Wednesday, November 09, 2022

I Have No Idea What Those Kindergarten Teachers Are Up To

When I have something to think about, I take a long walk. There is something about walking that tends to free our minds to think more clearly. This is because our minds and our bodies are not separate things.

As professor and author bell hooks writes, "(M)any of us have accepted the notion that there is a split between the body and the mind. Believing this, individuals enter the classroom to teach as though only our mind is present, and not the body." This is both a new idea and an old one. The growing consensus among neuroscientists is that consciousness emerges from the metabolic and sensory processes of our bodies. Ancient Greeks thinkers such as Lucretius proposed more or less the same thing. 

Doctors, taking a page from the first physician Hippocrates, have started prescribing walks to their patients due to the unquestioned physical, intellectual, psychological, and even spiritual benefits of walking, although I imagine that physical activity of any sort would do much the same thing. And it's more than building muscles or cardiovascular capacity, although I assume that's a piece of it. Our minds simply don't exist without our bodies. One might even say that our capacity to think is a bodily function like respiration or digestion. In other words, if there is a hierarchy, and it's not clear that there is, the body must precede the mind.

Whatever the case, we know that without movement, the rest of it breaks down.

I blame the French philosopher Descartes, who contributed so much to modern thought, especially about the scientific method, but whose "mechanistic" conception of the world led him, and many of the thinkers since him, to believe in the idea of the universe, including humans, as a kind of clockwork that could be understood by breaking it down into its component parts. Indeed, he was apparently so impressed by the hydraulic figures in the royal gardens that he developed a hydraulic theory for the action of the brain. It's from this sort of reductive "scientific" thinking that we began to believe that the brain alone is responsible for creating our minds. This has lead to the sorts of classrooms Bell Hooks writes about, and that are still all too common: places full of chairs with bottoms firmly in them under the misguided notion that if we keep the bodies still we can force the brain to learn more efficiently.

Descartes was wrong. There is no good evidence that the brain alone can carry out the work the mind does.

Clear thinking requires movement. It requires walking and pacing and jumping up and down. It requires climbing and skipping and rolling about on the floor and all the other things that adults tend to label as distractions. We think with our hands. We think with our bellies, feet, and torsos. Conscious thought does not come from our brains alone, but rather from a conversation between our whole bodies and the outside world, an interaction that involves our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual responses to the sensory input we receive through all parts of our bodies. And it is from this full body conversation that our brains ultimately construct stories that make some sort of sense.

We see this imperative to move in order to think most clearly in very young children who tend to defy every effort to keep them still. Tragically, kindergartens are increasingly expecting preschools to prepare three, four, and five year olds for "desk time." It's a cruelty entirely unsupported by any of the science from the last several hundred years.

My job as an early childhood educator who follows the evidence is to create an environment in which children can think and that means a place where movement is not just allowed, but encouraged. I have no idea what those kindergarten teachers are up to, but it's quite clear that it has nothing to do with thinking.


"I recommend these books to everyone concerned with children and the future of humanity." ~Peter Gray, Ph.D. If you want to see what Dr. Gray is talking about you can find Teacher Tom's First Book and Teacher Tom's Second Book right here

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