I wasn’t going to say anything about how wonderful it was being out in the snow at a school on Tuesday. After all, schools and their communities should be able to go about their business without intrusion except in particular and boundaried circumstances. So, while this post isn’t really about School A and certainly not about Child B or Teacher C, it starts from my sitting on the cold ground in the school’s outdoor area, talking to a small person. She has a small, flaky bit of snow and sand mixture in her palm, and her eagerness to share with me is coupled with amazing patience and delicacy. And I’m mentioning the school, the teachers and the child here as a thank you: thank you for letting me back into the world I love of young people learning.
Hardly a critical incident, but scroll through the zero days of this week to a tweet which alerts me to the practice of a “no touch” policy towards snow. It might have stones in it, it might be dirty, children might throw it… and therefore it stirs me to ask
what do children gain from touching snow?
We could play the Curriculum Game, which goes something like this: we predict or observe along the lines of the current official curriculum system and structure. “Touching snow is about the following three things…” It is like a magnificent game where the children are the callers, the practitioners trying to score against this box or that on a complex and shifting bingo card of language and ideas and physicality. We could play the short game, based on spotting characteristics of effective learning, or the individual long game, based on Child A and their grasp of this or that developmental aspect. Similarly, there’s the predictive game, which starts from snow and guesses where the bingo tokens will come out: what a child can do becomes what the practitioners guess the child might learn.
We could play (insofar as it’s a different game) a Spiritual Game. Not to reduce spirituality (as some writers have done) to another set of learning goals, but to talk about children’s awe, the delight at novelty and uncertainty. It is, maybe, the same “sense of joy and opportunity” that lead medieval writers to think about what Marion Glasscoe has called the “games of faith.” I think this is what writers from Margaret MacMillan on have tried to express when they describe childhood in terms of innocence and freedom: it is the engaged encounters with the unfamiliar that engender delight.
Finally (for now) we might think about a Game of Life. I have mentioned before, for example, the challenges of working with tactile-defensive undergraduates, whose world is (for me) limited by their ineluctable reticence around soil and mud and moss. I also know that (quite apart from what the weather might do overnight) with a small amount of snow people talk about not being able to get to work, about a “snow day.” I do know people shouldn’t ignore real danger; I also know, however, that our divorce from nature leads to fear of it. Cold is cold; snow is snow. It is a sort of divorce: not just the split of a binary, but a loss of a whole lot of relationships. Two people break up and this friend goes one way, that friend another; the music collection goes to one person, the dining chairs go to another. Who wants that vase? Humanity (uppercase H) leaves Nature (uppercase N) and loses snow as well, and maybe slush and snowdrops. The disquiet I (and others) experience around loss of language and direct knowing of something as simple as snow is part of this schism. Tragically we become first uncomfortable strangers then we grow unfamiliar, then mistrustful. What goes on when we reconnect is tentative but threshold-like: the snow becomes something we know, welcome or unwelcome as context dictates. This final aspect involves the other two: we learn the “snowness of snow” just as in early Maths we appreciate the “threeness of three,”and then we also see snow as wonder, as a source of fun, of poetry or science or expressive arts: we see it as snow.
What do we gain from touching snow? Maybe we gain some facility with active learning, or some more vocabulary, or skills with moving or handling. Maybe we gain a sense of wonderthat the bright crystal pile in our hands turns (back) to water. Maybe we learn something simple about who we are and how we live.
But very little of any of the three ways of looking at our learning comes from looking at snow through the window or via a video link, but comes from what the first epistle of John says of Christ, that “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled.”