I am convinced that you can’t fight culture. Whereas we in the US have multiple subcultures, there is a general culture that values multi-tasking, technology use, and lack of downtime. The consequence seems to be a relative lack of tolerance for ambiguity and spontaneity, both of which are often associated with creativity. That is not to say that there are not creative individuals in our society nor that there is no creative activity, but it seems to me likely that one has to step out of the typical mind set and pattern of activity of contemporary American life to be truly creative. I accept the misconceptions that underlie idealization and the romanticization of other cultures, particularly those of developing cultures closer to their ethnic roots. However, I cannot be blind to the advantages I see here at the orphanage and school in South India and in the orphanage in El Salvador where I am a regular guest.
Two apparent advantages are – at least in the case of the younger children – plenty of down time, and few toys, especially tech toys. In the evening last night, the gentleness of the temperature matched the tempo of the activity of the courtyard of the boys’ residence. Boys of different ages were playing in two main groups. One group was playing with a volleyball. Two older boys, one of whom had just graduated college, were playing ball together with obvious enjoyment. About 6 much younger boys were trying to capture the ball, while also imitating the older boys’ athletic moves. Sometimes the older boys would allow them to take the ball, and there would be a playful skirmish between the younger and older boys that looked more like a soccer game than the original volleyball. Other times, the older boys continued to play together without much attention to their younger followers, who watched them closely, while also running around. How much learning was going on in that admiring observation, and how much healthy physical activity and enjoyment! There was no conflict among the boys that I could see.
The other group of boys was playing with stiff slender stems of a plant that they used as arrows. They fixed a small rubber band to the rough end of the stick and pulled it with their fingers while pointing the stick upwards. When they released the rubber band, the stick soared into the air. After a while they identified a tantalizing target – a huge jackfruit hanging low on a tree. As the arrows hit the target again and again a milky substance started to seep mysteriously from the fruit. Here also, there was no real conflict. No adults were constraining their activity, telling them what to do or what not to do. No one cared that the fruit of the tree was being injured – it wasn’t as if a precious garden tree or a piece of furniture in the family home was being harmed. The children were free to play unencumbered. How many of the limits we place on children are dictated by the environment in which we expect them to play?
The comfort of the boys in the courtyard was mirrored by the children in the kindergarten classroom. Thirty two children were sitting on small mats on the floor, overseen by one teacher. The teacher, a superb teacher I had known from earlier visits, was calling on the children one at a time to come to the front and create a story out of a picture with four panels of images. This is a rather sophisticated task, requiring them to create a coherent narrative out of the pictures, and the children were doing a good job. At least as impressive was the attentiveness of the other children while the narrating child was at work. Every once in a while one child would start to cause a minor disruption. The teacher did not call the child’s name from a distance. Without speaking at all at first, she moved to his or her side and put her hands gently on their shoulders, moving them back into position. Is there any way we can transport this into our culture?