A Natural Setting

During three weeks in June, staying in Peninsular Malaysia where I was lecturing, my wife and I had time to enjoy something of the natural world in that tropical country. We explored coral reefs, freshwater lakes, rubber plantations, paddy fields, wells and springs, botanical gardens, butterfly farms, coastal plains and jungles on the islands of Penang and Langkawi.

If you know of them you will appreciate that we were rather overwhelmed by the range and variety of the wildlife, not least because of its contrast with the flora and fauna of our natural habitat, the United Kingdom. To walk on mountain paths surrounded by exotic butterflies, and to swim in seas teaming with multicoloured fish was for us like entering another planet.

It was on our return to London and daily life at Mill Grove, that it struck me how in the many columns I have written for this magazine there has been relatively little about the natural setting of our residential community. The reason for the discovery was in part the contrast with the Far East, but also the enthusiasm with which the youngsters showed us the growth of the seedlings and saplings that they had planted before we left and had tended during our absence.

Compost from our large heap had been spread over vegetable gardens and flowerbeds to good effect. There were radishes, runner beans and a host of other vegetables thriving side by side, partly in the shade of pear, apple and cherry trees. It looks like being a bumper year for apples and beans.

And what of the rest of the garden and orchard of Mill Grove? Setting aside the weeds that seem to flourish inordinately under all conditions, there are numerous species of flowers, and over two hundred trees ranging from native oaks, to eucalyptus, acacia, poplars, laburnum and hawthorn. Yes, and we also have leylandii to shield us from some local factories and the motorway! I’m not a botanist and no doubt there is plenty more to the experienced eye.

What dawned on me on returning was that everything I have described of the growth and development of young people who live here, or who find it a safe place in which to play and enjoy life with us, has taken place in this particular natural setting. The point is that we may inadvertently privilege human intervention over and against the natural world in looking for the sources and means of nurture and healing. So many of the significant conversations I have had with children and young people are associated with a specific tree, shrub or patch of ground, and all our meals and activities are framed by the colours, sounds and seasons of the natural world. When we travel for our summer holidays to North Wales it is even more evident how Snowdonia’s natural features provide the context for nearly all our life together.

There is a convincing body of evidence to show that it is in interaction with the natural world that children discover so much about themselves, others and relationships, in addition to the more obvious things such as number, size, shape, colour and texture.

The one aspect of this learning that seemed to leap out at me on my return was what could be called the “I-Thou” relationship. I learned of it through the great twentieth century Jewish theologian/philosopher Martin Buber, and have no intention of seeking to expound his work here. But let me simply say that it is comparatively easy for children to learn about “I-It” relationships, where they react with and manoeuvre objects, switches, materials and even people, as if the children are agents, and the objects are there mainly, if not merely, for their pleasure, learning or comfort. It is largely a matter of functional living typified by the television or computer that responds to their wishes instantly. And much of the stuff of everyday life is about such functional relationships and arrangements. It is how children do sums and learn to ride bicycles.

But in the world of human relationships (and one might include spirituality and art), the child must learn to go beyond such instrumentality, rights and control, in order to enter the far more subtle arena where another person is seen and respected as a person in their own right, and where the “Thou” of that other person is accepted as acting on my “I”. In this way neither person in a relationship is simply the subject (agent) or the object (instrument), and we have discovered the heart of the “I-Thou” relationship.

All I want to say here is that when a child is given toys and objects to play with, it is rarely (though possible as in the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit) that “I-Thou” relationships develop. But when a child interacts with the natural world there can only be growth of seedlings and saplings when a child learn to recognise and respect the unique nature of the bean or fruit that s/he is growing. The child must adapt to the plant’s timescale and needs. And in this seemingly modest process of adaptation lies the potential for human growth and relationships.

A child learns by mistakes and many are the times when plants have been dug up or fruit picked before they were ready or ripe. But this is part of the learning process. And it is so much more appropriate that such learning takes place in interaction with plants than simply with human beings, where the cost of mistakes and failures may be disproportionate and lifelong.

Montessori, Froebel and Korczak were among the many child-welfare pioneers and educationalists that realised this sufficiently to build it into their whole philosophy and way of life. It was Froebel who coined the term kindergarten, literally children’s garden. And I have not described Mill Grove adequately unless it is seen – in part at least – as just this. I am grateful to the brief time in the natural world of Malaysia for helping me to see this so clearly.

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