• Suzanne Axelsson

The Story of connection

"Intimate attachments to other human beings are the hub around which a person's life revolves, not only as an infant or a toddler or a schoolchild but throughout adolescence and years of maturity as well, and on into old age. From these intimate attachments a person draws strength and enjoyment of life and, through what he contributes, gives strength and enjoyment to others. These are matters about which current science and traditional wisdom are at one." (Bowlby, J. (1980) Attachment and Loss: Volume 1. Attachment. Basic Books: New York.)


Making connections is important, Bowlby, "father of attachment" clearly expresses that. The attachment secures the child, the individual, into a safe place of belonging. In belonging we feel strength and joy which are essential for engaging in both play and learning. In belonging we can take risks... because te belonging, the attachments make up the safety net. Trying new things is a risk, making new friends is a risk, experiencing wonder is a risk, following curiosity is a risk, answering questions is a risk (especially in schools where there is a massive emphasis on getting the right answer)... if we do not feel safe, we are less likely to take risks... in both the learning and play.


So if we want to close the gap, or ensure children have not fallen behind... the first focus must ALWAYS be well-being and feeling safe. There is no absolute time schedule when things MUST be learned, especially when it comes to academics.

I live close to Alfred Nobel's old dynamite factory, it is a constant reminder of the Nobel prizes, yet I have seldom taken a great deal of interest in them except for Mario Capecchi... and not because of what he studied, but because of his childhood story...


"For reasons that have never been clear to me, my mother’s money ran out after one year and, at age 4½, I set off on my own. I headed south, sometimes living in the streets, sometimes joining gangs of other homeless children, sometimes living in orphanages, and most of the time being hungry. My recollections of those four years are vivid but not continuous, rather like a series of snapshots. Some of them are brutal beyond description, others more palatable.

There are records in the archives of Ritten, a region of the Southern Alps of Italy, that I left Bozen to go to Reggio Emilia on July 18, 1942. AP reporters exploring this history have suggested that my father came to the farm, picked me up, and that we went together to Reggio Emilia where he was living. I have no memory of his coming to the farm, nor of having travelled with him to Reggio Emilia. I have recently received a letter from a man who remembers me as the youngest member of his street gang operating in Bolzano, which is on the way to Reggio Emilia.

I did end up in Reggio Emilia, which is approximately 160 miles south of Bolzano. I knew that my father lived in Reggio Emilia and I have previously noted that I had lived with him a couple of times from 1942-1946, for a total period of approximately three weeks. The question has been raised why I didn’t live with him for a much longer period. The reason was that he was extremely abusive. Amidst all of the horrors of war, perhaps the most difficult for me to accept as a child was having a father who was brutal to me.

Recently, I have also received a very nice letter from the priest in Reggio Emilia who ran the orphanage in which I was eventually placed. I remember him because he was one of the very few men I encountered in Reggio Emilia who showed compassion for the children and took an interest in me. I am surprised, but pleased, that after all these years he still remembers me among the thousands of children he was responsible for over the years. Further, I believe I was at that orphanage for only several months, the first time in the fall of 1945, after which I ran away, followed by a second period, in the same orphanage, in the spring of 1946. But his memory is genuine, for he recounts incidents consistent with my memories that could only have been known through our common experience.

In the spring of 1945, Munich was liberated by the American troops. My mother had survived her captivity and set out to find me. In October 1946, she succeeded. As an example of her flair for the dramatic, she found me on my ninth birthday, and I am sure that this was by design. I did not recognize her. In five years she had aged a lifetime. I was in a hospital when she found me. All of the children in this hospital were there for the same reasons: malnutrition, typhoid, or both. The prospects for most of those children ever leaving that hospital were slim because they had no nourishing food. Our daily diet consisted of a bowl of chicory coffee and a small crust of old bread. I had been in that hospital in Reggio Emilia for what seemed like a year. Scores of beds lined the rooms and corridors of the hospital, one bed touching the next. There were no sheets or blankets. It was easier to clean without them. Our symptoms were monotonously the same. In the morning we awoke fairly lucid. The nurse, Sister Maria, would take our temperature. She promised me that if I could go through one day without a high fever, I could leave the hospital. She knew that without any clothes I was not likely to run away. By late morning, the high, burning fever would return and we would pass into oblivion. Consistent with the diagnosis of typhoid, many years later I received a typhoid/paratyphoid shot, went into shock, and passed out.

