On the child

"Our image of the child is rich in potential, strong, powerful, competent and, most of all, connected to adults and other children." [loris malaguzzi]

Thursday, May 23, 2013


A recent social media exchange with Norwegian architect, playspace expert and pedagog Svene Frode on the topic of treehouses and the constructions of our youth, prompted me to recall nature-based episodes of my own childhood.

As I have disclosed on this blog before, I spent the bulk of my formative years in the Italian countryside in a centuries-old "cascina" between Milan and Lake Como - as the eldest daughter of an American mother and an Italian father.

At my sister's and my fingertips were woodlands to build in; hay fields to crawl through; grapevines to get lost in; fruit trees and raspberry bushes to nourish us; wild hares to chase; hedgehogs to tame; a weeping willow to doze under; a rose garden to supply our potion and perfume-making needs; rocks and sticks a plenty to turn into a myriad of play props.

And that was just Mother Nature's offerings to us! Our mother had a huge hand in shaping how my sister and I played as children.  A designer and artist at heart, Mom and a hand-picked posse of neighborhood artisans created a magical playground for us.  The "weird" foreigner that she was (at the time), designed every element of our man-made (or woman-made, in this case) play space. She envisioned a swing set (not common place at that time in Italy for private home use) and it came to be. And decades later it now graces the garden of our former neighbors, so that other children may use it.  Out of cement pipes - reclaimed from the restorations/renovations on our house - and filled with concrete, Mom created stepping stones for my sister, our playmates, our cousins, and I to enjoy. She designed a see-saw, or teeter totter, which our neighbors and local carpenters Stefano and Alfonso brought to life with their own hands.  That was probably the biggest hit with any child who visited us!  We even had our very own "fairy garden" - a beautiful tree stump filled with succulents, the hens and chicks that I am still so fond of today!

Inside the house, the magic continued! We had a dollhouse - designed by Mom and made by our neighbors out of an old piece of furniture from when I was a baby that replicated our own farmhouse - three rooms across on each of two floors.  It was filled with Lego furniture (that I think our father and maybe even our maternal uncle had a hand in assembling from dozens of kits) and matching figurines. We had handcrafted Barbie furniture and clothes that Mom created from leftover fabric scraps after she made my sister and I clothing. Yes, my sister, our Barbies and I all had matching tartan kilts complete with the requisite kilt pins! We had a puppet theatre and a dress-up corner filled with treasures from our American grandmother's closet and mom's own.

My sister, our neighborhood friends and I had the opportunity almost every day of the week to become "the authors of our own destiny," whether we played inside or outside. Our bedroom was the setting of many a complex play script, sometimes just starring my sister and I - at other times neighborhood and school playmates; and at others still, a whole gaggle of Italian cousins sent to the farm to provide their parents with some much needed R&R!

When we played outside - as Svene Frode writes, as guest writer on the British blog "I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!" -  we exercised our ability to create, to change and to leave an (ecologically-responsible) imprint on our natural playspace. For more on Frode's thoughts about play in nature and natural elements in playspaces, you can check out his post below:


Once, my sister and I spent the better part of a day building a hut (the Australians would say a "cubby") by the side of the barn  using found materials, both natural and made-made, and every blanket and large piece of fabric that we could find.  We were undeniably proud of our creation and felt powerful and like masters of the universe, as it took shape.  We devised a plan to spend the night/to camp out in our hut.  Beaming with pride and possibility, we shared our idea with Mom, who while validating our accomplishment felt that sleeping under the stars in the driveway a couple hundred feet from the house, was probably not the best of ideas. She was also concerned about what the neighbors and our occasional groundskeeper might think, and said "NO!"  My sister and I were crushed, but because we both inherited a bit of our mother's gumption and moxie, we wouldn't be defeated.  We marched upstairs to our bedroom; packed a bundle of clothes, stuffed animals, books and other essentials; and wrote a note to our parents informing them that we planned to run away to the woods.  

Mom intercepted us with a counter offer.  "You can spend the night in your father's car in the driveway."  Magic!  Who wouldn't want to sleep in a Ford Granada under the stars in the middle of a gravel courtyard in the Italian countryside?  We packet blankets, pillows and "lovies" and prepared for our incredible adventure.  Mom, who as previously mentioned was worried about our family's reputation not only in the neighborhood but in the entire village of Montesolaro - because as a mixed-nationality family we were on everyone's radar - had a great thought. She gave us a bunch of red tablecloths to roll up in the windows to give us privacy and so that Signor Mario (who was coming in the morning to work on the garden) wouldn't wonder what his employers' children were doing sleeping in a car.  I never found out if he was in the least bit puzzled by the fact that there were bright red tablecloths in all the windows of said car!

Sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake, and this would be one of those occasions.  Just today I really started to piece more things together, to see the connections to who I was as a child and who I am now as an early childhood education practitioner.  My passion for envisioning, creating and enhancing spaces for children is most definitely genetic first, then fueled by my studies and work with children, and set ablaze by 16+ years of exploring/applying lessons from the Reggio Approach - that whole nature versus nurture thing.  

