Dr Niamh On The Plum Tree

Childhood Imagination Sows Seeds of Future Brilliance

Insights With Dr. Niamh Clune: Trusting The Child

Some time ago, (at my age, things I remember are always some time ago), I read a book by Alexander Sutherland Neill. He was the inspired educator that initiated the Summerhill project in 1921, in the magically named place of Kingswinford.

Niell held no truck with pedagogy. Rather, he believed that children WANT to learn, and if you follow their signals, they will learn through passion.

There were no structured lessons. Teaching was child-centred. Children were allowed to revel in the imaginal mind ~ play there: exploring, grandma_17174dreaming, imagining and creating. Soaring in such a fertile place as the imagination, they also made discoveries. This, according to Neill, was the crux of the matter where learning was concerned.

Say, a child discovered a bug under a rock, doing bug things, minding its own bug business, in its tiny bug world, a child would be inspired to learn to read, as s/he discovered the NEED to read. Receptive teacher would appear, just at the right time, to place a book in front of enquiring child. Results showed that the child learned to read then, quickly and easily, having the passion to do so, as the secrets to his or her imaginal encounters with bugs, inhabited those books.

If a child loved to build things, s/he would yearn to know the secrets of engineering (which involves also learning math). Inspired teacher would appear, just at the right time, to explain the necessity and relevance of math, reading, drawing, etc., and such things would become aids to creativity and discovery ~ the structures and disciplines necessary to enable expression.

Alexander Neill was brave. He flouted institutional learning. He believed the teaching should suit the child, not the child suit the teaching. I fell in love with him and his philosophy. He was a man after my own heart!

I watch with wonder now, how quickly my granddaughter learns. Her quick-silver mind flits and dances into every new realm. She is a fearless explorer of imagined scenes. And her mother is there (as am I) to enable, not dictate, the flow of her natural genius.

Children are geniuses. All we have to do is recognise the way they learn and enable that genius to blossom and express its full potential. Nourish natural ability, and all else will follow.

Learning is a holistic thing. We make friends with the tools we need (subjects) that will aid our discovery and facilitate our natural desire to roam the realms of the imaginal mind, which are, after all, without limits.

I don’t agree with everything Neill believed(I wouldn’t, as I learned the joy of thinking for myself, due to having imagination in abundance!). A child also needs boundaries in which to feel safe. There’s the rub: achieving balance between freedom and structure ~ surely this is the Holy Grail of parenting and teaching?

In my humble opinion, apart from love, there is no greater gift than that of nurturing a child’s astounding imagination.

Niamh Clune


About Dr Niamh

When I was a little girl (a very, very long time ago), I used to love learning new, really big words like ‘discombobulate’. As I grew, my love of words grew too, until I loved them so much, I could not stop writing them down. One day, as I was scribbling a particular word, a very peculiar thing happened. The word shouted at me, “Stop! Don’t put me there!” As you can imagine, I was shocked and nearly fell off my chair. When I recovered somewhat, I said to the word, “Could you stop shouting, please? I am not used to it.” Can you guess what happened next? No! I thought not. The word said, “I might be small, but I will misbehave if you do not use me properly. I will not tell the story you would like me to tell. I will say something entirely different!” I dropped my pen. I hoped that by dropping my pen, the word would stop talking. Alas! It did not. It carried on chitterchobbling, even after the ink had dried. I was in a pickle. I could not allow my words to run away with my story, now could I? I don’t know about you, but when this sort of thing happens, there is only one thing left to do if you prefer not to spend your time arguing. “Very well,” said I. “I will do as you ask if you will just be quiet and allow me to concentrate.” Since that day, I have been paying special attention to every word I invite into my stories. After all, a story should say exactly what it means to say and not be led astray. With love from Dr. Niamh, Ph.D in Learning Through The Imagination and Founder of Dr Niamh Children's Books. www.drniamhchildrensbooks.com

8 comments on “Insights With Dr. Niamh Clune: Trusting The Child

  1. scillagrace
    February 11, 2014

    I get very frustrated with structures of education that are only about streaming people toward the corporate work force. “Learn this because you can be paid to apply it.” American education systems are big on the bottom line. I worry about a generation with stunted imagination, and I hated to hear as a substitute teacher, “why would I need to know this in the ‘real world’?”


    • ontheplumtree
      February 11, 2014

      You have been, (are at) the coalface, so to speak, Priscilla. It frustrates me also. I am seriously concerned that business now rules every aspect of our lives and the imagination is being ignored. Thank you for your comment.


  2. Patricia Tilton
    February 11, 2014

    Alexander Neill sounds like he was many decades ahead in his thinking. Wish there were more teachers that believed the teaching should suit the child, not the child suit the teaching. Althought I think that changes — especially among the many teacher bloggers I interact with. Author Peter H. Reynolds is a great advocate for nourishing the child.


    • ontheplumtree
      February 11, 2014

      Yes! I am sure there are many wonderful teacher, for whom teaching is still a special vocation.


  3. Daniel Vimont
    February 13, 2014

    Yep — you’re describing the only REAL way learning works. The Frederick Taylor inspired assembly line that we have set up (through which to process students into “educated” individuals) is, as a system, a dismal failure (with both students and teachers bravely persevering within the system to bring off small miracles of actual learning that mercifully occasionally occur DESPITE the system mostly working against them).


    • ontheplumtree
      February 13, 2014

      Thank you for stopping by, Daniel. This is of great interest to me, as I am now venturing into the classroom as an author and hope to bring something of this approach with me, as it is a long-held passion of mine.


  4. thiskidreviewsbooks
    February 13, 2014

    Well said. I like the sounds of this Mr. Neill guy. He’s my hero now. 😉


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