Exploring The World Is How We Explore Our Minds

She stopped right inside the gate. In fact, her mother had to nudge her through and there she stood looking at our junkyard playground for the first time. She was only two-years-old and her mother had brought her to the Woodland Park Cooperative Preschool for the first time. She was not going to be left with us. Her mother was going to stay with her, side-by-side, bottom-on-lap, arms wrapped around one another if that was necessary, because that’s the way cooperatives work.

The girl’s mother waved to me, then bent to talk softly into her daughter’s ear. The girl was probably listening, but there was no visual indication that she heard her mother, or even that her mother was there. She was studying this new place, probably, knowing the way humans work, looking for something familiar. That would be her entry point.

For some kids, the newness is so overwhelming that the only familiar thing they can see is the adult who arrived with them, but this girl, Paula, spotted a small stuffed bear lying on its face. She took her mother’s hand and toddled down the short stairway. When she hit the ground, she freed herself and careened toward the bear, falling on her belly. It was her first lesson in the slope and unevenness that characterizes our playground. She lay within inches of the bear. She turned over and, from her seat, she picked it up with one hand. With her other, she brushed at it, knocking off wood chips, decaying leaves, and sand. She scowled into its eyeless face, then, still holding it in one hand pushed herself onto her feet and toddled back to her mother, not falling this time. Wordlessly, she offered the bear to her mother and her mother took it, who replied with a torrent of enthusiastic words.

Knowing what I know about humans, and especially young children, I recognized that Paula had made a first connection between life as she knew it and this new place. 

As the days passed, she would hand many more things to her mother, who wouldn’t always be enthusiastic. Indeed, as her mother likewise became better connected to our space, she was less inclined to nervous enthusiasm and more likely to respond informatively. She would say things like, “This looks like a steering wheel,” or “Ugh, that’s disgusting.” 

As the days passed Paula began to connect me to her world by handing things to me as well. As she got to know the other children and the other children’s parents, she would try out connecting with them too. None of us responded exactly as her mother had, even when handed the steering wheel. For instance, I pretended I was driving a car, saying, “Vroom, vroom” and “Honk, honk.” The other children did even more interesting things in response to being connected to Paula through the steering wheel. Some banged it on the ground. Some tried to roll it down the slope. Many dropped it. Most, after putting it through its paces, handed it back to Paula.

Exploring the world is how we explore our minds. This lifelong expedition is about connecting what we know with the new things we come across until those new things are also part of what we know. No one needs to tell us, just as no one needed to tell Paula, that to really understand something, you must strive to have it in your hands and to look at it from a variety of perspectives. And there is nothing more natural, more normal, than to do it alongside loved ones. Eventually, Paula would be experienced or confident or curious enough to explore without her mother immediately at her side, at her own pace, until she could securely explore both alone and in the company of this wider “family” that she had both discovered and created.

“A husband, a wife and some kids is not a family,” writes Kurt Vonnegut, “It’s a terribly vulnerable survival unit . . . I met a man in Nigeria one time, an Ibo who had six hundred relatives he knew quite well. His wife had just had a baby, the best possible news in an extended family. They were going to take it to meet all its relatives, Ibos of all ages, sizes and shapes. It would even meet other babies, cousins not much older than it was. Everybody who was big enough and steady enough was going to get to hold it, cuddle it, gurgle it . . . Wouldn’t you have loved to be that baby?”

This is what our children need, this extended family, this village of connection, this place of love and connection that is our birthright. I share Vonnegut’s wish: “I really, over the long run, hope America would find some way to provide all of our citizens with extended families — a large group of people they could call on for help.”

That is what I set out to create as an educator, a place for families to connect, whether for a few years or a lifetime. This is what I wish we all understood as not just education, but life itself.

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