““Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here” said Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where”, said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go”, said the Cat.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
‘How can you know what sort of world you want to live in, if you haven’t looked around and thought about what the world you live in is like, now?’
My son’s year level have recently come back from Canberra – which, as many of you know, is Australia’s capital city developed (largely) in accordance to a design or a detailed vision. In other words, it was highly planned. Most places don’t come about as a result of a decision on high.
So when I made an offer to the Grade 6 teachers to provide an overview of Melbourne as a contrast, and they said yes, I thought what a great opportunity this was! I do believe it’s important to think about where and how we live, what decisions we make or can influence, and how they will improve or degrade the world, how they will enhance or detract from other people’s lives (especially those most vulnerable). At the same time, I didn’t want to step into moralising (as I’ve started to above), so I’ve been pondering how best to cover this.
I spent part of this morning giving them an overview about how Melbourne, by contrast, came to be the way it is in terms of its layout. We then talked as a group about some of the decisions that are needed to plan for Melbourne’s future – very broadly – and what they thought were important considerations.
Then we did an exercise together, and I think this was the most critical part. Mostly because it wasn’t me talking, as much as it was them thinking, and remembering, and considering what they already knew. What they knew – or didn’t know – about their local area.
I had maps of our suburb and surrounds, with roads and rails and some parks marked, but not much else. They worked together to map out where they lived, where their school was (note, it wasn’t marked on the map), landmarks on the way to school, and any other places or aspects they notice nearby that they thought were significant (for instance, the local pool, their local GP, the shops, where their friends lived, etc).
It was interesting. There was big differences between the kids in how easily they could describe their local area. There was also big differences in how easily they found identifying things that worked to make places safer for walking (ie. traffic lights and crossing supervisors), where they could identify changes that were needed, how well they’d been able to explain what they liked and didn’t like about their area.
Now, there are probably a lot of reasons for this:
- Different kids are more comfortable talking in a big group than others
- some kids are fairly new to the area and still getting their bearings
- some kids are just happy and don’t feel a need to identify issues (good or bad) – they go with the flow.
- Others are more used to reading maps and translating physical spaces with graphical representation.
- In some cases, it might have been how infrequently they walked or cycled to school, – a recent study found that kids who walked or cycled generally were able to better describe and draw their world, as it wasn’t as fragmented as it becomes viewed from the speed of a car (or, not viewed at all, if the focus in the car is on electronic devices). However, it’s a local primary school and most kids seem to walk or cycle at least some days a week.
There are lots of reasons and I can’t draw too many conclusions about whether or not they intentionally hadn’t noticed aspects of where they lived. Hopefully this has triggered some more interest!
What is more relevant, though, is what we as adults notice about our local area (be it our neighbourhood, our working environment, where we go for fun, etc). I suspect a lot of us are so focused on other things – rushing from one place to the next, trying not to forget key information or appointments, filling our thoughts with music or podcasts or news or trivia via our phones – that we might not actually be much better at describing key elements of our environment.
Why is this important? Well, it’s partly for us – we are able to describe places we feel more of a connection to. Each little detail – the way your neighbour tends to his or her garden, the new crossing supervisor, the changes to the local school – provide a link, a unifying element between you and your community.
But it’s also important for everyone else. Why?
I believe that it’s very hard to care about something that you haven’t even noticed.
- You don’t notice the change in levels between the street and the access to the bus stop? You’re not likely to support modifying the entrance so people with physical disabilities can access it.
- You don’t notice the frequency of the bins put out by your neighbours? You’re not likely to trigger to the fact that, maybe, one of them might be unwell.
These are just two of a myriad of other examples like these.
I’ve recently changed jobs and I’m working in a part of the city I haven’t spent much time in for over 20 years. It’s changed – drastically. And I’m quite aware of this, because it’s new. But it’s likely that I won’t notice much after a little while. It will blur into the background.
- I’ll fail to notice the homeless people, the importance of the limited shelter they have under buildings with covered entrance ways, and instead of wondering how to help, I’ll get irritated that they are in my way.
- I’ll fail to notice the elderly people struggling to stand on a crowded train, and instead of giving up my seat (if I’m lucky to nab one), I’ll be annoyed that I’m knocked into.
- I’ll still notice the angry sounding man who, if I listen, I can see his anger is masking a fear (the struggle to make ends meet, or a sick child) and I’ll always assume this is someone I need to move away from (sometimes it is, but not always).
- And I’ll fail to notice the beautiful things too – and there are lots of them, too, if you just have time to look.
So I’m setting myself a challenge. Look more. Notice more. And keep filling in my mental map – because it’s important.
I’ll report back, and you’re welcome to join me!