Monday, March 23, 2020

"I Have an Idea!": The Essence of Intellectual Development

"I have an idea!"

It's a call that rises from the playground, from the classroom, from wherever it is that children are playing together. "I have an idea!" Eureka! Aha!

You don't hear it often, if ever, when children are bent over their lessons, doing what they've been told, but the moment they are free to play, free to engage their world, to pursue their own questions, it fills the air. They share their idea, in shouts or whispers. These ideas are theories about the world, perhaps not original in the history of human ideas, but always original to the one doing the thinking.

"I've got an idea!" He shows us his idea by using a block as an oversized drumstick, creating a rhythm on a cardboard box. His friends then, one by one, join him, trying out his idea, making it bigger, louder. They smile at one another, at the sound they are making together. This is not my idea. This is not what I wanted to have happen today. My idea was that they build with the blocks or put things in the cardboard box, but the children, as they always do, had a better idea.

He wedged a board into amongst a fallen pile of shipping pallets. It jutted out, but was anchored firmly. He showed it to me, wordlessly, smiling in satisfaction. "I made a diving board." Then he carefully climbed out to the end of the board, stood there, summoning his courage, and leapt. 

It was such a good idea that others soon joined him. Again, not my idea at all. To me it looked a bit dangerous, but it was a better idea than mine.

She came across a round table, upon which I'd dumped a set of circular building toys. "I have an idea," she said aloud, but to herself, as she set about arranging the circles in a circle on a circle. 

Her idea sparked another idea. A boy started to match small colored dinosaurs (and mastodons) with the circles, putting the yellow ones in the yellow circles, the red in the red, and so on. The girl, feeling possessive of her original idea, objected, insisting that they should be all mixed up in a "rainbow." It was a clash of ideas ending finally in an agreement that some of the dinosaurs would match their circles and some would not.

"This is my idea," he said to me as he put the traffic cone on his head. It fell down over his eyes. He was going to remove it, but a friend laughed. 

That's how he concluded that his idea had been a good one. He did a silly dance, then his friend joined him. Then he had another idea: cones on his hands. He later tried cones on his feet as well. It caused him to fall down repeatedly, laughing all the while. This was clearly a great idea.

The girls clustered around the doll house were in a constant state of ideas, ideas built upon their own family lives, their own relationships, what they know about domestic life, augmented by ideas about how things could be different. "I'll be the big sister!" "Let's not have a daddy: only girls in this family." "This mommy only makes cake for dinner."

When children play, they are developing and examining their own theories, their own ideas about the world. They don't always announce, "I have an idea!" but that is what they are doing and these are always better ideas than those of teachers or curriculum writers or their parents. Children rarely have ideas when set to tasks or when limited by the artificial intellectual confines so often imposed in schools. None of us do. Indeed, as psychologist Eleanor Duckworth says, "the having of wonderful ideas is the essence of intellectual development." There may be times when children must do an adult's bidding, but when it comes to developing their intelligence, they must be free to have their own wonderful ideas.


And now, another in my series of short videos for parents who find themselves suddenly homeschooling their preschoolers. I'm making these videos for parents. If you're a teacher, please feel free to share it with the parents of the children you teach:

I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. Or even better, sign up for Partnering With Parents a 7-part e-course designed to help you make allies of the parents of the children you teach. Thank you!

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