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!


  1. Mia, this is a wonderful tribute to a caring and loving parent. It is also a testament to the lasting significance and education gained from childhood play, as well as to the provision of space and materials for such. As an advocate for play-based learning, and ECE quality and policy improvement, I believe that my positive childhood experiences, like yours, have provided the incentive to advocate for play-based learning, just as much as my years of study in Early Childhood Development and Education have. We know that all children cannot grow up in beautiful open spaces like the one you describe. But when parents and educators are passionately motivated to “envision, create, and enhance spaces” for children, the wonders of nature and connections to adults and other children and optimal learning can be there for all.
    Play on, indeed!
    Jean Kurnik

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful response and the connections you draw between our childhoods and our work as ECE practitioners with and on behalf of children!! Long ago I recognized that how I grew up - and the many gifts of opportunity that my my parents made available to my sister and I - run deep within me and are central to the educator I have become. My educational philosophy is both a compliment to that magical childhood and a reaction to the traditional and rigid schooling I experienced in Italy, in elementary and middle school. I hope I am becoming the teacher I never really had. Thank you, and carry on!

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