by Damian Johnson
“When do we stop noticing the little things?” This question came up while discussing the network’s Geography of Childhood project and I immediately thought of my friend Sarah and her child, Owen, and his somewhat epic treasure collection. The Geography of Childhood is in part an investigation of the children in our communities and what childhood is lived like today. My interview with Sarah tells a story about a 5 year-old who constantly takes home little things that he has noticed. It’s a reminder that people of all ages need time and space to make connections between all the little things that our larger ideas are built from. It’s a story about how one parent provides for that, when she could easily choose to make things more convenient for herself.
Have I myself stopped noticing the little things? I see tiny treasures and sense little mysteries just as much as Owen, but there’s no time to dig in. Now, I have to collect and save little pieces of my schedule, scraps of evenings and weekends, to use for reflection and connection, the way that Owen tries to hold on to every bubble gum wrapper for his mini-comics.
And that’s not the way I want it. At home and at school, I’d happily trade away every educational device, every light table, every tree cookie, magna-tile and mirror, I’d give up so much of the stuff if it meant more time to just be present with the people. Owen’s play ends up having a significant impact in the world of adults. Could this be more common if there was more space for children in the "real world"? Ultimately, this story is intriguing to me because of the way Owen relates to people; his grandfather, his teacher, his mother and more- through his collecting and creativity with his treasures.
Sarah: Since Owen was an infant everyone is like don’t put anything in his hands that he can choke on. And that’s all he wanted to do was hold on to, like, acorns or little bowls or anything. He just always wants a little something in his hands. I think it’s just that tactile… partially tactile, but he likes the little things.
Damian: Is it also kind of the magic of finding something?
S: A little bit. He’s also very good at that. I don’t know. He’s just always done it.
D: Do you often catch him crawling underneath stuff, or moving furniture in order to see what’s behind it?
S: More crawling than moving I think. The sandy playgrounds are his favorite, I think, because people drop stuff in them all the time, and it’s the treasures he finds in those that I think are like the most exciting. And then he kind of hoards them away.
D: Where does he usually put his treasures?
S: Usually in that little container or the shelf by his bed. That yogurt container. . .That’s all my dad’s doing. It originated at my parents farm, because when we go there usually it’s usually like my brother in law and my sister and he kids, so it’s all cousins, and he always brings home a metal detector. Which reminds me of finding stuff on the ground. Because it’s a 100 year old plus farm house. People just dumped stuff wherever. And we find crazy… like, most of it’s junk, but it’s like horseshoes and old pocket knives and old money and just you know like parts of cars and who knows, you know? So you find all this stuff and then… and there’s rocks in the driveway, cause it’s a big ‘ole gravel driveway, so owen holds a lot of that, so my dad pulled out that big container. He’s the one that wrote “owen’s stuff” on the lid. That’s all him, my dad. So that’s where it came from. He had all these rocks and bits from digging in the dirt.
D: And then what does he do with the stuff, like, after he collects it is that it? He just holds onto it like a dragon?
S: They will spark ideas I would say. Like, he says “Oh! I gotta go do something and then he’ll go rummage through his pile of… you know.
D: I can hear your opinion of it. Pile of garbage.
S: (laughs) I mean it doesn’t bother me but it’s pretty much literally garbage. . .
D: But it’s not. It’s not to him. It’s treasures of little…
S: Exactly. So he’s like, Oh, I just gotta go do something.” And then once he gets that idea he can’t stop it. He won’t go to bed. He won’t do anything until he finishes what that little thing he’s doing. And he’ll often times go pull out something that he found who knows how long ago. It’s like he has an inventory.
D: That’s interesting. He knows everything he’s ever found.
S: He has a memory for that stuff that I never had.
D: Because it’s important to him. Can you remember a specific time when times when he wouldn’t go to bed?
S: It’s usually some sort of craft. Or like putting them together. Like “Oh, gosh I just remembered that this would fit with this.” One thing that I can remember, he put inside two milk caps was a pom pom and that became a creature. Right? So that was Fuzzy. Fuzzy lived between the milk caps. Stuff like that. Or he’ll be like “I need to put this eraser on this popsicle stick, like, right now.”
D: Like he gets home and…
S: . . . A lot of time it’s at night time when you’re really frustrated and you’re like “Just go to bed” and he’s like “No. Wait. Where’s the glue . . .
D: And you’ve had to make sure he doesn’t steal stuff that he finds interesting.
S: Yeah, that’s a problem. It still is. And sometimes he’s at that age where he’s pushing the limits on what he can kind of get away with. So it’s like I think there are like prizes in his classroom for whatever, good behavior or they read the ten books a month and they get to choose a prize… sometimes they’ll come home with him and are not given to him. And it’s seven different versions of the story. . .If I know for sure I usually make them go explain to the teacher what he did. And she’s really good at making it a positive thing that he brings it back. Like the cross that he found?”
D: What’s that story?
S: Once I was cleaning out his backpack and there’s this gold cross on a pendant.
D: Real gold?
S: Right? Something with actual value. But I think for him, it has the same value as a milk cap. He doesn’t see that and say “That’s a gold necklace.” He says “That’s a little treasure.” He’s not there yet. So I find it in his backpack, and he’s like “ooooh… someone put that in my backpack…” And he’s got this look when he lies. He tries not to smile. . . so we went to bed. I went in with him (to school) and his teacher was like “Oh, my gosh this is mine. I lost it last year in May.” So it was probably October, the next school year, when he found it. She was like “I thought this was gone forever. My dad gave it to me in eighth grade for my confirmation. And I tried to replace it but some things just aren’t replaceable. I thought I’d never see it again. Owen… You are the best little treasure finder I’ve ever seen. You just need to show me what you find, so we make sure it’s not important to somebody.” And she wrote him a thank you note. It was really sweet what she did. She loved that quality in him and set expectations of how he should deal with it in the future.”
For more reading about loose parts, available through the public library:
- Cathy Weisman & Lella Gandini, Beautiful Stuff
- Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky ; Loose parts : inspiring play in young children /
- Lisa Daily and Miriam Beloglovsky, Loose parts 2, inspiring play in infants and toddlers