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Magnetic North

Greg Bottrill, author of Can I Go Play Now..? and early years thought leader explores the ‘magnets’ of early childhood– those objects, environments, sensations and feelings that assert a pull on the curiosity and wonder of small children.

When I was a lot younger it was always a moment of great delight to explore moving iron filings around on a piece of paper or a thin tabletop by using a magnet underneath. There was just something about having the power over metal that appealed to me as though momentarily I was somehow controlling the very Universe. It was always a challenge trying to keep all the filings together or follow a pencilled-out pathway across the paper – a mini magnetic Grand Prix round and round the circuit, the magnet heavy and cold in hand as it conjured its magic.

Photographer: Dan-Cristian Pădureț | Source: Unsplash

Now I’m older it’s a different kind of magnetism that I’m fascinated by: the magnets to childhood, those things that seem to have an almost supernatural force on children, pulling them in so that they can explore, experiment, invent and be play-full.

You can probably already guess what magnets I’m thinking of because although the Unique Child is very much something we would all advocate, there are certain tropes that run through the storyline of childhood again and again. It’s what I’m deeply intrigued by in my work as The Centre for Childhood, immersing in what childhood is trying to tell us and how it sees the world – discovering what is ‘pulling’ on children’s fascinations and imaginations so that they can BE.

Esta es la foto que habla del amor de una padre con su hijo y la importancia que tiene de estar en todo momento a su lado para apoyarlo como en este caso para apoyarlo a mantenerse firme para que no se caiga cuando venga la ola sobre sus pies y no se desestabilice
Photographer: Fernando Pelaez Cubas | Source: Unsplash

Mud would be one such magnet. And water of course. Both seem to have an allure to childhood with their sensory, all-hands-on-deck experiences that children can step into and become part of. The sensations that both offer can be extraordinary especially when on a large scale, children bee-lining for the Mud Kitchen or the puddles or the guttering and drainpipes. It’s as though the World is meeting them somehow, using its ‘magnetism’ to pull on children’s sense of curiosity and wonder, on the delight of getting water in a welly or mud on a nose.

Climbing trees is a magnet too, the desire to Be Up, to see the World from a different view, to no longer be small but to look down while all the time feeling the tree’s magnetism on limbs, stretching the sinews and muscles as they pull on and upwards, higher into the secret ‘room’ of the branches, the twigs scratching and the leaves letting a green light through as all the while the smell of chlorophyll fills the senses.

There are of course an infinite number of magnets to childhood but these three seem to be the recurring ones, the ones that seem to have the Joy Dial turned up to 11. It is these three that childhood wants as part of their day and although it may sound strange, mud, water and trees want childhood as part of their day too. Water wants to feel feet stamp, it wants to travel and be rippled with the happiness of floating and stirring. Mud wants to be painted and be squelched, to be brought to life with fingers and to be splatted, moulded and splodged. Trees want hands to sense the rough or smooth of their bark coats, to lift children up high into their ‘rooms’ and to feel feet and fingers gripping and trapezing – all three want children to go beyond their perceived limitations and to unlock the joy that lies within the potential deep connection to the Natural World.

And although this powerful magnetism exists and is what childhood and Nature both seek, there is often another not quite so invisible force, that often unwittingly begins to depolarise the magnet. It’s the force of the Adult World. If you think about those three magnets, they are the ones that the Adult World finds the greatest struggle in. Wet sleeves, rules about aprons, muddy clothes, fear of falling, Get-Down-You’ll-Hurt-Yourself, all the while slowly turning that Joy Dial down below 5, showing children that the connection to the World around them is not theirs to choose, but for Adults to decide upon.

Of course, we want children to explore and discover safely. And we don’t necessarily want to spend all day changing clothes and or create difficulties for parents who might not want a flow of muddy clothes to wash day in day out. But part of the challenge that childhood is presenting to us, what it’s trying to show us, is that the magnets they feel need to be embraced and immersed in, that the force which they feel pulling on them is one that NEEDS to be felt. It is up to us as Adults to try to feel that force too and then consider how we can be a ‘magnet multiplier’ ourselves and step into the World of magnetism – because it’s all around us when we look.

Curious Question

What measures do you have in your setting to enable the ‘magnets’ to pull on childhood while balancing the ‘play amnesia’ of the Adult World? I know it’s not straightforward, but childhood would love an answer! And what other strong magnets would you say exist? How about Gun Play? Now that really is something childhood wants to hear your answer to!!