Educators’ focus on language skills marginalizes kids who learn through physical, play-based activities.
ow many words does he have?”
“Sorry?” My son John attempted to wedge a misoriented triangle into its hole on his shape sorter. Wondering how long it would be before frustration kicked in, I hadn’t listened to the Early Intervention specialist who’d come to evaluate my 22-month-old for speech therapy. She repeated her question. An ingrained childish panic to give the right answer vied with curiosity over the phrasing. How did one ‘have’ words? Could they be given as gifts, kissed goodnight, left to rot, traded? Could you buy them at a market à la Dictionopolis in The Phantom Tollbooth?
He was on friendly terms with 10 words, I estimated. She wrote that down and asked which ones. I tried to remember. Yes. No. Granola (“gee-ya”). Milk. More. Definitely “more milk.”
The Early Intervention coordinator was there at my own request but not by my desire. A mother with a granite-solid trust in her own instincts, I am nevertheless depressingly susceptible to peer pressure and judgment, both of which had been heaped on my head in various quantities over the previous few months by concerned, well-meaning family, friends, doctors, and day care teachers. Plus two strangers in the playground. John was nearly 2 years old and spoke very little (“more milk” was the extent of his sentence structure). Given his history as a premature baby who’d spent a month in the NICU with lung and heart problems, it wouldn’t hurt, they pressed, to check that there was nothing actually wrong. So I called for an evaluation, after which my husband and I were informed that John qualified for speech, physical, and occupational therapy according to metrics and guidelines I never fully understood.
I spent the next three years dragging him around to various therapies at various locations, administered by various intelligent, kind, skilled therapists. They had him repeat the names of colors, jump from one spot to another, pick cardamom seeds up off the floor. They prompted him to answer questions starting with “what” or “who” over and over, try to catch a ball over and over, and draw triangles over and over. He accomplished all of it eventually, although more than one therapist admitted that there was no way to tell whether the therapies had accelerated the process. All the while I swept aside doubt that not-so-occasionally boiled up in a question-mark shape: why? Despite the clamor about “John’s best interests,” and given that all concerned admitted he was perfectly intelligent and developing just fine, the push to put and then keep him in therapy seemed to say a lot more about adult fear than it did about child development. The need for speech therapy in particular seemed amorphous and ill-defined: Hurry up and talk, hurry up and say something, hurry up and have a conversation about anything at all, or else… or else what? He won’t be able to handle the educational demands of kindergarten? He’ll never learn to read? Civilization will crumble?
Behind the worries of his therapists and educators lurked an inarticulate certainty that the ability to exchange words is all that separates us from chaos. This assumption has dug itself so deeply into our psyches that it’s almost impossible to imagine an education system in which language isn’t paramount. Even following Howard Gardner’s groundbreaking work at Harvard regarding different intelligences, and more studies investigating the decline of creativity and cognitive thinking skills among children who are educated only through words, repetition, and worksheet regurgitation, we still confuse language skills with the ability to learn.
This certainty flies in the face of evidence that much of our learning happens not in our heads, but through our bodies and their physical experience of the world. Language is only part of the picture. “The partnership of language and culture,” says Frank Wilson in his book The Hand, “is so deeply woven into human history, and so compelling a force in our own personal development and acculturation, that we quite naturally come to regard language as the trait that both explains and defines our intelligence. But we must be extremely careful not to equate specific behavioral strategies with a more general inclination to solve problems in the interest of our well-being or survival.” (Emphasis added.)
In other words, there is much more to learning, to developing and being human, than being able to converse fluently.
Coming from a family addicted to education for generations (all four of my grandparents fought and overcame numerous obstacles to receive higher educations), I had looked forward to raising bookish, literary kids in the kind of intellectually rich broth that comforted my childhood. My older sister and I were book lovers from a young age and eventual attendance at college was an assumed fact. It never occurred to me that these pursuits came naturally to us because we — and our mother, father, younger sister, and most of our grandparents — are language-oriented people who learn best through a combination of reading and dialogue.
This language-heavy atmosphere has defined my work and leisure my entire adult life. I am a freelance copyeditor by trade, and specialize in copyediting and proofreading elementary school textbooks — reading and spelling textbooks for the most part. Grammar. Phonics. Diagramming sentences and defining homophones, antonyms, synonyms, rich, loamy mountains of vocabulary words. Words are my life. Until I started watching John learn, I had never considered that an intimate relationship with language wasn’t the pinnacle of human achievement. It was an intellectual leap to see that my son’s best engagement with the world will be just as rewarding as mine was, but it will be different. It will have very little relationship with the kinds of lessons that show up in the textbooks I scour for mistakes. It will come from activities he can throw his whole body into. And he’s not alone.
