Learning to Remember

My office window overlooks the hallowed grounds of a primary school playground. I call it “hallowed”, for here is a place where magic happens.

On the surface, this playground is much like many playgrounds in schools across the world. It is square, it has some climbing frames in one corner, some grassy areas and sitting spaces for hanging out and a big open space in the middle for running, kicking balls, dancing about and general frolicking (frolicking in the way that only little people know how).

Yet this is a space where all of the dramas of the world are played out: where joy, grief, elation and devastation swirl amongst the skipping ropes and snotty noses, and where every emotion is poured out to its heart-bursting extremity at some point during each day. In this little square, in between the thrice-daily peeling of the school bell, life happens in full multi-colour glory.

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One of the most important things going on in this playground and playgrounds across the world is the practice of “learning to connect”. Here we have little people from all over the place coming together each day and being invited to quite simply “get along”.

This playground bustles with the mishmash of jumbled lives tumbling together. It is at times shrill with melodies of high-pitched giggles and hysterical laughter, at other times it is bleak with the mournful wails of childhood distress. It is a place of intense joy – of skipping, sliding, racing and running, dashing, jumping and tumbling with full-hearted abandon. It is place of conflict, where little tempers fly and personalities clash; tears flowing through open taps and wails of sheer agony piercing the air as worlds fall apart…only to be forgotten moments later when more interesting distractions come along.

This playground fills the sky with an energy that seems to hold the answer to a great secret alluding so many of us in our current lives. This secret is neither profound nor revolutionary, it’s neither sophisticated nor illusive. It is a secret that any of us can unlock if we choose to look for it. And it is found inside every single one of those little people that will inhabit the horizons of our tomorrows.

Author Charles Eisenstein talks about “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” in many of his narratives. This phrase has preoccupied me ever since I first heard it, as it somehow hints at something that we carelessly seem to have forgotten. Yet finally this phrase is something that I am starting to see, hear and fully understand - all thanks to this little playground in an average little school in a small town in Devon.

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Primary school playgrounds are spaces endowed with the freedom to be and the freedom to become. They are places where imaginations grow and fly with each passing day; where adventures are played out, relationships explored and endless mysteries uncovered. In essence, they are places where children are learning to live. As in any school yard (and microcosms of society), there are moments when harmony happens and moments when it doesn’t. Such is life. However, what is noticeable with these children (and with young children all over the world, these Devon lot are no different from the rest) is their innate ability to know how to deal with things when they aren’t going so well, in order to make them right again and to stay connected.

Here are the most typical conflict-resolution tactics employed by little people in the playground:

  1. Cry

  2. Tell

  3. Fight

  4. Get over it

Let’s do a quick analysis of each of these simple yet genius strategies:

1. Cry.
This is, quite clearly, the best strategy a kid has when things go pear-shaped. It is a loud demonstration of wrong-doing that everyone is invited to witness. It is heartfelt, open and transparent, and an emotionally honest reaction when something negative comes along.

For some kids, crying is enough to appease the situation. They’ll cry for a little while and then forget about it – vent their grief, anger and distress to the world and then move on. For others, the crying is just stage one in the process and often continues throughout all four conflict-resolution stages. Yet whatever the case and however lengthy the tears, crying is the most frequently used device, possibly because it is the most open, honest and heartfelt.

2. Tell.

This is, again, a great tactic employed by little people to deal with problems. There are several sorts of telling. Most frequent is the whiny, threatening sort of telling such as, “I’m going to tell on you”, or “I’m telling the teacher”: a cunning tactic often used to instill fear in the wrong-doer, who will possibly backtrack on their current trajectory when they realise that the ‘teacher’ may get involved.

It is also a tactic used to elicit an empathic response from a caregiver – to get a hug or some sympathy from someone ‘in charge’. Whatever its purpose, it is again an open, honest and direct way of showing distress that brings in other people to help appease the situation and has opportunity for expressing emotions.

3. Fight
Dealing with the problem head-on is another tactic employed by little people. Sometimes this can be through fisticuffs, hair-pulling or other physical frustrations. Sometimes it can be through frank and direct dialogue such as, “I don’t like it when you do that”, or “You were really mean to me this morning”. I have overhead many such conversations floating up through the office window this past year, real genuine hurt being exposed and expressed with an invitation to “discuss” these sad feelings in order to resolve them. There is no shame or cunning in these invitations, simply an honest sharing of emotional distress. Even when confrontations involve hair-pulling or physical antagonism, there is an honesty in these confrontations and an emotional transparency which helps to quickly restore harmony and connection.

4. Get over it
Here is the greatest wisdom that little children have to teach us: they don’t harbour grudges for long. They let things go, move on, get over it. One minute life isn’t worth living any more, and the next they’re skipping merrily across the playground. One moment somebody is the greatest enemy ever, the next they are the best thing since yoyos and top trumps. The ability to express emotions openly is something that little kids don’t seem to even think about, it is just a natural part of what needs to happen to live together well.

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Little children live honestly, voraciously and wholeheartedly. They are, on the whole, naturally empathic. If you put any child together with a younger child, the older one will most likely naturally start to elicit care-giving tendencies very quickly. Put little children or babies in the same room with a crying child, and the others will also soon start to cry, sharing the distress of the crier. This natural urge to empathise, nurture and connect has been seen and observed in endless social-scientific studies, as well as observed naturally in communities and cultures across the world. The innate ability to care for and connect with others around them is a natural quality in young children. It is unfortunately often something that we forget or suppress as we get older, as we are slowly taught to judge, to fear, to separate and to disconnect.

Teacher and author Donella Meadows writes: "Children, before they are squashed by cynicism, are natural visionaries. They can tell you clearly and firmly what the world should be like. There should be no war, no pollution, no cruelty, no starving children. There should be music, fun, beauty, and lots and lots of nature. People should be trustworthy and grownups should not work so hard. As they grow up, children learn that these visions are “childish” and stop saying them out loud. But inside all of us, if we haven’t been too badly bruised by the world, there are glorious visions”.

Herein lies the magical part of the secret that is being revealed to us every day in the little people around us. We already know how to find the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible because that knowing is already within us. It’s just that we have forgotten what we used to know somewhere along the way when we ‘grew up’, when we were at some point in our lives taught to disconnect from our emotional honesty and our natural, inherent desire to connect.

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So here’s a question: what would happen if, rather than teach our children to separate, to judge, to disconnect, we instead taught them to show compassion, to empathise, to celebrate diversity, to have confidence in their emotions and to feel honest and true to themselves? What would happen if our schools openly taught the value of connection – to ourselves, to each other and to the natural world around us? What would happen if our learning models valued and upheld the inherent wisdom that we are all born with and helped us learn to remember what we all know (or even better, never allow us to forget…)

Maybe that ‘more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’ could finally start to become a reality rather than a long-forgotten memory. Maybe. Just maybe.

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Rachel Musson | Director of ThoughtBox Education.

ThoughtBox is a social enterprise working in schools to support a next generation of compassionate and connected thinkers.

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