by Samina Mahmood

There was a time when windows were what we opened when we wanted a breath of fresh air or when we wanted to look out at a garden or a beautiful landscape. We closed the windows to keep out a strong wind or to prevent the rain from coming in. But we didn’t log out or shut down.  Files were always bought at a stationery shop and you had the pleasure of feeling them, turning them over, selecting colours or a texture – paper, cloth, plastic, leather – you could even smell them. And when you wanted a large folder to put the files into you rummaged through the shelves and made a choice. Documents, whether containing words or figures were always kept in a real cabinet, may be made of glass, or steel or wood or a combination of these materials, not in Excel or Word.

What about mail? It involved the personal touch and there was a postman or postwoman who came and handed over that much awaited letter or package or put it into a real mailbox which involved some amount of exercise too, both for the postman and for you. What a delight – to open the letter, see the sender’s handwriting, touch the paper, preserve the stamp if you wanted to, and then of course, the letter was always there to be read and re-read, and feel, regardless of whether you had wireless or not. Somehow the romance and excitement of so many things has been taken out of our lives and the lives of our children. Even the word mouse doesn’t stir us – we don’t jump onto a stool or see if we need to shoo it out of the house. It’s that inanimate object next to the computer – but why bother, the mouse is out dated too. We get everything with the touch of a fingertip. Let us hope that in the future we don’t all become androids! The sad part is there’s no longer much chance for anticipation, suspense, longing, waiting or hoping. It’s instant gratification and after a while we lose our ability to be patient or wait for our turn.

I was thinking about CAD. For me a cad is a person who does not behave like a gentleman, not a computer aided design. And what about ‘chat’? Earlier it suggested sitting on the cosy lap of a parent or grandparent, making eye contact, exchanging ideas, having a lovely cuddle or listening to a story – not jiggling both thumbs on a blackberry or punching a screen. We’ve even forgotten that a blackberry is a small purplish fruit, sweet and juicy; the prickly climbing shrub of the rose family which bears blackberries. We are strengthening our thumbs but forgetting how to spell and are always taking shortcuts – everything is reduced, abbreviated or truncated.

The other day I saw a little girl wearing a lovely pair of shoes and I said, ‘Those are nice shoes!’

‘Yes, Aunty, my mother got them from Amazon.’

‘Oh! I said, what’s that?’

Pat came her reply, ‘Don’t you know Aunty? You get on the laptop, look at the pictures of the shoes and order what you like.’

Hmm, I thought, does she know about the river Amazon? Not that I have anything against Amazon.com, believe me – I use it a lot myself and find it very useful and convenient. The founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, was a Montessori child, and in fact, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergei Brin were Montessori children too and all of them credit their Montessori schooling for their creative success.

But – when I hear the word Amazon, I first think of the beautiful river in South America, the second largest in the world. There are no bridges over it as the greater part of the river runs through rain forests rather than roads and cities. There are over 3000 species of fish that live in the Amazon River and more are discovered all the time.

And what about the oasis – the beautiful fertile open green spot in a desert or wasteland, which poets refer to as the jewel of the desert? I recently learnt that Oasis stands for Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Systems. There goes the jewel of the desert! In a casual chat the other day, a little boy told me that milk comes from a packet. When I was a child, it came from a cow.

Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, said, “All my life, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.” Children do rejoice when they experience wonder, when they are touched deeply, when they observe a butterfly or watch a snail. Are we depriving them of this joy and wonder; the excitement of discovery?!

We are leading to a generation of children who may suffer from ‘nature deprivation’. In fact, it is called ‘nature deficit disorder’. Educators have always known that nature enhances confidence, problem-solving, critical thinking and decision making. Besides developing hand-eye coordination and honing small and large muscle movements, there is a lot to be learnt while climbing trees, negotiating a rocky climb or scrambling up a hillside. Zavalloni, an Italian representative of schools, suggests that we need much more than the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child. He has highlighted other rights, like the Right to Leisure. Unfortunately, in today’s world everything is planned, reported and compartmentalised. Children need time to be on their own and do things independently, to learn how to manage small conflicts on their own. This is the only way to become able adults. They also need, Zavalloni says, the Right to get dirty; the right to play with natural materials such as sand, earth, leaves and grass. Then there is the right to smell. Children enjoy smelling and recognising nature’s scents – the smell of the soil after heavy rain, the smell of herbs and different plants and trees. Even away from parks and forests, who doesn’t enjoy the smell of freshly baked bread? Don’t we love the aroma of freshly brewed coffee? Now with everything almost being vacuum packed we risk losing out on olfactory differences. That reminds me, we forget that Java is a part of the beautiful Indonesian archipelago and that Java is also a kind of coffee obtained from Java and nearby islands, not necessarily only a computer programming language.

Let us not forget the right to use our hands – to hold, feel, taste, see and move things to educate our neurological and cognitive faculties with a basic understanding of the real world.  Let us use the foundation of reality to progress before we get into the virtual world. After all what is virtual reality – an artificial environment wherein you partially determine what happens in a real-life situation.

Aric Sigman states that a child’s brain is like a muscle that needs to be flexed and that coincidentally, physical exercise helps precisely the type of brain development needed to explore and discover. Movement  can improve learning ability, concentration, memory and abstract reasoning – the higher mental processes and ‘executive functions’ that involve planning, organisation, and the ability to juggle different intellectual tasks at the same time. This is why Montessori stressed the importance of movement for young children and that is why you don’t have fixed desks and chairs in a Montessori classroom. Though her methods are over a hundred years old, they are relevant today and always will be because they understand natural child development. Technology is developing rapidly but the way to develop our children’s sense of wonder and their ability to explore and discover has not changed. Young children need to familiarise themselves with the real world, using and integrating all their senses before moving on to outsourcing those processes through the virtual world of technology.

The bigger community starts with little people. Childhood sets the foundation for the whole of life and emotionally, physically and cognitively, the groundwork is laid during the very early years. Children need to interact with everything around them to gain an understanding of the basic properties of force and matter and to understand relationships.

We all need technology. It is amazing and wonderful and we can’t do without it. There are countless fields where technology has taken us forward to remarkable heights. But there is a time and a place for everything. As a little child I found it very difficult to speak in front of an audience and get up on stage. Fortunately, my mother did not make me feel bad about it but just said, ‘Do it when you are ready’. The other day a little six year old who took part in our annual sports told me, ‘I really did my best, but another girl was faster than I was so I came second.’  I was happy that she had done her best and also happy that she realised that everyone, including her, has different abilities. She also accepted the situation in spite of her tender age.

A seed starts to grow when it is ready; one bud may open before another even though it is on the same branch; it has to be ready to blossom. It’s the same with children. They know when they are ready – ready to interact, to share, to dance or sing or read and write; or for that matter to get on stage and let go or just decide to observe their friends or look out for their parents in the audience. This is a time when they are honest and spontaneous; they are truly themselves – we must look out for the signs, be patient and encouraging. Citing Sigman again, for little children real-life hands-on learning is hands-down the best method. Being close to nature can only help, not hinder, and perhaps it would be a good idea to take our children for a walk in the park without an iPhone or other tech gadget in hand. Give it a try – you will observe much more around you. Besides, your relationship with your child will only be deeper and more meaningful and the joint progression will be amazing!

Samina Mahmood

Posted in Learning.