Marcel Proust rated the ability to see with the eyes of another person as the greatest of voyages that a human being could undertake – far more challenging than sailing the seven seas or climbing the highest mountains on each continent. I am convinced that he is on the right lines but would want to add to his concept of seeing, the ability to get inside their other senses in order also to hear with their ears, to feel with their hands and hearts, and to taste and smell with their tongues and noses. And if that other person is a year-old child, then the voyage is surely beyond reach for even the most alert, knowledgeable and seasoned explorer. But all the same, the attempt to enter the umwelt of that child by imagination is a journey of wonder and joy.
For the past week we have had just such a child in our midst on our Mill Grove holiday in North Wales.
He was with us last year, aged just five days, and one of his siblings ruefully remarked that he will never remember anything of that time in Snowdonia/Gwynedd. And given his age now, he is unlikely to recall anything of the past week in a conscious way, but we will be able to recount some of our imaginings and recollections to him should he ever be interested.
I was privileged to spend uninterrupted time with him on beaches, on a sailboard, in a mountain stream, and in the shallows of the sea at Black Rock Sands. It seemed to me that he found the beach at one and the same time, both enjoyable and strange. It was enjoyable because he loved the softness of the sand as he learned to take some of his first teetering steps and was able to fall or sit down again and again, without fear. He instinctively put his hands into it, moulding it with no worry about wasting or dropping it. It was strange because putting the sand in his mouth was not a particularly pleasant experience, certainly not compared to a Rich Tea biscuit that one of our young friends shared with him as he sat on the sand within touching distance of the sea.
But my sense is that he was most at home and attuned in water. We know that very young children are at home under water presumably because they have experienced amniotic fluid in their mother’s womb. When the child first crawled into the gentle waves of the sea he seemed to be heading out of his depth, but it was not long before we realised that he soon learned to stop before the water reached his face. He sat and he crawled for more than an hour at a time, seemingly mesmerised, and mesmerising for any who watched him. But what was going on in his mind?
It did not take long to realise that he was in an environment teeming with sensations. There was the sound of the waves, both comfortingly rhythmic, and also unpredictably fractal. Who can tell how aware he was of this element of his environment? He soon came to avoid drinking the sea water: not with any great reactions but as what seemed like a matter of course. He loved touching the water, as far as we could deduce, occasionally splashing, but rather more gently as if feeling and relishing the movement over his hands and body. The temperature was perfect because the air was very hot, while the sea was warm, but cool enough to offer relief.
He interacted with us, and his siblings who occasionally came to speak to him, but the focus of his attention, if that is the right word, was the sea. And, though I am biased because adult humans tend to privilege seeing and sight over the other senses, it was what he saw that seemed to me the greatest attraction of the whole experience. The water was transparent so he could always see to the bottom, which in the bright sunlight, was golden sand. He watched the ripples in their infinite variations: a proverbial counterpoint of movement. (Was it a coincidence, I wonder, that I turned to Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony at least three times during the week?) But surely (I say to myself) it was the patterns caused by the interaction of the sunlight and ripples that he was absorbing.
I tried to imagine how they could be described or represented by pictorially: shifting shimmers of gold in infinite variations, but always with recognisable geometric patterns. They were moving in a consistent direction but dancing spontaneously. I don’t think I have ever observed them so closely or continuously before. David Hockney was on to the phenomenon in his painting, Swimming Pool, but in reality the shifting shapes were far more wonderful and elusive than his representations (as Hockney well knew).
The truth is that as a result of the attempt to go on a voyage exploring what he saw and felt, I do not have the faintest idea what was going on in the little child’s mind, or how he was processing the sensations and experiences.
But this is where the wisdom of Fröbel comes into its own: he saw movement as the basis of learning. And movement is a distinguishing feature of the sea as it interacts with breeze and light. Sitting in the shallows he was not only observing/enjoying that movement, but immersed in, and part of it. And, of course, as far as we can guess, there were no words or categories in his mind. So nothing could be labelled or stored consciously for future reference. I had to rely on my imagination and intuition to begin to sense what the attraction of this moment of time, and the liminal space where sea and land met, might be.
This led me to wonder whether the absence of words meant that much of what he was experiencing might be entering his mind, body and soul unconsciously, and in such a way that he would never forget something of the essence of things. Will he always be at ease in water, for example? Certainly, at no point was there the least hint of anxiety or concern. Will he develop powers of concentration and centredness? Perhaps time will tell, but if so, it would resonate with an emerging sense that the most important things about a person are those of which the person is unaware: they are part of who they are, how they think and experience things.
During the four weeks Ruth and I spent in North Wales alongside 40 or so children and young people all told, there were many opportunities to be alongside them as they played in sand, water and on rock. Sometimes they communicated in words what they felt, but more often they simply interacted with the natural world leaving us to work out or imagine what might be going on, should we be so inclined.
Realising how difficult it is to enter the world of another person may be a useful starting point for all who have the privilege of being, living or working alongside children and young people. It’s always something of a mystery and therefore always fresh. As Kahil Gibran put it:
“You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams…”
What a privilege and challenge such a voyage is! Something to be thankful for on days when there is anything by harmony and enjoyment in our dealings with them, perhaps?