On this side of the world, the hearts of children are filled with stuff. Stuff bought in shops. Trinkets sometimes, but also luxury items we have grown used to. Stuff which can’t (or rather, shouldn’t) be manipulated, ripped apart, transformed, reinvented. Stuff we need...? It may take you by surprise if I say we do, quite so. As much as someone who has lost his leg may need crutches.

We soon learn to value this junk. Already a baby will become attached to her pacifier. As well as to her teddy bear, to a blanket, to “transitional objects”, as psychologists like to call them. Objects that are soft, smooth, warm, like a caress, like an embrace. Like mummy. The baby will cling to an inanimate thing that evokes her mother and takes her place when she’s not there: she holds it tight, smells it, takes it by the hand, sleeps by its side. Without it, without the thing, fear and solitude might be unbearable. The “transitional thing” (may Winnicott forgive my vulgarity) is pointing at something amiss, at a much too early separation, at an anxiety that needs to be calmed. It's not that something material is missing, but a deeper emptiness, one would think of the heart.

We grow up, and (some of us) leave fluffy toys behind. But the feeling of emptiness has already settled in, and once again we relate to objects in much the same way, walking down the path we learnt as children: “When people feel insecure or unfulfilled [...] they often try to quell their insecurity by striving for wealth and a lot of fancy stuff”, says a sociologist from Berkely University. That’s why “less nurturing and more emotionally cold mothers tend to have more materialistic offspring” (and possibly more insecure ones too, I believe).

Poor kids, those in the rich world. Their parents live to work, work to buy, and buy to fill up –or think they fill up– the emptiness their absence leaves. Technological gadgets and brand-name clothes are addictive, but no matter how often ads may inject them into our veins, they will not bring us happiness. Children know it. Crutches, as much as we may need them to walk, will simply never give us back the feeling of freedom, of security, that legs do.

If the world was a different place, if we didn’t lock up our children for hours on end at home, at school, in the car, and allowed them to develop as the living creatures they are (and who are crying out for air, sunlight and open spaces), if we shared time with them instead of parking them in front of the tv set or the computer... how many “necessary” things would become pointless.

The rich world, suffering from Diogenes syndrome, needs to hoard stuff so as not to die of solitude. In other worlds, where children can trust their mother or father to be constantly by their side, night and day, no one cares about transitional objects (eat your heart out, Winnicott)1. By no means do I intend to make a case for materialism, for consumerism. But I believe that living as we do and as long as we don’t shift our priorities, we will continue to need ridiculous, superfluous stuff, more and more stuff. We need it, and so do our children, because without it, without the space it fills up in our poor lives, we’d be left with no option but to look emptiness in the face.

When we first were preparing to open the school, we spent long hours allocating our small budget to all sorts "necessary" play equipment, especially for little kids. We started with the usual collection of stuff you can find in nurseries, kindergartens, and child recreation centers.

As the first years unfolded, we watched in disbelief. The equipment lay almost entirely unused. Much of what was handled was put to wholly different uses than those for which it had been intended.

The chief equipment the kids use is the chairs, the tables, the rooms, the closets, and the outdorrs, with its woods and bushes, rocks and secret corners. The primary tool is their imagination.

Free at Last, The Sudbury Valley School (Daniel Greenberg)

1 A study comparing the sleeping arrangements of two different cultures –United States and Guatemalan Maya– showed that Mayan babies knew no “transitional objects” whatsoever and were able to sleep effortlessly (by their mothers), while US babies, who slept apart from their mothers, needed objects, songs and stories to lull them to sleep.