So I circle back to the beginning, and thank Svene Frode for giving me the opportunity to remember, to make connections, and to write; and I celebrate my mother for doing so much more than I will ever realize and can thank her for.

PLAY on!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Today I reflected and wept reading a beautifully crafted blog entry by a new favorite thinker, writer and “reflector” Carol D. O’Dell, author of the lovely blog called “Risk. Play. Create. My Search for Authenticity.”  "Why do we need to play? Because it’s healing. It’s like re calibrating your brain, your soul and your body.We need to play in order to rest, in order to let go, in order to process. We need to play like we need to breathe. It feels good. It fills us with more than oxygen. It fills us with hope," writes this blogger and artist.

A friend of mine and fellow early childhood educator, talks about her constant thrifting and scavenging for cool, unusual, found, recycled, and re-purposed materials for learning and discovery as her "play!" I have since adopted that line (with permission.) I play because I am. I am because I play. I try to think and live playfully, to play with mind, body and soul. (And to work the same way!) 

As a child I loved to: (1) nap, read, play with my younger sister, cuddle with my dog Teddy under my beloved willow tree; (2.) build forts, huts and dens in the woods or by the side of the barn with my sister; (3.) have sleepovers with my Italian cousins (I grew up in Italy) who were usually sent to stay with us because their parents thought they needed an "attitude adjustment" from my American mother, but really just needed to play! We put on elaborate plays for my parents, ran around in the hay fields, and tried to make it through the night in a pup tent. 

I liked to:  (4.) make perfumes and potions out of natural materials harvested from our property (perhaps I should not mention my sister's and my misguided and inquisitive tween attempts to dry and smoke what we thought was surely 'weed' being grown by one of our neighbors!); (5.) set up farmers' markets and grocery stores and play restaurant with my little sister - our multi-colored gravel courtyard provided ample diversion and open-ended play materials. Red rocks were meat, yellow ones were cheese and white ones were eggs. Add in some fallen fruit and picked veggies and we were in business! (6.) adopt lost turtles and hedgehogs as pets and chase wild rabbits; (7.) throw rotten persimmons at the side of the barn, when my mother wasn't watching (shhh! don't tell!) (8.) explore the woods with my spinster neighbor, my sister, my dad and our faithful dog; (9.) play house and school with my childhood friends and neighbors - Ornella, Monica, Laura, Barbara and Sara - and my best friend from elementary school Aurora, and our fabulous housekeeper's daughter, Michela; (10.) mostly I just loved being a KID!

How do I play now, as an adult? Well, first of all I work with children and that means that mostly every day I get to flex my play muscles (mental and physical!) I read and absorb info at a voracious pace and playfully try to connect the big and little concepts I read about to my life, to my practice as a teacher, to my personal and professional growth, and to just being human. I, like my afore-mentioned “playful” friend, thrift, scavenge, bargain-hunt, recycle, re-use, and re-purpose materials for and in my classroom and school, for friends and fellow-teachers and for my home. I think creatively – that’s my mental play. And, I advocate, support and work to spread the message of open-ended play in the lives of children and adults by working with the (San Francisco) Bay Area Coalition for Play. Check out our brand-spanking new website (still a work in progress) at www.bayareacoalitionforplay.org and/or “like” us on Facebook!

To paraphrase the Beastie Boys, who very recently lost a gifted and valued member, "You gotta fight for your right to PLAY!"

Friday, November 11, 2011


"Here is how to make a child bored: first and foremost, keep him indoors so that the infinitude of nature, its endless variation and chaotic messiness is replaced by a finite, orderly, predictable realm. Second, through television and video games, habituate him to intense stimuli so that everything else seems boring by comparison. Third, eliminate as much as possible any unstructured time with other children, so that he loses his capacity for creative play and needs entertainment instead. Fourth, shorten his attention span with fast-paced programming, dumbed-down books, and frequent interruptions of his play. Fifth, hover over him whenever possible to stunt his self-trust and make him dependent on outside stimulation. Sixth, hurry him from activity to activity to create anxiety about time and eliminate the easy sense of timelessness native to the young." [Charles Eisenstein]
Charles Eisenstein is a writer, speaker, and the author of The Ascent of Humanity and other books. He also maintains a blog at: www.ascentofhumanity.blogspot.com

Thank you to blogger and educator Daniel Bigler for sharing this thought-provoking quote on his blog: www.danielsaurus.com 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


"The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind - creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers, and meaning makers. These people - artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers - will now reap society's richest rewards and share its greatest joys."

From Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World

"Intelligence looks for what is known to solve problems. Creativity looks for what is unknown to discover possibilities."

[a daily inspiration from Simon Sinek's www.startwithwhy.com]

Sunday, September 11, 2011


"Aesthetics, on the contrary, has to do precisely with not being numb. Aesthetics has to do with feeling, sensing, perceiving, and imagining. It has to do with a heightened rather than a diminished receptivity, with the deployment of our senses - especially of sight and sound, but also of touch, taste, and smell - and of our abilities to conjure and suppose, to go beyond the given limitations of space and time. In aesthetic moments, our sense receptors get turned up, not off; they work harder, rather than shutting down.  In aesthetic moments we awaken to kaleidoscopic worlds of sensation and stimulation. The aesthetic pulls us in and dares us to be fully present even at the risk of feeling some pain. In return, it offers us chances to discover new aspects of the world into which we have been thrust. It gives us intense pleasures. It arouses our ever-dormant proclivity for fantasy; it sharpens our powers of discrimination; and it expands, sometimes, our capacity for empathy. Occasionally, in its intensity, it momentarily blinds us to everything else and can, therefore, seem (as Plato taught) dangerous."

