“A child can teach an adult three things: to be happy for no reason, to always be busy with something, and to know how to demand with all his might that which he desires.”Paolo Coelho, author of ‘The Fifth Mountain’
When my son first travelled by tram alone at the age of six, it was an adventure that had preoccupied him for days. “My knees were shaking,” he explained afterwards with bright eyes, “like when I milked the cow for the first time.” (That had been just the summer before on holiday in the Alps.) He was visibly taller with pride. At the time, I remember thinking what a small thing it was to travel just three stops alone – yet that first stab at independence means so much to a child.
In fact, children look at everything in a very different way from adults. All their experiences are colourful and intense. Anyone who goes out and about with a small child will know that they often pause, listen and react to noises that we adults no longer notice, such as a dog barking, an aeroplane humming in the sky or the chirping of a bird.
Transfixed with amazement, a child will stand open-mouthed in front of a luxuriously decorated Christmas tree in the shopping centre while the parents hardly give it a second glance. They notice the ant that struggles with a small twig. They hear, they see, they feel the world: mud between the toes, sand and wind on the skin, food squished between the fingers.
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” wrote US marine biologist Rachel Carson, who became an icon of the 1960s environmental movement through her book ‘Silent Spring’. “It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Children can lose themselves in the moment in a wonderful way. Their experiences can be so intense that the memories often recur throughout the rest of their lives.
“Some of us, perhaps many more than we expect, have had extraordinary, sometimes even mystical experiences, in our early years of life,” explains US psychologist Edward Hoffman, who has analysed hundreds of reports from both children and adults on their most intense and beautiful childhood memories. There are many different types of catalysts for such transcendental moments. They could be simple, everyday experiences that completely consumed a child at the time, dreams, music or – and this was the most predominant segment – experiences in the natural world.
“It’s about supporting, not instructing, children”
Arno Stern is an educationalist, researcher and founder of Malort, a studio in Paris where children can freely express themselves through art
“It shouldn’t be about what we can learn from children. This kind of thought comes from an inverted teacher-pupil approach. We as parents must be responsible and truth-worthy reference points for our children and must support them in their endeavours. Children naturally want to explore the world, and the emphasis should be on supporting rather than instructing them in this. It’s about mutual trust and recognising children’s undoubted abilities.”
“As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth; to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees.”Valerie Andrews, author of ‘A Passion for this Earth’
As we get older, we notice that time passes more and more quickly, and this is due to the fact that we are no longer conscious of all the small things, experiences or moments that seem to last for eternities to children. Things that are experienced often are no longer special. Time contracts to nothing as it becomes caged into routine processes that are no longer worth remembering.
But there is a remedy: let a child take you by the hand and lead you around. By doing this, you can learn to be alert, observant and open all over again. It’s a great way to rediscover the wonders of the world.
“Children show us a better world”
Musician, composer and author André Stern is the son of Malort founder, Arno Stern, and father to Antonin, aged five
“In terms of openness, impartiality, lack of prejudices and hierarchies, children are true experts. They relate to other living beings with enthusiasm, with open hearts and open arms, not noticing skin colour, religion, income and age – and they always search for the greatest possible diversity because this is the top priority as an enrichment factor for them. In this way, children can show us how the world could be a better place. And we don’t even need to work towards this – we would simply have to avoid distancing ourselves from our natural state.”