To the Point - Shared Experience

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Children have a strong desire to communicate, even when they don't share the same language, says Professor Cathy Nutbrown

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Professor Cathy Nutbrown

I watched four young children playing in the shallows of the seashore last week. They had met for the first time and between them they had no shared spoken language. Their ages ranged from three to six years and each spoke a different language: Malay, Japanese, Turkish and French. What they shared was this place, new to them all, with unfamiliar features which they seemed keen to explore in some way.

There were tiny fish and crabs in the rock pools, small pebbles and stones rolling back, and there were the waves gently lapping the shore. The sun shone brightly on the water, making the wet rocks and stones glisten in the light.

What I saw in these four young children was a desire to communicate, to be together, to share something. Somehow a transporting game developed – small rocks and stones were moved one by one and, later, several at a time using a bucket and a cloth bag. The children carried them further up the beach, with lots of talking – gesturing, singing and shouting. One dug a pit in the gritty sand and the rocks and stones were used to build a low wall around it. When part of the wall fell, the four worked together to repair it. One child ferried water to the pit and spent some considerable time transporting bucketloads of water to fill the newly created ‘pool’. Some small fish and a couple of crabs were caught and placed in their new home.

The children worked tenaciously for some considerable time – clear in their endeavours and co-operating with each other – seemingly unaware of any difficulty that the lack of a shared language might have brought to the situation.

Watching the children reminded me of Plato’s assertion that ‘life must be lived as play’. For them, it seemed to me that life – there on the seashore – was play. We can learn much from these children, including the fact that a shared purpose – where people come together to create something – can overcome obstacles if there is a will to share, communicate and co-operate.

Indeed, as Maria Montessori wrote, ‘Education is a natural process carried out by the child and is not achieved by listening to words but by experiences in the environment.’

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