Thursday, April 17, 2008

Learning and Squirming

We sit down at the dining room table all ready to “do school.” Pencils are sharpened: notebooks are opened: books are stacked neatly beside each child. They’re all dressed, combed and breakfasted, and eagerly awaiting my words of wisdom about the gross national product of Liberia….

Yes, of course I’m dreaming. Reality, as we know, is more like, “Wait, Mom! I have to finish this tower before the cat knocks it over!” “My gerbil just got loose and he’s eating the sofa!!” “The baby just squeezed toothpaste all over the cat!”

Or the dread “This is so boring! Can I go watch TV?”

No, you can’t, unless it’s “Mythbusters
” or “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” After that, you can watch while Mommy tries to glue back in the hair she just pulled out!

But I have found a few ways to lure in the most reluctant and squirmy learners…at least some of the time.

Over the years, I’ve observed that bored children don’t hear you anyway. If they have the least bit of imagination, they are mentally off at the beach when you start ‘discussing’ the anatomy of flatworms, unless flatworms fall within their areas of interest. So all those lectures are really just an exercise for you…and not a really exciting one at that.

I tried having them take notes, but that doesn’t seem to work well or comfortably until they are in their teens. Before then, they just seem to get so wrapped up in what they are writing that they lose track of what else is being said. Once they reach thirteen or fourteen, I do encourage them to try note-taking now and then as preparation for college.

One day I was so frustrated that nothing was getting done that I sat on the couch and began to read A Child’s History of the World while Renee (then age 6) and Claire (age 3) played in the living room with Legos. I read several chapters, and we discussed them as I read…all while elaborate castles and forts grew on the floor. The surprising thing was that they remembered far better than when I attempted to make them sit still and pay attention…and their recall was better the next days and weeks. Even little Claire began naming her Lego people after historical characters.

And so began my experiments with things that keep their hands busy while allowing their minds to focus on what they hear. So far, our family favorites are:


• a floor full of Legos or Lincoln Logs
• puzzles
• mathematics manipulatives, like Cuisenaire Rods
• drawing, painting and coloring supplies
• food
• modeling clay
• beads to string

In my family’s experience, the saying, "The mind can absorb no more than the seat can endure” definitely holds true. But the mind can absorb a lot more if the body is happily occupied.

They do grow out of it and learn to sit still. My daughter didn’t take Legos to play with during her lectures at college, though I’m sure she continued her habit of doodling on the margins of her notes!
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