Playgroup Interviews: Jackie French



There is nurture in nature


Through many a season, Jackie French has pitter pattered along her own path. With the help of rain and good soil she has had a hand in creating a magical garden in the Australian landscape, far removed from the clamour of city life. Over 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables sprout and grow throughout the yearly cycle of heat, frost, wind, downpours and just-right sunny days. Jackie has many accolades but none more tied to the richness of her storytelling. She fondly remembers walks with her Father, sharing tales and wonders.

“We talked about the meaning of life and the world and why trees were green and lots of other things. A lot of kids today; a lot of families today; make one or two comments back and forth but they often don’t have those really good sustained conversations that are so important to a child’s emotional and social mind and intellectual development and certainly for playgroups I think this is something that should be encouraged.”

Jackie has been a tremendous advocate for reading, honouring the basic human right that all children have, which is the right to learn to read. She knows that reading does not come easily for some, and recognises that children quickly become dispirited if they cannot keep up with their peers. Innately the child knows, and most notably feels a failure. The inability to read something that someone else can cause an abrupt stoppage within any person. This can be damaging, but never beyond repair.

There is always somebody who can help Jackie said, even if you have to ask 10 or 15 people, eventually you will find someone who wants to help and it is an act of kindness that you asked for their help.

“You are not imposing on them. Asking for help is actually one of the most generous things you can do because it is really saying we are part of this social web and by asking you for help it really means I am implicitly saying I would help you in the same circumstances, will you help me now?”

Jackie knows Dyslexia well. She knows it is complex. She knows that some people will never know. She said that the term can be misused.

Jackie explains that while there is an inability to read, there is not actually learning problems on the whole spectrum. The child may have difficulty reading but has no problem learning how to get dressed. 

“There can be a thousand, or several thousand reasons why that is the case.”

And often, those thousands of reasons are unique to each of us as human beings.

The State Library has launched 1000 Books Before School initiative. It seems that Jackie has long been a devotee of this discipline, since she was a little girl herself, meandering through a world of stories. The marvel and transcendence that a books gifts to a young reader is beyond measure.  

“It means that by the time the child is five years old they have lived 10,000 different lives and in 10,000 different cultures and mindsets and bodies- it means, literally, that their brains have physically developed, it is muscle building for the brain. Everytime a child reads a book or is read a book, literally it creates new neurons in the brain and new connections of neurons. It literally makes a child more intelligent, literally does increase empathy, understanding, compassion and self-knowledge as well- and all of that, just between the covers of a book.”

Jackie has an intricate link to the words that sing out of the leaves in the breeze. She listens. The land and the seasons inform her and let her simply, be.

She understands the richness that comes from being in nature, and it is not a richness that extends any monetary value. Somewhere buried deep down we all share Jackie’s roots and they extend far and wide. Children especially find their internal treasures while outside.

“When you are in the bush or in your garden in the bush you can use all of your senses entirely, there is no need to censor yourself, you can actually be yourself.”

“Take them [children] to all sorts of natural areas and let them experience them and be part of it. Let them feel the grass under their feet and feel the soil in their fingers and let them climb trees- let them actually know it.”

While Jackie French has been named Senior Australian of the Year and Australian Children’s Laureate, her quaint stories about wombats still prevail as the most memorable. The iconic collection of children’s story books make Jackie one of our most loved authors. She speaks of transcendence and said that with Diary of the Wombat she was trying to get every child that reads it to actually transcend the everyday.

“It is like suddenly cleaning the windows so you can see that this is beautiful, this is extraordinary, this is a sense of wonder and love and being part of this community of humanity and part of this small miraculous planet spinning in the darkness- all of that is miraculous and you feel that you are actually part of that and that is a miracle, that is transcendence.”

As we grow, and become adults, it seems the stories of our childhoods still remain. Transcendence, we aspire to regain.

By Sinead Halliday.