Snails and Comenius. By Keith White

The inspiration for this piece was an unlikely combination of recent rain, and Melvyn Bragg’s BBC Radio 4 programme, In our Time. It was the rain in East London that brought out the snails, and Melvyn Bragg who introduced me to Comenius.  Let’s start chronologically…with Johan Amos Comenius (1592-1670).  If, like me you didn’t know of him until now, this might just be the moment to start finding out more! How I had not come across his life or work before listening to that radio programme I find it hard to fathom.  I am insatiably interested in how young children learn, and my PhD had as one of its main themes, the educational philosophy and practice of Friedrich Fröbel, someone who drew deeply from the writings and methods of Comenius. Since my belated discovery of the “father of modern education”, many things have been falling into place.  Much of what Fröbel advocated and modelled, and most of my life and work with young children, is based on the pioneering analysis, philosophy, beliefs and vision of Comenius.

Comenius believed among other things that any textbooks should be pictorial (he produced one, Orbis Pictus) and in the child’s vernacular language as well as Latin; that learning was a life-long process sensitive to the growth and development of the child, and the context of the process.  This was sometimes termed “education according to nature”, and started with physical objects familiar to the child, rather than a focus on literacy and numeracy.  This approach, which is sometimes called pansophism, aimed to introduce the child to the whole of her environment, from the inner world and the smallest creatures to the galaxies and outer space, by means of an integration of all the senses drawing from, and drawing together, scientific, social, religious and moral discourses or ways of seeing and understanding things.

Crucially for the purposes of this article, and for Fröbel, play was the key to learning, rather academic study, work, didacticism and tables; it should be available to all irrespective of gender, status, ethnicity or ability, and it started with very young children.  He wrote a text for mothers, The School of Infancy in which he encouraged them to introduce their children to subjects, activities and types of experiment or reflection that they would encounter later at kindergarten and school.

Which leads us to the snails…On Monday evening (that was just four days after I discovered Comenius) Ruth and I were, as usual, with one of the families who make up the extended family of Mill Grove. They come round after school, and although the children call us uncle and auntie, it feels much more like a grandparent-grandchild relationship to me.  Before a meal there are different games and activities in which the young children choose to engage.  But on this occasion, there was only one subject or activity in sight: snails.  Outside there were so many that it was difficult to walk more than a few steps without risk of stepping on one. Before long, the two children had begun to rescue some.

This involved finding a suitable “home” for them (this was the word that they used) comprising a container and a variety of leaves.  This was placed on a coffee table, and the snails were duly named and labelled with roles in the household (for example, grandpa, mum, baby…).  Soon it was decided that they needed some exercise, so they were taken out of their home and placed side by side on the table, as if it were the start of a race.

You may find it hard to believe that the girl was wearing a pendant presented to her at school earlier in the day, bearing the message: the “Race for Life”. What happened next was a surprise to us all (I was now part of the project): some of the smaller snails did not move (“they are sleeping”, said the little girl), while two of the bigger ones set off at snail’s pace in different directions until they both reached the edge of the table…and fell off.  They were carefully picked up (“rescued” again) and placed back in the safety of their home.

All the time we were engaged in discussion: the number and size of their feelers, and whether they could see or hear.  At some point I introduced the thought that a snail might not think of home as we do, given that they carry their equivalent of a home with them, but as far as I could see, this was irrelevant to the children’s understanding of what was going on and how they were trying to help the snail family (they were activists with no time for sociology or psychology).  As happens with spontaneous projects like this, time tended to slow up, even stop still.  But the time for our evening meal was approaching and I still needed to get some petrol for our mowers.  I asked the young boy if he was happy to come with me to buy some from the local garage. and whether his sister could cope with the snail household on her own.

A brief interlude was negotiated, and we had soon stored two full cans of petrol in the mower shed.  But as you might have gathered, the trip outside only reinforced our awareness of just how many snails there were.  The two of us brought back a flower-pot full of additional refugees, and they were immediately introduced to the existing family.  The enlarged household was placed carefully outside, while we humans sat down for a meal.

Afterwards the challenge for Ruth and myself was how to bring some kind of non-traumatic closure to the project.  The family would be going home on a bus, and although the little girl was quite sure that a snail household would be welcome on a London double-decker, it was not obvious how they would be able to cope with such a large extended family of snails in their own flat.  So it was that we identified a sheltered spot at the back of Mill Grove where the snails would be safe, and have plenty of food.

My guess is that next Monday life for the children will have moved on, and the snails will have found a way of coping without the patient attention and care of the two children.  But, of course, I may be wrong.  Which is part of the fun of the learning process.

Hopefully readers will spot a connection between what we were doing and the theory and practice of Comenius.  If so, they will have identified what makes up most of my time alongside children.  Mill Grove is not a school, and my role in the eyes of these two small children has nothing to do with teaching.   What we are doing is being together, eating together, exploring together, doing jobs together (such as mowing the grass or cooking), and playing together.

One of the ways societies and languages categorise activities, professions and roles, is to see “learning” as part of education, and the responsibility of teachers and schools (including nurseries), while “care” is part of family life and home.  Comenius was observant and bright enough to see that this misses one of the most important aspects of life: that play is common to every stage of life, to every period of history, and to all cultures.  And that without it, childhood is impoverished, and learning whether personal, social or cognitive, is put at risk.

Some time ago I wrote a piece for TTCJ in which I relayed a description of the psychiatrist, Donald Winnicott assessing a young child who had been referred to him.  The observer said that he did nothing but get down on the floor and play with the boy. That says it all.  For the child and the observer that could well be how it seemed, but to Winnicott, it was a way of relating to and understanding a child: a process of learning for them both, whether conscious or not.

A problem with the label “father of modern education” as applied to Comenius, is that worldwide, education is still mostly set within schools, and associated with work rather than play (“homework” as distinct from “play-time”).  Finding ways of integrating and connecting home and school, learning and care, parenting and teaching, and little creatures like snails, with the great galaxies in space, seems as far off as it was in the sixteenth century.

But for those who see the point and have the freedom to devote time to a project wholly chosen and owned by children, as Comenius did, life with little children could not be more fun, surprising and challenging.  Which reminds me, have you any sense of whether snails have a concept of home, I wonder?

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