Only after extensive reading and research — since that is my go-to method for solving sticky personal problems, and outsiders’ views of my son as flawed, broken, or unfinished certainly fit that category — did I learn that this thinking is not new. Frank Wilson’s book The Hand, an anthropological, evolutionary, and biological investigation of our most useful and often unacknowledged limb, made a strong case for the theory that it was (and continues to be) the evolution of our hands that drives the growth of the brain, and not vice-versa. He also looked into long-term research showing that language itself is treated by the brain as a physical object — a tool. “[T]he verbal behavior of a child undergoes a long metamorphosis during which words that were originally object attributes come increasingly to be manipulated and combined, just as real objects are manipulated and combined by the child.”
Stuart Brown, a medical doctor and the founder of the National Institute for Play, points out in his TED Talk “Play Is More Than Fun” that organizations like NASA, Boeing, and Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will no longer hire research and development problem-solvers, “even summa cum laude from Harvard or Cal-Tech,” if they don’t have an early history of working, playing, or tinkering with their hands. (Quote begins at 7:13 minutes.) “Those who had worked and played with their hands as they were growing up were able to ‘see solutions’ that those who hadn’t worked with their hands could not,” he says in his 2010 book Play. He puts it more bluntly in his TED talk: “If they haven’t fixed cars, haven’t done stuff with their hands early in life, played with their hands, they can’t problem-solve.” (Quote begins at 7:22 minutes.)
In which case every major top-down U.S. educational dictate in the last 10 years is headed in the wrong direction.
I snuck upstairs to watch John make a new train track layout one morning when he was 4. Any parent raising a kid with half of his Thomas the Tank Engine addiction will know what this looks like. Entire rooms were given over to these constructions, with switch lines spilling into the hallway and his baby sister’s Lego bricks incorporated into a water tower. At that age he probably built four or five layouts a day, working through frustration and the shortcomings of both his plans and his materials. Recently he’d been using narrow Jenga-type blocks to build “shake-shake” bridges intended to wobble but not fall down when Thomas or Percy or James trundled across them.
Sitting on the floor, placing each block delicately, he balanced them on one another, tested the stability, and opted to prop the blocks directly on the floor in the shape of square arches. He never noticed me standing in the hallway, and for the first time I realized that I had learned to trust the quality of his customary word-free concentration because it is the same quality I experienced when writing.
This is not a trivial comparison. By the time I finish an essay, it will often have gone through as many as 20 revisions, sometimes more. Every time I write a new piece, I excise tens of paragraphs, thousands of words, and more sentences than I can count because they throw off the balance of the piece. I have scrapped and rewritten and gone for long walks to figure out where my explanations were weak and how to strengthen them. Even the words I use to describe my process reflect the relationship between language and the physical world — “scrapped,” “stretched,” “balance.”
In their seminal book on linguistics and language, Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson address precisely this issue, dissecting hundreds of common metaphors to show language’s relation to our physical experience of the world. In a new afterward written in 2003, they re-emphasized the need to understand how “rational thought” is shaped by our brains and bodies: “The system of conceptual metaphors is not arbitrary or just historically contingent; rather, it is shaped to a significant extent by the common nature of our bodies and the shared ways that we all function in the everyday world.” (Emphasis added.)
After watching my son build his complicated train layouts I now wonder if the way we teach writing and reading, from kindergarten all the way through the best graduate programs, does students a disservice by pretending it’s all about the words, the plot, the narrative, the way we wrestle experience into language. Maybe instead of pushing John’s language development so hard, his prospective educators should be helping other kids follow his example and build something, no talking required.
Some elementary schools are doing exactly that, relying on several studies linking early block, building, and construction play to brain development to take the seemingly risky step of encouraging longer periods of free-play time with blocks and Legos. A 2013 study found that block building and puzzle play “can improve children’s spatial skills, and that these skills support complex mathematical problem-solving.”
After years of being told that my son was falling behind in language-related benchmarks, this kind of shift is not only a huge relief to me; it makes perfect sense. When John was working on his fourth layout of the day and I was playing with my seventh revision of this essay, we were both performing the same intellectual act: trying to engineer something that works.
At just over 2 1/2 years old, John submitted unwillingly to four different hour-plus-long evaluation exams for his transition from Early Intervention to the school district’s special services. During his first, a 90-minute exam dominated by a flip-chart for the speech therapist, he got so tired and irritated he faked pooping his pants to get out of there. During his last, with the school psychologist, he earned the label “playfully obstinate” by pointing to pictures he was meant to identify and saying, “No star, no boat, no elephant,” and so on.
“Is it normal,” I was asked when he got fed up after 45 minutes, “for him to only participate in adult-led activities for this long?” Normal? Even I was bored.
During none of the examinations was I allowed to re-explain the instructions to him more slowly in words he knew. I was not allowed to let him play freely until he could come back refreshed. I was not allowed to point out that the picture of a television he was meant to identify was at least 40 years out of date and I’d like to see any kid who knew what it was. Any of these actions, I was told, would skew the results — which were designed not to figure out who John was and how his mind worked, but to determine what edges needed scraping and filing to fit this hexagonal peg into our educational system’s round holes. And this system is increasingly distanced from any resemblance to real life, whether we’re talking about interpersonal relationships or the hypothetical jobs that will eventually be available to our over-tested, unprepared children.
