Education for sustainability: Valuing imperfection

Hilary White, teacher and education writer, Somerset
Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Hilary White explores the relevance today of the Japanese philosophy wabi sabi and suggests how a wabi sabiesque approach can complement learning within the EYFS.

Hilary White

It has been a difficult period for children and adults alike. The global pandemic has triggered new thinking about how we live our lives, and when we add environmental concerns to the mix, it becomes clear that we are living through a time of great change and upheaval.

In our quest for a calmer and more sustainable way of life, both for ourselves and the children in our care, it is well worth looking at the Japanese concept of wabi sabi.

This ancient philosophical and cultural tradition is becoming better known outside Japan, not least because it promotes a positive and healthful way of engaging with the world. It does, however, require a degree of thought and investigation if we are to make sense of wabi sabi, and come up with practical ways of applying its wisdom to our work with young children.

Towards a definition

Anyone from a Western background who sets out to examine wabi sabi will quickly discover that it is not easy to describe in a nutshell. Attempting to use Western mindsets to understand Eastern philosophies is always a challenge, and with cultural appropriation at the forefront of many people's minds right now, we should also acknowledge that we are borrowing from a very different cultural tradition to our own. In spite of these challenges, we do need to attempt some kind of definition if we are to draw on the wisdom to be found in wabi sabi.

Beth Kempton has written the definitive book on wabi sabi for the Western readership. As a part of her research, she talked to Japanese people from all walks of life and spent time in the museums, libraries, temples and natural environments of Japan.

Apart from discovering that the Japanese people find wabi sabi difficult to explain because it is simply ‘built into who they are’ (Kempton, 2018), she uncovered a number of threads and themes that go some way towards capturing its spirit:

  • ‘Wabi’ translates as ‘subdued taste’. It involves the recognition that peace and contentment come from living a simple and frugal life
  • ‘Sabi’ is about the beauty that emerges with the passage of time. Patina, rust and weathering all contribute to making an object more aesthetically interesting
  • The antiquity of an object tells its own story, deepens our emotional connection with that object and reminds us of our own mortality
  • Inhabiting the moment and stopping to fully experience the here-and-now is central to wabi sabi. This ties in with the idea of living a simple, frugal life
  • Everything, including life itself, is transient and imperfect. Imperfection is a normal, natural state, and something to be both accepted and valued (Kempton, 2018)

Recognising that wabi sabi is about our emotional response to the world is central to understanding how we might apply it to our lives. Mark Reibstein, the author of a best selling picture book on wabi sabi says: ‘It may best be understood as a feeling, rather than as an idea’ (Reibstein 2008, cited in Wagner 2009:6). As a result, each person's definition of wabi sabi will be a little different because we all experience the world in our own way. The guiding principles and what Kempton refers to as the ‘life lessons’ of wabi sabi create a kind of framework, within which we can each respond to our life experiences in an authentic, unique and life-affirming manner.

Embracing imperfection?

In valuing imperfection and the lessons of failure, wabi sabi is categorically not issuing a licence to be careless or to lack conscientiousness and ambition. Beth Kempton points out that we don't have to like failure – but when it does happen, wabi sabi teaches us to regard it as a means of moving forward. Similarly, although wabi sabi promotes acceptance of things getting old, damaged or worn, this does not in any way preclude the importance of caring for our surroundings. Wabi sabi is not a black-and-white philosophy, but filled with shades of grey.

Wabi sabi and early years practice

At first glance, it is hard to see how such a complex philosophy can be made relevant to the lives of young children. What do concepts such as transience, antiquity and frugality have to do with a child, and how can taking pleasure in imperfection be regarded as appropriate within a modern, early years setting?

In searching for answers to this question, we need to recognise that wabi sabi has a fluidity that enables it to touch every aspect of human experience and perception. Many facets of wabi sabi also chime with a young child's way of being and interacting with the world. In fact, it could be argued that wabi sabi is all about rediscovering the simplicity, wonder and ‘in the moment’ joy that characterises young children. While wabi sabi can most certainly be used as guidance for introducing healthy and sustainable experiences to young children, we can also take inspiration from the children themselves as we try to live a more wabi sabiesque life.

