Children, Empathy, Ideas and Ecology

maxresdefaultLoris Malaguzzi, recalling Barry Commoner wrote that ‘ecology will be the alphabet of the future.  We are part of an ecosystem…our earthly journey is a journey made together with the environment, with nature, with the cosmos…[This is] where the great web of our lives exists.”  

Malaguzzi, inspired also by Gregory Bateson was convinced that children, like adults are not separate to and living upon this world but are an integral part of it.  They both talk about the interconnectedness of systems within systems and that nothing can ever be seen in isolation.  It is not about parts or wholes but as a self organising, relational learning system.

There is a vitality and life to learning with and of children, they do not stand still, instead they move with energy making connections between connections.  They are multi-modal with each modality informing each other.  I think this is what Malaguzzi describes in the 100 Languages of Children poem, not of individual languages of learning but of how each language relates to another and another and so on…

This way of working in a relational way or as they say in Reggio ‘a pedagogy of relations’ can make teaching complex.  There are no timetables or boxes, or set lessons for children… we might think we are teaching this and that, but to the young child, their learning is a continuum of continuums.  I have seen this first hand, when observing children in a nursery aged three and four – they move like the wind or as Nora Bateson commented like synapses in the brain and so do their ideas.  Some teachers might think they are flitting, or not settling, or even worse, off task, but they are often deeply engaged in ways in which many an adult has forgotten to be.  Learning flows, not in one direction, but in many directions with no beginning and no end, a complex web, Malaguzzi’s idea of the great web of our lives.

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Patterns of the trees music, Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford, UK


So what happens when children are in nature, feeling their ecological connection to the greater web?  Sometimes they might stop and wonder, in awe of leaf, or feather, or tree, but hardly do they stay still at that.  They don’t want to label or categorise what they have found for that is to put it into a ‘box’ that takes it away from the interconnected web.  Instead their curiosity leads them to wonder about the connections it holds, how it is organised with others that might be similar or different.  They look for Gregory Bateson’s ‘patterns that connect’.

When finding many curled up leaves that had fallen to the ground, one group of three year olds commented that they were poorly, that they had lost their Mommy who was waiting for them back up in the tree. The fact that the leaves were curled up inside one another was to them a way of giving each other a hug. Children elsewhere, also three and four try to take the leaves back, returning them to whence they came as if they had become lost from each other.  Another group of children, upon seeing a crisp golden floor of leaves used them metaphorically to create a leaf blanket “to keep the tree warm.”   Another child, made a scarf for a single autumnal leaf “Because it‘s winter and it will get cold, that’s why it has fallen off the tree.”

Exploring the variation and tonal hues of autumnal colour. A five year olds composition. Stockholm, Sweden

Children have a strong sense of empathy with the world and the cosmos.  One could argue that this empathy is already inside of them and that it comes out in conditions that foster and generate it.  It makes me feel sad when children are ‘taught’ about empathy, as if it isn’t a capability of theirs already waiting for itself to become known.  Children reveal their deep sense of emotional and physical empathy with the leaves of this world as they do with trees, branches, and insects etc.  It is important to cultivate this disposition already inside of the children if they are to maintain this empathy with the world and its finite resources.

So what are the conditions for thinking and expressing ideas about empathy in education?  Well, we could begin with listening to children, and holding always a strong respect for their ideas no matter how off beat, or naive they seem.  We need to see ways of learning and the ideas themselves as connected, as living and moving interconnected thoughts.  We must encourage the multiplicity of ideas and points of view as “everything has more versions” says Nora Bateson, where those somersaults in thinking  (Diane Kashin) can somersault in multiple directions and dimensions.  And then there is us, as teacher or parent, or friend by children’s side who need to act with such sensitivity, who look for relationships, the places where there is energy, to examine and become open to look for the unexpected as a possibility of newness, of fresh ideas, of different ways of thinking about something, even something as simple as a leaf.  Often children’s play is not given the due attention it deserves.  In paying attention we notice their relationships to knowledge and experiences that have the potential to transform theirs and our own beliefs.  However, and so very sadly, this way of being is at odds to a system that values education as an efficient measure of instruction where children are packaged as individual units ready to serve at the altar of the economy.

There is often a poetic approach to children’s construction and expression of ideas.  Art and aesthetics is seemingly at the heart of learning in education for young children therefore we must put it at the heart.  That doesn’t mean we fill children’s time with make and copy crafts, or make use of templates, worksheets and other reductionist methods.  No, we must attune ourselves again with the poetics of learning, find a new aesthetic of a relationship between learning and teaching.  One that listens carefully to children, to the things they wonder about and notice in the world. As Claudia Guidicci of Reggio Children discusses:

“If we perceive children’s learning to be multi-disciplinary, trans- disciplinary, poly-sensorial then we must embrace and generate the contexts for children to represent, communicate and express their thoughts through diverse mediums and symbolic systems.”