The same day that my mother arrived at the hospital, she bought me a full set of new clothes, a Tyrolean outfit complete with a small cap with a feather in it. I still have the hat. We went to Rome to process papers, where I had my first bath in six years, and then on to Naples. My mother’s younger brother, Edward, had sent her money to buy two boat tickets to America. " taken from The Nobel Prize website


When I heard this story in 2007 it was not this written version, but a version where he was interviewed live... he was asked how a person who did not have access to any academic education until the age of 9 could possibly win a Nobel Prize. His answer was that the first 3.5 years (before he was left at the farm) he was with his mother.. where he was loved, safe and played in a stimulating environment with an attentive and creative mother. That he had a fabulous foundation to his life that was easy for him to build on later. It was then I fully understood the impact of the first three years. The impact of connection and positive attachments that create the security needed for learning, exploration and the essential childhood experience of play...

That academic success is NOT achieved by pushing academics down to an ever younger age, or force feeding children facts for them to regurgitate without fully understanding. It is about connections, about creating safe spaces for children to learn with joy. It is about a balance of play and learning/teaching.

My own son did not start to read and write until he was 9, he was not the slightest bit interested, and I was terrified that forcing him to read and write in school would turn him off completely (he has autism/ADHD), and I was fortunate that his first teachers listened to me and did not push him (first grade starts at 7 here in Sweden). Towards the end of second grade he started reading and writing (frustrated by the fact he could not proceed with the Pokemon game without me reading aloud). He hopped over the whole sounding out phase and went straight into reading (in both English and Swedish) fluently and with inflection. It had become meaningful, and he was ready... I read aloud to him every day until he was 12 when he moved to audio books. Literacy was all around him, he simply found his own way. As an early years educator in Sweden I am not required to teach my 1-6 year olds (those children born in the first half of the year turn 6 before starting preschool class in a school environment). I am required to provide a play and learning environment that is rich in literacy. Most of my preschoolers are writing before the leave me... not because I taught them, but because I have supported their learning. Usually there are one or two children that are extra interested in learning to write (the writing interest I find usually comes before the reading interest), and this interest is contagious - it spreads throughout the group. I simply facilitate by making sure the right materials are available, the right resources, enough time, my enthusiasm and support in appropriate amounts (not too much, not too little) and the right experiences to inspire and to evolve (and I include climbing trees, climbing frames, strengthening the body, fine motor skill development, listening to stories, drama etc etc all experiences connected to writing).


At the age of 10 my twin daughters spent a couple of days at my childhood school in York, having had 50% less school years than the class they joined (the 11 year olds, ie the year above them). They did the same school work, in English instead of Swedish, and were, according to te teacher in the class, not behind. In other words they would have been able to move into the class without any problem from a math and literacy point of view... of course there would be variations in the content and facts learned.


All of this comes back to connections. To relationships. To healthy attachments. The focus on pushing academics down to improve the later results lacks real proof, yet time and time again we can find instances where children who start school later show no disadvantage... As I mentioned already here in Sweden school starts at age 7, in most parts of Europe it is age 6... I am so incredibly relieved that I did not have to put my children into formal school from age 4.

My twins are at university, they interact with other climate activists around te world, organise massive strikes and actions, write articles, hold speeches... starting school later has NOT been a gap that needed to be remedied.

Closing the gap needs to be about addressing poverty, creating safe places, ensuring time to play and experience joy, being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them, not fearing being wrong, being valued and respected, not being oppressed or othered. Closing the gap should not be about reducing access to play by pushing extra academics on children - which will impinge on their self esteem, well-being and sense of security... three things that weaken connections. Weak connections will weaken the ability to learn, and thus undermining the whole purpose of the intervention. We need to trust te children. We need to trust in play. We need play-responsive teaching.

Original Learning. The interweaving of play and learning as equals, based on joy, curiosity, wonder, imagination, time, knowledge (not facts), interaction, reflection, risk and collaboration.





Interaction Imagination

© 2017 Suzanne Axelsson. Interaction Imagination. Stockholm, Sweden.
suzanne@interactionimagination.com 

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