In the moment

As we have already stated, living fully in the here-and-now is a defining aspect of wabi sabi. Enjoying and appreciating the moment is an active expression of the belief that where we are, and what we possess now, is enough. Adopting this mindset is clearly important if we are to live a more sustainable life – not least because it helps us to appreciate what we already have, rather than anxiously striving for what we might be able to get hold of in the future.

In weaving this principle of wabi sabi into our practice, it is important to allow for, and enable, each child to follow their interests. Making provision for children's interests is often talked about in relation to the early years, but what does this actually mean, and how can we link it in a more specific and useful way with wabi sabi?

Lauren Lowry explains that a child's interests fall into two different categories:

  • The personal – each child's favourite items and/or activities, such as animals and ball play.
  • The situational – an interest that emerges from a specific event or moment, often something new or unusual that catches the child's attention (Lowry, 2016)

While tapping into a child's personal interests is always important, it is the situational category of interests that are most relevant to wabi sabi. If we want to help children develop the habit of appreciating the here-and-now, we need to give them time, space and freedom to pause, draw breath and engage for as long as they wish with whatever attracts their interest – whether that be an interesting flower in the garden or a brightly coloured food wrapping in their lunch box.

There is much for adults to learn from the absorption a young child demonstrates when they are allowed and enabled to engage with what interests them on a moment-by-moment basis.

Every scratch tells a story

One of the most charming and, for us in the West, unusual aspects of wabi sabi is the appreciation of the old and used over the new and perfect. It makes sense for anyone involved with young children not to be too precious about the environment. Objects inevitably get scratched and broken, but if we can adopt a wabi sabi mindset, it lessens the pressure on everyone and allows for a more sustainable approach to our belongings.

Mending and repairing gives something a new lease of life, and means we don't have to waste resources by buying new items. There is also great satisfaction to be gained from using items you have mended yourself.

Early childhood is the best time to introduce the ethos that beauty and interest can be found in things that are old and well-used. Start conversations with children about the marks, weathering, scratches, heat rings, repairs and fading on floors, fabrics, table tops, stone steps and other surfaces and items. Instead of focusing on how an item is ‘spoilt’ by age and use, explore the possible stories they contain and play with the idea that unknown people have left a trace of themselves through these marks.

Children need time and freedom to engage with in-the-moment interests

Re-thinking ‘failure’

The wabi sabi principle of valuing imperfection has some useful lessons to teach us about failure, and how we can help children develop a positive attitude to errors and mistakes as they grow up. Young children do not know failure. They may feel and express the frustration of not being able to do or have what they want in the moment – but this is something quite different. According to Beth Kempton, wabi sabi reframes failure by teaching us that:

  • ‘There is no ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’ with learning. There is just learning.
  • The feeling of failure won't last forever. Nothing is permanent. Each day is an opportunity for a new beginning
  • Failure is simply a moment of expansion. Failing your way forward is progress' (Kempton, 2018)

These lessons could be said to have a philosophical link with the Characteristics of Effective Learning statements in the EYFS Development Matters guidance. ‘Persistence’, ‘bouncing back after difficulties’ and ‘a belief that more effort or a different approach will pay off’ are the behaviours of a child who is not going to be floored by so-called failure.

Apart from encouraging children to identify obstacles and explore different strategies, we can help them learn from failure by reframing our own attitudes.

Responding calmly and non-judgementally to ‘accidents’, ‘errors’ and ‘things going wrong’ makes a good starting point. Given the focus on perfectionism that many of us have grown up with, this can be hard to do. If this is the case for you, try the ‘fake it till you make it’ approach. Once we open ourselves up to the idea of preserving the moment, finding beauty in the old and imperfect, and rethinking our definition of failure, it's surprising how easily we can embrace this brave new mindset.

In the next article in this series, we dig deeper into creating a wabi sabiesque environment, and look at how we can bring wabi sabi into relationships within the early years setting.

Wabi sabi in the setting – a practical checklist

  • Give children space, time and freedom to engage with in-the-moment, situational interests
  • Support mindful exploration – how does something feel, smell and so on?
  • Celebrate the old, the used, the worn, and talk about an item's ‘story’
  • Involve children in repairing damaged items, and draw satisfaction from having given something a new lease of life
  • Reframe attitudes to failure; help everybody to see ‘things going wrong’ as an opportunity to learn, grow and progress

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