The fourth of my ten things learned in 2013.
I watched the film Mary Poppins again over Christmas. Apart from being moved – yet again – to blub at the sad bits, I was struck by what a great minister Mary would make.
The two quotes below are separated by nearly 50 years. One comes from the movie, Mary Poppins, the other is from a speech on childcare by the current childcare Minister, Elizabeth Truss.
The 21st Century will belong to those countries that win the global race for jobs and economic advantage. In order for every adult to fulfil their potential, they need to be properly equipped with essential skills from the very beginning of their lives.
…children must be moulded…and taught that life is a battle to be faced and fought.
Of course, neither of these statements comes from the mouth of Mary Poppins. The one from the Disney film (the second, in case you couldn’t guess) is spoken by George Banks (played by David Tomlinson), banking paterfamilias of the Banks family, by whom the magical nanny is so memorably employed.
Mr Banks at first is confident in the kind of statements we are used to hearing from government ministers. His life – before Mary Poppins – was ‘calm, well-ordered, exemplary’. A visit to his bank will do his children good, providing an antidote to the ‘slipshod, sugary female thinking they get around here all day.’
But it takes a chimney sweep to open his eyes, sympathising with the fact that Banks has to:
…grind, grind, grind at that grindstone, though childhood slips like sand through a sieve.
Mary Poppins strikes a different balance. She comes to the Banks house in response to the children’s desire for a fun, kind-hearted, caring person to be their new nanny. But she also assures Banks that she is will lay down groundrules:
I am kind, but extremely firm.
She is as good as her word on that, but the key to her philosophy is something familiar to anyone who has ever worked with young children: learning through play. She exploits the children’s sense of fun and imagination so that they learn without seeming to try.
In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and – SNAP – the job’s a game!
They don’t want to clear up the nursery, but Mary Poppins shows them how to find the game in it (a bit of magic helps, but every teacher knows that).
And when the children accidentally fly up the chimney (don’t you hate it when that happens?), she turns it to fun and adventure in the ‘trackless jungle’ of London’s rooftops.
In addition to her understanding of children’s development, this is a woman who could hold her own in Parliament. When an outraged Banks demands an explanation for soot-covered children and a house full of dancing chimney sweeps, it leads to this priceless exchange:
Mr. Banks: Just a moment, Mary Poppins. What is the meaning of this outrage?
Mary Poppins: I beg your pardon?
Mr. Banks: Will you be good enough to explain all this?
Mary Poppins: First of all, I would like to make one thing quite clear.
Mr. Banks: Yes?
Mary Poppins: I never explain anything. [exits]
Of course, Mary Poppins may have been helped in her task by an adult to child ratio of 1:2. But let’s not go there…