After nine months of twice-a-week speech sessions, during this transition phase from Early Intervention to the school district’s special services, the school psychologist observed John at his preschool. At our meeting he told me, with a pinched look on his face, that John “spoke to his teacher much less than the other children, only when he was asking for something.” A statement damning of introverts everywhere, myself included. I wish more people would keep quiet unless they’re asking for something.
These tests and evaluations, still administered at regular intervals once he turned 5 and was technically school age, are also not allowed to take into account skills missing from the charts — John’s ingenuity in faking pooping to get out of a tedious evaluation, or his way of grasping subtraction at 18 months by announcing after each bite of breakfast, “Now I have one granola; now I have no granola” (or his closest approximation of those words). And then there was his train track building. Well before the addition of “shake-shake” bridges, he co-opted blocks and Lego bricks and even old VHS cases to make bridges, buildings, hills, and machines, and upended buffer stops to make slides for his little world’s playgrounds. After watching road works in town, he started adding “worker zones” with traffic cones, barriers, and warning signs.
At each stage of his development I’ve pointed out to the school district that he was continually engaging concepts from geometry and physics to vary his structures, not to mention categorization, focus, attention, patience, fine-motor skills, and the kind of three-dimensional cognitive development that rarely gets play in the classroom.
I am told, regularly and with kindness, that these things are great but they won’t help John get through school. An eventual job as a civil engineer or a rocket scientist, sure, but useless for second grade. I eventually chose to homeschool because my child’s educational world had become a land of hyper-tested doublethink that I had no idea how to navigate.
John is not unique. Not, that is, in his boredom with classroom settings or his inability to absorb learning by letting words wash over him. His entire body rebels against it. In the classroom, like many children, he is fidgety, spacey, often disengaged, unable to comprehend what he’s being asked to do. He is willing — too willing — to be guided to the right answers, the right interpretation of a sloppily-rendered graphic he’s meant to identify. (“That cake can’t be a cylinder. It’s not flat on top. It has candles,” he says, confused. Absolutely correct, says the undergraduate-trained mathematician in me, but not the right answer.) He is too easily guided to the right responses to questions about characterization and main ideas in a story, the right way to construct his craft. He’s willing to be given the answers because the lesson is so abstract that it might as well not exist at all. Give him a trip to a construction zone, or one episode of PBS’s Curious George cartoons, though, and suddenly he’s turning the Legos into an apple cider press with a pulley system, or hauling rocks around our yard for complex waterfalls and dam construction. (Curious George has a similar bent for learning through experiment, and, being a monkey, he doesn’t talk.) John is proud of his work and asks not to be interrupted until he’s ready to unveil. He might look like he’s playing, and maybe he is, but maybe that’s also how we learn best, however much it horrifies the background radiation of an ingrained assembly-line mentality that tells us we must be visibly productive to be useful.
“No wonder learning is so hard to control, so easy both to direct and to misdirect,” says Frank Wilson at the end of The Hand. “It is brain and hand and eye and ear and skin and heart… The desire to learn is reshaped continuously as brain and hand vitalize one another, and the capacity to learn grows continuously as we fashion our own personal laboratory for making things.”
Two years ago we took our two kids to Moscow, Russia, where my father and his wife live. We rode the deep tunnels of the metro and walked through quiet, unkempt courtyards hiding behind Soviet-era apartment blocks. It was the kids’ first trip to a real city. My father tried to explain to John how thousands of people lived in these buildings, and that hundreds of kids shared the many playgrounds set beneath the ubiquitous poplars. John wanted to play on every slide he could see, said very little, and seemed to have trouble grasping that a 20-story apartment block was home to a beehive of families. But when we got back to my father and his wife’s home John borrowed his cousin’s Legos and constructed an apartment complex over four square feet, adding in the playgrounds and fences and roads and cars parked every which way and digging up unused salt shakers for the trees. “Look,” he said when he was done, “it’s the big city. There’s the apartment buildings where all the people live.”
“Where do they live?”
“Here.” He pointed to a window. “And here and here. And there’s the swings for playing.” Sitting there in my father’s Moscow apartment, watching John adjust his fences and balance cars on the ‘sidewalk,’ I finally decided to forego any more therapy. I no longer cared that he wrote his J’s backwards and wasn’t able to run as fast or fluidly as other kids in his age group. I stopped opening his annual evaluations with anxiety and instead picked up a copy of Shop Class as Soulcraft.
John just turned 7 and can chat away for long periods of time with perfect articulation, but he still prefers working with his hands to learning through words. For his birthday we scraped our bank account and bought him MetalBeard’s Sea Cow pirate ship from The Lego Movie and he spent the next six days paging through the instruction book and painstakingly assembling each portion of the intricate two-foot by one-foot construction with very little help from an adult. The pirate ship set contains nearly 3,000 pieces, 280 pages of instructions, and is recommended for kids over 14 years old.
I look forward to the day when we can say of kids like John, “He learns differently,” and not have it be diagnosed as a disability. Because by the standards of most of the billions of people living on this planet, I think my son will be all right, no matter how many words he has.