So, if we are to generate the right contexts for children we need for children’s meaning-making to be a central attribute of our pedagogy.  They need to have an emotional engagement with the subject and we have to understand the meaning of their and our own experiences.  Children are so open to the world of ideas of the world, to the possibilities that science has to offer us as a way of asking questions.  Their ideas are often related to bodies of knowledge in the field of science, philosophy, anthropology, ancient wisdoms… as educators we need to be open to knowledge beyond what is safe and already known to us. As Jeff Bloom reminded me, their ideas are also fantastical and although might not be ‘accurate’ are often at the edge of scientific exploration and should become the questions that scientists and the such need to be asking to see further ways of knowing our world.

In doing so we enable children to make their own interpretations rather than act on the purposes, beliefs, judgements, and feelings of others. Transformative learning like this develops renewed and flexible learning as well as being rich in critical thinking.

So I am an advocate not just of being in the world, the woods and the forests, the beaches and caves, the meadows and oceans but to listen with ones whole body to make it possible to see what ourselves and children love and wonder about when encountering these places.  Ideas and places are interlinked, they are not separate.  If I have learned anything from closely observing young children it is that they are, to quote Gregory Bateson “…living in a world of ideas.” and those ideas are as connected to the world and the cosmos as it is themselves.  



The Journey into Children’s Drawing

The Language of Drawing

510xR6NA+7LI have always been both before and since the research of my MA days an avid interested party in the strategies and content of children’s drawing.  I am currently reading the new book from the Contesting Early Childhood series published by Routledge entitled “Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia” edited by Calgari, Castagnetti, Giudici, Rinaldi, Vecchi and Moss and was delighted to come across some writings on the subject by Loris Malaguzzi himself (pp.308-312)

Malaguzzi describes drawing as a language (one of many), as a natural and biological language belonging to children that is constantly in conversation with many other languages available to children.  (See Malaguzzi’s The One Hundred Languages of Children poem).  From the outset of his description of drawing, Malaguzzi reminds us of the great responsibility of adults to read and interpret these visual communications.  It is with great sadness that I see many a child’s drawing simply placed in a going home box or drawer without any form of real reading or interpretation of it. They are valued, but as pieces of children’s ‘mark-making’ or as a precursory stage to writing and have become more about participating in a process of drawing than valued as a communicative language in their own right.  I wrote about Drawing as a Communicative Language here.

Malaguzzi, reminds us that drawing is “refined and diversified through children’s life experiences.”  Drawing when viewed in this way is something to be re-elaborated over time (not necessarily the same drawing but the same subject) and offers the educator a way of seeing drawing as an attribute of children’s capacity for critical thinking.  With each new drawing made, there is a refinement of process and form and of the ideas that sit behind it.  The drawings are never fixed with one singular meaning but are rather, as Malaguzzi tells us, multi-factored, dynamic, evolving, ambitious, and unfolding with meaning(s).

“Children’s journey in drawing (through the drawing, through this evolving language because it constantly accompanies children’s evolution) produces different and sometimes discordant attitudes towards the relations between themselves and the world, between themselves and things, between themselves and situations, themselves and feelings and so on.” p309

The drawings therefore act as sites of relational exchange, they are a visual becoming rather than a recall or remembering of something past.

IMG_6560I work with a network of schools for whom drawing is central to their pedagogy as a method amongst many methods of visualising children’s thinking, their ideas, their communications, their theories.  One such example is this drawing from Madeley Nursery School in Telford, UK.  What appears as a simple charcoal line on a strip of paper is in fact a ‘seed’s song’.  It was created whilst singing a song made up by the 3 year old drawer to help seeds grow.  What might seem at first as a sweet but naive idea is connected to current explorations into plant to plant communication strategies, which makes his idea seem not so naive after all.   Also, within this genesis of an idea is it possible that he is creating a musical score of some sort, a visualisation of one language (singing/music) into another (drawing/musical notation)?

The Pleasure of Drawing


Malaguzzi also speaks of the pleasure of drawing.  Pleasure as defined as a form of energy.  He names the ‘pleasures’ that characterise the act of drawing as:

  • A motor pleasure – a feeling in the body and of nervous activity that gives pleasure when in the act of drawing
  • A visual pleasure
  • A rhythmic-temporal pleasure – the rhythm and flow of a pencil or marker upon a surface that breaks up space in many directions
  • A spatial pleasure – the organisation of space through drawing
  • A self-identifying pleasure – the seeking and giving of meaning and identity to marks made
  • A pleasure of repetition
  • A pleasure of knowing and learning – of making permanent or ‘fixing the event’, the what has happened or the object in terms of what is known about it
  • A pleasure of the aesthetic – to know when a drawing is just right, balanced in harmony with your ideas

So, Malaguzzi reminds us that:

 “…reading children’s drawings is something very serious, very committed, very difficult, very responsible.  To interpret a drawing we meed to have competency, passion, and a capacity for getting inside the children’s situation and the operation they are carrying out…

The risk we run is of classifying too quickly and putting things in order too soon, without thinking sufficiently, without waiting sufficiently long, of not knowing how to wait, and not knowing how to interpret children’s acts.”  p311

He ends with this important statement:

“In other words we have started on a journey to the source of children’s thinking.”