Sunday, April 25, 2010

Full Body Language Learning

It's instructive to observe, or as is more likely the case with me, be in the middle of the 2-3 year olds playing with the same materials as the 4-5 year olds on back-to-back days.

On Friday, the younger kids had a go at pendulum play with both the PVC pipe table top apparatus . . .

. . . and the full body set up . . .

The only difference being that I moved the apparatus to the floor thinking that it would make it easier for their shorter arms to get at it. The first thing I observed, and it didn't take a genius to make this observation, was that they were more interested in using the apparatus to explore their burgeoning cooperative play skills than to examine basic concepts in physics. Several of the boys immediately took hold of the protruding parts and started jumping up and down together, smiling joyfully into one another's faces, while letting their voices vibrate with the motion of their bodies. They did this until the thing started coming apart. It was a low level of cooperative play, but cooperative play nonetheless.

That said, they were destroying the "machine" and if left to their own devices it was soon to be just a pile of pipe on the floor. Agendas were in conflict. Their game was butting heads with my desire to make pendulum play available to the rest of their classmates. I stepped in with, "The machine is broken, now we have to fix it."

The boys watched as I put the pipes back together, then immediately took hold of it and started jumping again.

I said, "When you hold it and jump, you're breaking it."

That didn't stop them and they continued jumping until the pipes started falling apart again. This time as I put it back together, I said, "Let me show you something." And the moment I had the thing back together I quickly built a block tower, got their eyes looking in my direction by saying, "I want to show you this," and swung the tennis ball at the blocks, knocking them down.

Completely unimpressed, they responded by taking hold of the newly repaired pipes and jumping up and down while making their voices vibrate with the motion. What could I do? I decided to let their agenda play out while continuing to repair the apparatus as it came apart.

Most of the boys quickly learned what they were going to learn from the game, however, and moved on, leaving Connor alone with me. I again showed him how I'd intended the thing to work, again knocking down blocks with the pendulum, but he was far more intent upon wrapping the pendulum strings around the pipes until the tennis balls had no more free-swing ability left in them, talking the entire time in a rapid-fire staccato about what sounded like a "snow bike." In fact, he seemed to be referring to the contraption in front of him as a "snow bike." Connor is a very articulate boy under most circumstances, but he was wound up for some reason and his mouth seemed to be having trouble keeping up with his brain. He didn't appear in any way frustrated by this, smiling as he spoke, all the while wrapping the balls on their strings around pipe in a way that appeared very purposeful. After several minutes it dawned on me that those words were just internal dialog leaking out. He wasn't trying to communicate at all, but rather just giving me an inadvertent glimpse into his self-talk. I didn't need to understand what he was talking about to know that he was having a very rich experience using my apparatus in his own way.

Eventually, I helped him move on to other things and restored the apparatus to its original state. A few kids played with it after that, but it was a significantly less successful activity than it had been for the older kids the day before. Typically, they would knock down one block tower and move on.

Meanwhile, the full-body pendulum was a rip-roaring success with the younger kids, even more so than it had been with their older counterparts. Elliott was the first child in the door. He made a beeline for the foam ball on a rope and after about 10 tries had figured out the technique of swinging the ball around the pylon to knock down the blocks. He was soon joined by a gaggle of friends, who settled into a game of taking turns that went on for the better part of an hour. Remick and Owen, in particular, became masters of the game, choosing, on their own a special place to sit and wait when it was someone else's turn, clearly reveling in their role in a game bigger than themselves.

This 2-3 year old year is a big one in terms of development.  Our parent educator Dawn Carlson talks about how young children often seem to focus on learning one developmental task at a time, "Which . . . doesn't mean, for example, that they are learning language to the detriment of all else, but more that one area of development seems to take precedence at different times."

As we watched the kids play with the big pendulum I remarked to Dawn that I'd never heard Remick talk so much. Since the beginning of the school year nearly everyone who has spent any time in our classroom has noted Remick's innate spatial and physical abilities. It was not a surprise that he took on the job of constructing the buildings for his friends to knock down. He did so rapidly, confidently, and with an engineer's precision. Up to now he and I have mainly had conversations that involved 1-2 words sentences with just enough of the more complex sentences thrown in to let me know he is on track, but it's been clear to me that he was focused on learning different "developmental tasks" right now. However, during this game, as he ran around, built, swung the ball, and cheered for his friends, he was engaged in a steady, complex chatter unlike anything I've heard from him before.

Dawn and I continued our discussion of this observation via email. She wrote:
. . . Howard Gardner and his multiple intelligences theory would classify Remick . . . as a bodily/kinesthetic learner.  The building blocks and ball on a rope activity gave Remick the opportunity to play in a way that provided interaction and the opportunity for vocabulary building while being very physical in a way that just running around or just building blocks doesn’t.  He got to use his whole body and do some cross body movements (with the ball on a rope) which are important for brain development . . . gross motor/language building and cross body movement for kinesthetic learners is (essential) . . .
She went on to write, not about Remick in particular, but speaking more generally:
One thing I have observed and haven’t seen written anywhere is that gross motor and speech and language development are (often) at odds in toddlers and pre-3s.  In my toddler classes a parent of a child who is climbing on everything but not talking much will envy a child who is talking a blue streak but needs helping getting on the stool at the sink.  It eventually evens out.
Boys are hard wired to be more physical than girls already, and add to that a boy who is a kinesthetic learner who needs to “learn on his feet” . . . What happens to those boys in traditional classrooms (or) homes . . . ?  They must be in a language deficient environment if they can’t move to learn.  
I'm not at all worried about Remick, Connor or any of the more kinesthetic learners in our class, who have ample opportunity to move their bodies both at home and in school, and most preschool curricula out there doing a pretty good job of providing for multiple intelligences. But sadly, this isn't as true as children move into kindergarten and beyond. They are being wrangled into chairs and expected to learn with their eyes and ears, which is fine (although far from ideal) for many kids, but by no means all.

The only curriculum I know of that accommodates all kinds of intelligences is a play-based one.

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Unknown said...

Play based curriculum. I love it! Play is child's work! I am also a huge fan of play therapy for children in need of it! Such a great way to explore feelings.

Unknown said...

Great post, Tom! I've really got to give some thought to how I can implement some pendulum play in my classroom.

I, too, am a proponent for play based learning (and therapy)! =)

Emma Davidson said...

Thankyou! This is the most amazing lightbulb moment for me! I have been struggling with my toddler's language development, but I've noticed he loves physical activities like block towers or dancing. I'm going to look for ways to blend more physical and language activities for him.

kristin said...

oh, boy. i come.

Scott said...

Let those boys (and girls) move! I vote for more play and less sitting.

Rosemary said...

I find this very interesting as a parent of boy/girl twins- my boy was a late talker but very stimulated during gross motor and block building activities, and my girl was and still is very ahead with language and fine motor yet would always be falling off surfaces (she broke her leg falling off a couch at 15 months) seemingly having a lack of spatial awareness, and still is not confident in activities such as iceskating, where my boy is just excelling after only a few weeks. I don't believe this is just a boy/girl difference but one of learning styles- they are now in kinder and I know it will be a challenge to have their differences recognised not as comparisons or that one is 'ahead' of the other. Thanks for inspiring Teacher Tom