Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Human Brain Is Amazing

When we acquired this table top activity set, I thought it was pretty cool: 20 "shadows" with 20 corresponding shapes. The idea is for kids to match the colorful wooden shapes with their shadows. As kids get older, it can be made into a more formal game by putting the shapes in a fabric bag, then the children use their hands to feel for the proper shape. The more shapes you put in the bag, the harder it is.

During one of my first years teaching I'd been drawn to the quality of this toy, well-made with a good hand feel, but to be honest it generally only makes it out of the storage closet a couple days a year because the kids really don't get much out of it. Oh sure, an occasional kid will slow down during her more active play to match the shadows or to build with the pieces as if they are a set of blocks, but there's not really much there to hold them. Sometimes I'll sit down at the table and "sell" it by loudly getting it wrong, "Let's see, the fish shape goes on the square . . . The trapezoid shape goes on the hippo," and so on. That never fails to attract a kid or two who want to set me right, which usually turns into a decent play session as the kids then turn the "joke" on one another.

The age that gets the most out of them are probably the two-year-olds, some of whom will concentrate on it for longer periods of time, turning it into a sort of hunting game as they choose a shape or choose a shadow then search for the match, but even that tends to be more of a drive-by activity.

In other words, I should probably just get rid of them, or at least repurpose them as loose parts, but like I said, they feel good in my hands and we've not yet lost a piece, so I can't quite bring myself to part ways.

Last week, they made their annual appearance on our blue table. We've had a reduction in storage space from last year to this, so we're really having to get serious about culling the collection and toys like this are among the most likely candidates. I was thinking of this as a sort of last chance. Our 2's were in the classroom and, as usual, the set drew scant attention, so I began to play my game, arranging the shadows around the edge of the table, then saying to E who was the sole child checking things out, "I know how to do this. It's easy! The man shape goes on the circle . . . The tree shape goes on the star . . ."

E smiled, "No it doesn't." She then took the tree from me and, without taking a moment to hunt, walked around the table to where I'd placed the tree shadow along the edge of the table.

I said, "Oh, right -- the tree shape goes on the tree shadow . . . But at least I know the man shape goes on the hexagon."

Again, without even taking a second to hunt, E took the man shape and walked it directly to the man shadow as if following an internal map. She had only been there with me at the table for a minute or so. How could she have memorized the location of all those shadows so quickly? I tried the experiment several more times, and each time, this two-year-old found the match instantly. It was as if she had taken a mental photograph of the table and was now operating out of that image rather than using her eyes. Time and time again, she did it until I was convinced of this. At one point I rearranged the shadows, but it didn't change a thing: she was still making a beeline for the correct shadow.

Holy cow! The human brain is amazing.

Later, I explained to her mother what I'd witnessed. She speculated, "You know what? When her older sister is at school, E isn't supposed to play with her toys, but she does anyway. She's just learned that if she puts them right back where she found them her sister won't know and she gets away with it. I wonder if that's where it comes from." We'll never know, of course, but again, holy cow!

The play set might still wind up being repurposed, but I'm sure glad it got one more day on the blue table.

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