate clearly the many arguments for playing outside. I try to moot whether children dressed appropriately in warm clothes might not benefit from the fresh air. I attempt to point out that keeping thirty children cooped up in a few rooms for eight hours is more likely to propagate the spreading of germs, to say nothing of the effect it will have on their behaviour. I mention the health benefits to children of daily exercise and movement.

My comments are met with blank stares: ‘fa freddo fuori, come si fa?’ – it’s cold outside, what are we to do?

I leave, vexed both by my language and by this closed mindset, yet at the same time conscious that I am the outsider who has chosen to live here. And that means choosing to take the rough with the smooth. I try to focus on the smooth, in this case the smooth that I can do with regard to school: I can take the children out of school early when I feel they need a break. I can offer my help as a parent through the banco del tempo of this Senza Zaino school movement which embraces parental engagement.

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A place to play

So, to start with, I park the car 15 minutes’ walk away from school. I collect the children early most days, to give ourselves time to play outside We walk to the car, run about in the olive trees and play in the beautiful stone ruins, shouting to the skies and the birds, looking up to the mountain, which seems to approve of our outdoor abandonment. The wind catches our breath and reddens our cheeks; our fingers tingle with the cold. La Principessa races forward with her hands behind her, flying to keep up with her siblings. I realise that this is probably good for me too.

We climb into the car to go home and I start to plan how I can take the outdoors into the children’s school day….

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The Walkie Talkie Walk

P1020161Walkie Talkies topped both H. and P.’s letters to Father Christmas this year.  Father Christmas evidently concurred that this was a great idea and H. and P. each opened one half of a pair of walkie talkies on 25 December. La Principessa looked on, eyebrows raised, ‘Me?’ I attempted to distract her with a rather lovely painted wooden recorder from her stocking… however, I think Father Christmas is already resigned to another walkie talkie appearing in the house well ahead of 25 December 2016.

Up, dressed and full of the day’s excitement, we suggested that the children play outside with their new toys, to test the range, while we sorted out breakfast before the grandparents arrived.

Some ten to 15 minutes into the range test, the children finally realised that walkie talkies work best if both participants are using the same channel and I popped outside to see how they were enjoying this new form of communication.

I found P. armed with a long pointed stick, ‘I’ve got my spear,’ he announced, ‘I’m going to walk down to Granny and Grandpa’s!’

Really, I asked – on your own?

He was adamant and apparently fearless.

I asked H. if she wanted to go with him. No, she didn’t.

I tried asking again, this time suggesting that she should go with him. No, she shouldn’t, apparently: ‘P, you go, I’ll stay up here with the walkie talkie and check you’re ok,’ she said. I liked her inversion, presenting staying behind at Base Camp with the walkie talkie as an important role of responsibility, thereby deflecting attention from the fact that she was secretly a little afraid of walking down with P, alone, to the apartment their grandparents were staying in.

By this time, P. was at the bottom of the drive, radio-ing in. ‘I can hear you, Mummy. I’m on the lane, I’m ok’.

For a minute, H. toyed with the idea of joining him – she even ran down to the lane, only to turn round the moment she was off the boundary to return to the security of the house.

Meanwhile, the intrepid explorer and his spear had dipped out of sight. I should explain that I could see the end point for which P was aiming. It’s about 20 minutes walk away, all on the stone tracks that pass for roads cutting through the hills and olive groves here. We’ve done the walk together countless times, and I was under no doubt that P. knew the way – it being only two turns, would not get lost and, on Christmas Day, there was likely to be none of the ‘traffic’ that we do sometimes meet passing to and from the olive press.

Nevertheless, this was a Milestone with a capital M. It’s one thing to know the route, to make a judgement that it’s safe and not to be worried about cars on roads, it’s another to watch your five and a half year old boy walk off by himself, with his trusty spear (and walkie talkie). I tried to put myself in his shoes: what does it feel like to be five years old, walking down a lane surrounded by nothing but the silence of the olive trees (and one’s walkie talkie)?

I’ve thought before (here) about the notion of labels such as ‘danger’ and ‘dangerous’ and the fear with which we, as parents, imbue our children. It’s a well-intended fear, borne from love and fuelled by a primal desire to protect. I know that from an early age, I taught my children to stand away from cars, to think about where they were walking, to look before running across the road. Though I might have tried to explain rationally, very real dangers meant that in practice this often became an alert: ‘Don’t!’, Stop!’, ‘Careful!’ and ‘Watch out!’ peppered our walks to school in the UK. In trying to teach them that we need to take care around cars, amongst other things, I unwittingly instilled in my children fears which at times have become distorted and as they become older, I have seen them worry disproportionately in spaces and places where I feel considerably more comfortable. H.’s reluctance to walk down with P. was a manifestation of just such a fear mingled with her own need to be ready, at her own time, to take that kind of independent step.

So when P. took to the lane on Christmas Day, I felt fortunate that we are in a space in which he can make bold choices and gain so much strength from the satisfaction of doing something on his own. I burst with pride when he arrived at the gate to the apartment and radio-ed in. ‘I’m here, Mummy, I can see Grandpa’. His little voice crackled down the line, a fitting reminder that, only 50-odd years ago, the notion of children running wild all day in the countryside would have been commonplace. How far we have come in such a short time, and yet what have we lost?

Apparently he slipped into the apartment with Grandpa and sat down to a bowl of museli. When he came back up to the house later, I asked him how he felt. ‘Good, Mummy. It was a bit scary. But I knew my way.’

 

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