Wednesday, December 01, 2021

That Feeling Of Familiarity Is Indistinguishable From The Feeling Of Understanding

Several years ago, a friend involved in the business of what's called "up cycling" wound up with a collection of junk with which even he couldn't figure out what to do, so he passed it all along to the preschool, where, I assured him, the experts would make something of his nothing.

Among the detritus he delivered to our playground was part of the tub assembly of a dismantled washing machine. I only knew what it was because he told me. It was a kind of circular-ish cauldron with a large opening on one side and a smaller one on the other, to which was attached a rubbery skirt. It was large enough to fit two, maybe three, small children depending upon which end you turned up.

As one does, I imaged how the children would react to it. Perhaps they would ask "What is this thing?" For them, I was prepared to answer, "It's a thing you can play with." But since most of the kids were already accustomed to odd things showing up around the place, things with no names and no pre-determined purpose (i.e., loose parts), I knew that most wouldn't bother with adult mediation and simple declare it's name and purpose.

And I was right.

"It looks like a space ship."

"It's a bathtub."

"It's the wheel from a giant machine."

One girl inverted it on the ground and sat inside it with the rubbery bit around her waist like a kind of bodice to declare it her "ball gown."

And it went from there. Over the course of the next few weeks, I spied it being used as a window in a fort, a small boat at sea, a volcano, a bird's nest, and a drum. One group attempted to hang it up as a swing. Another filled it with sand. Yet another arranged sticks in it like flowers in a vase. As I told my friend, "Young children are the ultimate up cyclers."

As humans confronted with a new thing, our first instinct is to try to find an apt metaphor for that thing. It is, in many ways, the story of human development. Our ancient ancestors explained earthquakes, for instance, with the metaphor of giants or gods stomping on the earth. As I mentioned in Monday's post, even our most basic English verb "to be" is ultimately derived from the ancient Sanskrit words for "to grow" and "to breathe," which is to say metaphors for this amazing thing we are still trying to understand -- existence. And this is exactly what children do when confronted with new things, like this tub. They try, individually and collectively, to arrive at a metaphor for the new thing by substituting something more familiar until they find that feeling of familiarity.

That feeling of familiarity is indistinguishable from the feeling of understanding.

Even such seemingly only-the-facts things like science and math are conducted and understood through metaphor. A thunderstorm understood as friction and sparks and vacuums, of air smashing together to create noise, isn't actually those things, but rather something like those things. Indeed, the entire scientific process is one of finding better and better metaphors that approach, but never quite reach, full understanding. Likewise, those numerals we use for ciphering are metaphors of familiarity that allow us to better understand.

If the goal of education is understanding (rather than merely correct answers), then play with loose parts in their broadest sense, without adults constantly trying to inject their own metaphors into it, is the gold standard. It is that feeling of understanding we are after and that only comes through thinking about new experiences through the filter of metaphor until we find one that feels right, or at least partly right, at least for now. And then, as we play, we discover new and better metaphors, additional and supplanting metaphors, that lead us farther and father along our lifelong journey of understanding. 


Just in time for the holidays, even if that gift is for yourself, the full content of Teacher Tom's Play Summit 2021 is once more available for a limited time. This is 24 interviews with early childhood and parenting thought leaders and experts from around the world, including such luminaries as Lisa Murphy, Peter Gray, Maggie Dent, Akilah Richards, and the great children's troubadour Raffi. If you're looking for inspiration, ideas, and a deeper connection with young children, you'll find it here. Professional development certificates are available! Together, as Raffi sings, "Let's turn this world around!" For more information and to purchase your pass, click here.

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