It is heartening to watch the joy in children when they get the right kind of attention
IT WAS a sunny day in Madrid, Spain, and my friend Stephen and I were sitting down at a park next to the Royal Palace. Around us were several pools of water, one of which had several children running around in circles.
At first, we thought it was just children messing about while out with their parents. It soon dawned on us that this was more serious running; they weren’t in a race, but it wasn’t merely for fun.
Eventually, they all stopped at the same time and the adult supervising them – I’m guessing, a teacher – got the second set of students ready.
How clever, we thought, that a teacher would take his students out to a gorgeous park for what looked like a physical education class in school.
Part of me left the park really envious.
When I was in secondary school in Petaling Jaya, our teachers (many of whom didn’t even play any sports) would bring out an old beaten up football and tell us to just kick it about for 40 minutes.
I was rubbish at it but it was the only sport we were “encouraged” to participate in. Eventually, I stopped playing and gave my teacher — who could often be found standing in the shade — numerous excuses.
I started thinking about the children I saw running and wondered what they thought of their experiences.
Never mind the fact that new environments are a great way to overcome monotony, I thought it was a great lesson to learn that exercise can be done anywhere — even in a park next to one of the most famous tourist spots in the city they lived in.
Besides this, we encountered two different sets of students while visiting the Reina Sofia Museum, home to one of Pablo Picasso’s greatest works, Guernica.
In one room, I saw two performers entertaining a bunch of four- or five-year-olds in a room filled with large sculptures. The children were captivated, laughing and, what sounded like, heckling, while the teacher stood behind amused.
In another room, in-between beautiful pieces of modern art hanging on the wall, a bunch of primary pupils were sitting down while four of their classmates were getting ready to perform – props in hand.
I couldn’t help but be amazed at the clever method of education these children were experiencing – to have arts and culture normalised from a young age.
For me, it didn’t matter if they were too young to appreciate some of the works but I can only imagine how easy it is to get inspired in a building as epic and grand as these museums, amid some amazing creative work.
Seeing the experiences of these children lies in stark contrast to the sad news from Malaysia that I read – a young boy who had been subjected to harsh punishment, which might have contributed to his death.
I thought of my own days in school many years ago when a teacher would grab the heads of two students and knock them together as punishment, or the way I was ridiculed by a teacher for wearing the songkok, or the way one teacher would go through the school register and note our father’s name to make fun of us.
I am not attempting to compare education systems; I certainly do not know enough about the Spanish school system to comment.
But what was striking to me in this case was how much joy children get when the right kind of attention is given to them, and when they are trusted and empowered.
I feel that sometimes it is easy for us to forget how important the role we all – not just teachers and parents – play in moulding the next generation.
We often tell off children who ask too many questions, tell them to sit in a corner and be quiet, or discipline them into submission.
Many a time, our children grow up with fear — of rejection, of doing something wrong, and of not living up to our expectations.
What we should be doing is encouraging this curiosity and helping them discover the many adventures in life.
From my experience, we adults have so much to learn from our youths as well; not just when they are older but right from when they are toddlers.
They teach us about love and affection, and they teach us not to judge.
They remind us to take things one day at a time, and to be carefree and live a little.
They show us the lives some of us have forgotten, and let us live the experiences we may have missed.
For all that we take from them, the least we could do is give to them first.
And that starts by believing in them, empowering them and playing our role to make sure they grow up in a safe, judgement-free, progressive environment so that they can achieve their highest potential.
Niki is a PhD researcher at The University of Nottingham, United Kingdom. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com/news