- from The Brightening Glance: Imagination and Childhood by Ellen Handler Spitz

Friday, September 9, 2011

WILD CHILD: Why I Wouldn't Trade My Childhood for Anything

A couple of weeks ago, I read a recent thought-provoking and memory-inducing interview from blogger Frog Mom with author and nature-activist Richard Louv about his newest book The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Inspired by the resounding response to her blog entry, Frog Mom or Laure Latham, contacted the book’s publishers and obtained two free copies of Louv’s book. Then she posed the following question on her blog and Facebook page: “What is your favorite nature memory as a child?”

Here is what I commented on Frog Mom’s blog, which BTW you can check out at http://www.frogmom.com:

My happiest childhood memories involve nature in some way or another. I grew up in the Italian countryside in an old farmhouse surrounded by the bounty of the outdoors: hay fields, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, woods, streams, verdant lawn (that my mother managed to somehow carve out of the fields of hay), my favorite weeping willow, an enormous raspberry patch, chickens & ducks, an amazing German Sheppard named Teddy, wild rabbits and hares, and my neighbors who were farmers and the salt of the earth. Perhaps my fondest memory is of my sister and I being allowed to go jump around in the stacks of fresh hay one fall evening in our nightgowns. I will be forever grateful to my mother and father for making the move from an apartment in Rome to that natural paradise. It was so much a part of the early childhood educator I am today!
 Here is what I added on Frog Mom’s Facebook page:
Now that the question has been asked, the memories keep flooding in ... jumping on haystacks in my jammies; building a fort on the side of the barn and threatening to run away from home if my sister and I were not allowed to spend the night in it; making perfumes and potions from the flowers, berries and herbs harvest around us;playing hide & seek with the wild rabbits that suddenly multiplied from the few our neighbors asked for permission to release from their pens; tossing rotten persimmons at the side of the barn when I was supposed to be collecting them and composting them before the bees found them; and the mind-blowing taste of hazelnut cake made from nuts we helped to harvest and raspberry gelato that was almost worth all the scratches from the thorns! And 6 years ago, on my last visit to my childhood home, I sat in a pit of mud with my then 2-year-old nephew in our pjs, following his lead and loving tossing fresh mud balls at the side of that same barn! Every once in a blue moon, he asks me if I think the mud balls are still there!
Last night I received my much-anticipated copy of The Nature Principle and by the wee hours of this morning I was nearly a third of the way through the book, and had filled it with underlining and notes crammed into the margins. More thoughts of this book and how Louv’s writing connects to my own practice as an early childhood education professional and my life as a human being on this planet in a later post.

In an article in the September 1st online edition of the New York Times titled “On Outdoor Experience and Environmental Values,” writer Andrew Revkin reminds us that “a starting point for building a thriving, but humanized, planet is familiarity with wild things.” Revkin also writes about Richard Louv's new book and how he continues to drive home his POV: we all need, but children in particular, sustained and meaningful experience in the non-built world (that thing called “nature”) as a path toward forging a passion to conserve it.

What could you do in your little patch of earth, backyard, community garden or vacant lot to foster a child's (and an adult's) encounters with nature?

For inspiration and food for thought, check out the burgeoning efforts of early childhood educator Dianne who just inaugurated Stomping in the Mud Play Group in the side yard of her Victoria, BC home. You can follow her blog at: http://www.stompinginthemud.blogspot.com/

“Hands-on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge, is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while, not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
[E.O. Wilson, The Naturalist, 1994]
“For ourselves, and for our planet, we must be both strong and strongly connected — with each other, with the earth. As children, we need time to wander, to be outside, to nibble on icicles, watch ants, to build with dirt and sticks in the hollow of the earth, to lie back and contemplate clouds….”
[Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble in The Geography of Childhood]
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets. And any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.”
[Luther Burbank, American horticulturalist and botanist, 1849 – 1926]

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


Today my in box brought a new blog entry from a new favorite called Wonder Love: Nurturing a Sense of Wonder which you should be able to follow or sign-up for at http://wonderlove.typepad.com. The blog landing page carries this thought-provoking and inspirational quote, which coincidentally names two of my heroes: DH Lawrence and Rachel Carson. 

Read on:

"D.H. Lawrence once said that 'Water is H2O, hydrogen two parts, oxygen one, but there is also a third thing that makes it water and nobody knows what it is.' It is magic, the kind that can only be found in nature, life, and human possibilities once we are open to them. The kind of education I have in mind takes young people out of the classroom to encounter the mystery of the third thing. In that encounter they discover what Rachel Carson once called the 'sense of wonder.' And that is the start of a real education. "

- David Orr [ Paul Sears Distinguished Professor of Environmental Studies and Politics and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College]