The Velveteen Child: A desire to become ‘Real’

In 1922, Margery Williams published “The Velveteen Rabbit”, a children’s book that told the story of a stuffed rabbit’s desire to become ‘real’. The rabbit soon realises that to be ‘real’ he needs the love of his owner, and through that love he becomes shabbier and shabbier.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and are very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
(Williams, 1922)

Education in the 1920s was very different from schooling today; students were segregated for lessons, memorisation of facts was emphasised and special educational needs, as a term, did not exist. But this was all about to change with the beginning of the progressive educational movement, which focused on educating the whole child. Our schools today are a world away from the blackboard, chalk slate classrooms of the 1920s, however, this 1920s movement, towards a more holistic view of education, was the catalyst that has crafted the inclusive, creative and open-minded classrooms we see today. We have made significant progress. But, in our schools today, are we doing enough to really encourage our children to be ‘Real’? To embrace their ‘shabbiness’? And to appreciate their differences from others? The concept of neurodiversity offers a new approach that redefines the role of the educator as “less one of correcting errors, remediating deficits, and teaching instructional objectives and more one of creating environments within which neurodiverse students can thrive” (Armstrong 2017).

In his recent article in Education Update, Thomas Armstrong describes neurodiversity as the understanding that “neurological differences are to be honored and respected just like any other human variation, including diversity in race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, and so on” (Armstrong, 2017). Many international schools host International Days, to celebrate the diversity of cultures, nationalities and identities in their communities. But how can we also celebrate and better understand the diversity of learning needs in our community? Traditional perspectives on special educational needs focus on ‘deficiency’; children are taught to “live with their disability”. Now we must teach our children to “love their disability”.

The VIA Institute on Character, a research-based organisation founded on positive psychology, offers another perspective on diversity (VIA Character, 2017). They argue that every individual possesses 24 character strengths in differing measures and these character strengths “reflect the ‘real’ you — who you are at your core”. Their psychometrically validated personality test assesses these 24 character traits, some of which may not be viewed as traditional strengths, such as ‘prudence’, ‘zest’ or ‘spirituality’. Most importantly, these traits are all seen as strengths; there is no ‘deficiency’ here. It is only through understanding that every student has a unique “constellation” of strengths that makes them who they are, that we can truly understand how to foster those strengths and thus, help them thrive.

As schools, we are constantly striving to provide an inclusive education that meets the diverse needs of all learners. The concept of neurodiversity offers an approach that supports (but is not limited to) those students with special educational needs. If all our students harbour a “constellation” of strengths, then they will all benefit from a diverse approach that can nurture these strengths and thus foster their true potential.

If we can encourage our students to embrace their ‘shabbiness’ through love, understanding and compassion, maybe they, just like the Velveteen Rabbit, can fulfil their desire to become ‘Real’.


Armstrong, Thomas. “Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education?” Educational Leadership:Differences, Not Disabilities: Neurodiversity: The Future of Special Education?ASCD, 01 Apr. 2017. Web. 16 May 2017.

Character Strengths, Personal Development: VIA Character. “Know and Celebrate the Real You.” Learn Your 24 Character Strengths: Free VIA Character Survey. VIA Institute on Character, 01 Jan. 2017. Web. 16 May 2017.

Williams, Margery. “The Velveteen Rabbit.” The Project Guttenberg. The Project Guttenberg, 29 Mar. 2004. Web. 16 May 2017.

Katie Wellbrook is currently the MYP Co-ordinator at Suzhou Singapore International School. She has worked in education for 6 years and is passionate about innovative teaching, creative thinking and lifelong learning

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