After the death of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, Adrian Voce suggests that the modern world should heed his view of children
Anyone looking to understand children better could do worse than to study the most popular children’s authors.
Books by Julia Donaldson, Michael Rosen, Tony Ross and others beautifully illustrate how children confront their fears, express their uniqueness and resolve problems through play. The most classic story arc involves a child protagonist – or surrogate – embarking on a dangerous or uncertain odyssey and then returning to the safety of home (often, literally, to bed) after overcoming challenges. They usually do this by resorting to the more obvious gifts of childhood such as innocence, ingenuity or unconditional love. Less commonly, they find gifts within the ‘darker side’ of their playfulness. For slightly older children, Roald Dahl was of course the master storyteller who understood very well the joy and power of ‘being naughty’.
And so, to Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are. Rightly regarded as a children’s classic, selling 17 million copies worldwide since its publication in 1963, this short picture book has had a profound influence on the genre, as recognised by the many tributes from the literary world and beyond that have greeted Sendak’s death at 83.
The book and its popularity tell us something important about children. The story’s protagonist is a small boy, Max, who dresses as a wolf to make ‘mischief of one kind and another’. When his mother admonishes him, Max threatens to eat her. Banished to his room, he is transported to ‘where the wild things are’. There, rather than having to curb his temper, he finds it gives him a magical power over the monsters and beasts he finds there. He summons them to join him in an almighty ‘wild rumpus’ and is accordingly made king of the place before returning to ‘where someone loves him best of all’, and his dinner ‘was still hot’.
No playworker needs telling that Sendak’s book captures something elemental that the modern world tends to deny or suppress: that children have extraordinary power. In celebrating this in all its glory, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ challenges the view of children as victims and innocents. The best play environments give children the space and afford them the opportunities to fully explore and express this side of their nature.
This is why many play practitioners rail against the way formal education is so often delivered. In requiring so much conformity to rules of behaviour, they are concerned that it denies the child’s true potential.
There is another point here for play advocates, and those we seek to influence. ‘Wild play’ is not a reference to natural or ‘wild’ places so much as to the types of playing that they engender and support. Thus, whilst making common cause with the environmental movement wherever this helps to progress our aims, we must nevertheless be always mindful that play is the thing.
The outdoor learning and the children and nature movements may be natural allies (no pun intended), but the play movement is about creating space for children. For, as the wild things themselves have to concede, the boy, Max is ‘the most wild thing of all’.