LEILA BERG who used to run a nursery school at her home is a writer of children’s books who contributed to ANARCHY 39.
Stunted to School
IT SEEMS STRANGE TO ME THAT PEOPLE SHOULD FIGHT so hard, and so rightly, over education for children from five upwards—primary, secondary, university—and not care at all what has happened to the child before this.
For their first five years, thousands of our children are unable to grow. They live in flats—new flats—where their mothers have to keep all windows permanently locked because the child might climb and fall to the concrete ground; where the balconies, the only nearby play-space, are also kept permanently locked because the walls have been built too low; where the inside walls and floors are so thin, and let so much noise through, that children cannot run across the floor to greet their father when he comes home from work; where mothers walk round and round the block with the baby in the pram and the small children hanging on to the pram handle because father, who is working nights, is asleep; where the children who cannot play upstairs cannot play downstairs either because the mother—eight or nine stories up—cannot see them, or get to them quickly when they need her, and dangerous traffic runs nearby.
It is, ironically, the gradual realisation that there must surely be a better, saner, happier, more human way of living than this, that will finally break the ban on nursery school building. Mothers cannot go on like this much longer. I heard recently of one who arrived hysterical at a nursery school that was already filled to capacity, and said if they would not take her children she would abandon them; they took them—and now she has begun to have joy in them.
So mothers come to the nursery school with children whose infant education has already been stunted by their environment, and those of them who are lucky enough to get in—how pitifully inadequate the number is—begin to grow.
They have space, they have a tranquil and interested love, they have time, the long time of childhood, that is abundantly theirs, they have access to the basic things—sand, water, earth, grass, and clay, with a flowing changing uncramped sky above—and they begin to make relationships, to appreciate first themselves and then other people as unique human beings. They begin to make patterns of casual co-operat-ing that is very beautiful to see, like ballet.
And their parents too begin to grow. In nursery schools, parents are welcome, parents are part of the whole educational vision. There are no notices in nursery schools that say “Parents may not come beyond this point.” They are not kept outside the gates while their children scream for them. They come in with the children, and they stay, and they talk and watch and discuss and wonder. The realisation comes to them that it is possible to rejoice in a child’s laughter, a child’s dancing, a child’s exploring, a child’s developing skills, a child’s growing independence, a child’s glee. All these things, which had been so twisting them with anxiety and anger, for they saw them only as a threat, because their environment had become more important to them than the child, they begin at last to see as the human heritage. They suddenly see that to behave like this—joyously, spontaneously, curiously—is possible. Nothing dreadful happens. They sky does not fall. Their children are happy, not depraved. And then they see that what is wrong is their environment, the way they are living. And this they will then begin to change.
Then we will have homes where children can play together, where they can have cats and rabbits, where they can dance and sing without guilt. We will have as many nursery schools as mothers need, because small children, even in the best of homes, need a bridge into the outside world. And then the children will not come already stunted to the primary schools.