One evening last week I found myself, along with six other parents and teachers, sitting around a low table located in the basement classroom of a small Brooklyn cooperative pre- school. A candle, giving off peaceful aromas, was lit and we were all focused on the gentle-looking man at the head of the table. After introductions, he reached his hand upwards and grasped at an imaginary piece of the sky, explaining what happened when he did the same with a group of kindergarten children. “Can we bring back a small piece of the sky to share?” Without questions or doubts, the children caught the sky in their hands and carefully shared it with each other. This gentle man that I’m referring to is Richard Lewis, founder of the Touchstone Center in NYC.
For decades Richard has been exploring the role of poetry, art and fantasy in the lives and imaginations of children. At our meeting he shared a marvelous story that took place last March, a month filled with crazy fluctuating weather. One windy day, while walking in Central Park, he came across a young boy gathering twigs. Very purposefully, the child piled the twigs one over the other. His mother, who was standing quietly nearby, observed but didn’t intervene. At one point the child lifted the pile and moved it to another spot, standing quietly, looking at the twigs. He seemed to almost be in a state of reverie. This small boy appeared to be taking part in an age-old ritual of gathering.
Perhaps, Richard posited, this child was making a poem. The twigs were the words that he was carefully arranging in an arrangement that pleased him. Perhaps children have a natural poetic instinct.
We adults at the table shared childhood memories, and even more recent adult memories, of gathering and arranging – sea glass, shells, stones, even my memory of arranging and talking to my Tinkertoy sticks as a young child in my solitary play. It was obvious as we shared our stories that this kind of gathering play lasts a lifetime.
Our discussion turned to how children invent an inner language of play and the way that this is method of connecting to something that is a non-verbal feeling about the world. Children show amazement about the natural world. To support this instinctual awe, more schools are nurturing this by creating time and space for exploring parks, woods (Forest School), and even the little bits of natural world that pushes itself out from the cracks in an urban streetscape. However, parents and educators need to take care not to create a contemporary problem by substituting this natural amazement with a mechanical amazement as children spend more and more time with Ipads, Iphones, computers, television and videos. Children once spent hours outdoors interacting with and exploring the natural environment . Now, for so many children, those hours are spent indoors, glued to some sort of screen
When we teach young children, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first grade and beyond, it’s so easy to get caught up in the practicalities, the data, the lesson plans, and all the daily rituals of classroom life. But Richard left me with a simple and yet complex question, one that I will want to hold onto as I spend our time with teachers and children.
What is wonder?
Some books by Richard Lewis:
- To See
- Play, Said the Earth to Air
- Living by Wonder: The Imaginative Life of Childhood
- When thought is Young: Reflection on Teaching and the Poetry of the Child
- Taking Flight, Standing Still: Teaching Toward Poetic and Imaginative Understanding
- The Bird of Imagining: Illustrated by Children from New York City Public Schools
- A Tree Lives
- Each Sky Has Its Words
- I Catch My Moment: Art and Writing by Children on the Life of Play
- Sea Tale
- From the Sleep of Waters
- Shaking the Grass for Dew
- Cave: An Evocation of the Beginnings of Art
- In the Space of the Sky
- We Are Rivers
- All of You Was Singing