By Barb Murphy
Over the course of the last year, the Network has spent considerable time engaging with early childhood professionals, parents, and community members-at-large exploring how our childhood experiences shape our values and worldview as adults, and influence the way we view and work with children. In particular, we asked participants to reflect on questions about where they had grown up; the sights, sounds, and other visceral qualities they remembered from important “places” from their childhood. How did these “spaces” of our childhoods, in which we existed, and our experiences within those spaces, impact the construction of our adult identities? How did our own childhood contexts shape our expectations for the current generation of children? We were invited to create a tangible response using a variety of media and materials, which amplified the effect of these exercises and reflections and created a vehicle for sharing our memories with others.
As a board member, I have had the opportunity to participate in this exercise several times. My initial response, which echoed the responses of almost all participants, were memories of being outside, being able to make choices about what to do, and having connections to trustworthy adults and peers. The predominant themes were of unstructured time vs. structured time; adult-centric constraints vs. personal freedom; in-school time vs. out-of-school time; positive social connections with peers vs. negative; and adults who “saw” children and valued them vs. adults who didn’t pay attention. As I pondered the important places of my childhood for a third time at our January gathering, I tried to go beyond the happy, cherished memories of time spent in my favorite tree reading a book, playing “horses” in the field behind our house with a group of neighborhood children, packing a bag lunch and heading to the small neighborhood “woods” with my best friends to go exploring and have a picnic, etc., all memories that make me smile and feel a warm, nostalgic glow of “happy.” These times of freedom to play outside after school and in the summer helped to shape who I am as an adult and an early childhood professional who values relationship-based teaching, play and time spent in nature for all children. However, I was struck by the overall lack of memories and responses from the group that identified adverse or negative experiences. Surely, it is not only our happy childhood experiences that influence our worldview, our values and help to shape us in positive ways. I have always “known” that those eight years in Catholic school were the catalyst for my desire to find a “better way” to educate children than I had personally experienced. Not only were most of my classes overcrowded, with 50 – 60 children and one nun to keep order and see that we were “learning” by diligently taking us through our workbooks, but also the primary behavior guidance methods were smacking hands with pointers, standing children in the corner, and berating children who struggled to read or finish their workbooks problems. We sat at our desks all day; our only respite from workbooks and worksheets or tests was group instruction and oral recitation.
As I thought about these things I felt a clear sense of urgency to craft my response with a focus on my elementary in-school experience. Those eight years of elementary school were extremely adult constrained with little to no recognition of individual children within the class or adult concern or caring for children as individuals. There were no opportunities to play or think creatively. The spaces of my classrooms were all identically dull and uninspiring.
As I chose the materials to represent my thoughts, I began to construct a 3-dimensional portrayal of the restriction and monotony that filled our days; the uneasiness that we felt at the lack of compassion for children with any type of exceptionality; and the pent-up angst that we kept under control until the bell rang.
As disturbing as this “childhood experience” may seem, it was clearly the foundation and catalyst for my lifelong passion to work with children. I saw how the school operated, doing harm to individuals by demeaning them and controlling signs of individuality and sparks of creativity. I know that this experience shaped my worldview and my values regarding children, parents and teachers as equal partners in the educational dialogue. It fueled my passion for playful learning and immersion in creative pursuits. It inspired me to carefully get to know the children in my care and “see” who they are. I want to know them, honor and respect them, and help them become their best selves. I want to assist parents to do the same.
In the weeks following this gathering, I kept my piece of responsive art on the table in my Director’s office at our school. As parents, teachers and children came in to the office, their responses upon seeing the piece were immediate and enthusiastic. I was asked repeatedly to explain what it was; who made it; what did it represent? The children wanted the detailed story behind the mad faces. They knew it was a story that was not happy. But I could share myhappy ending. The parents’ responses were unexpectedly emotional. Several teared-up and thanked me for being here to make a difference for their children and for all children. Their response to my depiction of my early school years was remarkable. I could clearly see and appreciate the power of sharing our stories to bring about a feeling of connection and the possibility of opening up to new viewpoints. There is impetus to share the story of The Geography of Childhood Projectwith our families and reflect together on our shared values for our children. When we truly listen to one another’s stories, we can become aware of how similar we all are, no matter where or how we spent our childhood years. And this can bring about positive change on many levels.