August 20, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 30°C

A place for mud

By Lucy Brignall
Published: 2014-08-15

Mud but no phones. And don't challenge chickens.

uring our three-month summer vacation my kids and I run a summer school for the small children of friends and their friends.

When we first started this endeavor the Montessori teacher in me had many noble and ambitious plans for nature study classes, spectacular art projects, cooking and drama but, I must confess, the passing years have substantially changed my measure of what passes for a successful day.

Let me describe a morning supervising my small charges.

First of all, you need to imagine the daytime heat of an Italian rural summer. We live in le Marche, where the land is hilly and most of the population works the land. We're also near a valley.

So imagine us, the summer schoolers, in the dappled shade of a mulberry tree, cooled by a pleasant breeze wafting up the valley. The kids are busy fashioning a pirate ship from a tree, a mud bank and adding any bits and bobs they can find. It's a creative ship, resplendent with a crow's nest, a steering wheel, an anchor and a gangplank. But pirate ships can be interesting for only so long. Summer is a distracting time.

When the kids get fed up being pirates they turn first into Vikings and then into dragon slayers (it is remarkable the talents children can show over the course of a morning; maybe it's the power of summer).

Speaking of which, when it gets a bit hot we set aside pirates and Vikings and dragon politics and make our way down to the river. Rivers have many uses for adults but only one for kids. My little group found a mud bank and slid down into the water again and again, each time squealing with glee (squealing is essential).

You might say, "This is summer school."

But I see it differently. Our morning this one like so many others lets the kids use their imagination, negotiate with each other, be creative, laugh and cry. It's kids stuff adults too often set aside or just choose to forget. The kids also got muddy, hungry and tired which adults still know how to do, but usually complain about.

In all this my own children, my assistants, exhibited patience and kindness. They also developed a sense of responsibility and earned themselves a bit of money. All things considered, I'd call that a pretty good morning.

I've also achieved a few of my original teaching ambitions. The kids can all identify which plants scratch and sting; they've learned to eat strawberries, figs, blackberries, cherries and plums straight from the tree or bush. They've discovered that chickens will peck you in the eye if you give them the chance, that cats are likely to scratch you if you pull their tails and that big boys won't tolerate wailing as long as Mums but will push you much higher on a swing.

We've all become accomplished at making swords and guns from sticks and armor from cardboard boxes and masking tape. Everybody can now knock up a pretty good pizza.

I think Maria Montessori whose put personal discovery ahead of instruction in her teachings would approve. More important, it's good to know that even in an age where computers provide so much entertainment for children, there's is still a place for mud.

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