Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Why Hazel Couldn't Sit Down for Circle Time

When we sat down for circle time, three-year-old Hazel didn't sit. Or rather, she would lower herself to her knees until she was moved to speak, whereupon she would leap to her feet and pace as she spoke. At first, some of the adults reacted to her like a distraction, urging her in whispers to "sit on her bottom." She would comply with a quizzical expression, but the moment it was her turn to talk, her body simply could not remain still.

One of the lessons of schooling is that children must learn to sit still. Indeed, this is one of the main things elementary schools want from preschools: children who are capable of sitting, eyes forward, listening. Quite often, this is the explicit reason parents give for holding their child back from kindergarten for an extra year: their child just isn't "ready" for all that stillness. 

Hazel was an important teacher for me. When we allowed her to pace, she was thoughtful and articulate, but on those rare occasions when we succeeded in getting her to remain seated, she simply couldn't participate beyond simple yes-or-no answers to direct questions, and even then her mind seemed like it was elsewhere.

A lot has been said about our brain's prefrontal cortex. This is the seat of our "executive function," which is the part of our brain that keeps our impulses (like popping to our feet) in check. It is also the part of the brain responsible for intellectual functions (like speaking articulately). I wasn't aware of this at the time, but obviously Hazel's prefrontal cortex was not up to simultaneously controlling her strong bodily impulse to pace while also sharing her ideas, opinions, and stories. Indeed, Hazel's urge to move was likely an important aspect of her intellectual process: she needed to move her body in order to think more clearly.

The school-ish myth that children must be still in order to concentrate is simply not supported by scientific evidence. In her book The Extended Mind, science journalist Annie Murphy Paul, writes, "(W)e believe there's something virtuous about controlling the impulse to move . . . What this attitude overlooks is that the capacity to regulate our attention and our behavior is a limited resource, and some of it is used up by suppressing the very natural urge to move."

Study and after study in recent years have clearly demonstrated that the human brain's capacity for thought is greatly enhanced by movement. "Parents and teachers often believe they have to get kids to stop moving around before they can focus and get down to work," says Paul, "(A) more constructive approach would be to allow kids to move around so that they can focus."

Like with most things that science "discovers," this is a truth that we've long known, and that our schools, in their abiding concern with control-over-learning, have straight-up ignored. By all accounts, the Ancient Greeks like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle did most of their teaching while strolling outdoors. Many of those we hold up as Western culture's greatest thinkers -- Einstein, Darwin, Woolf, Nietzsche, James -- were famous walkers. In her book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit (a great thinker and walker in her own right) enthuses about the enhanced mental capacity of "the mind at three miles per hour." 

Embodied thinking isn't just for young children.

Paul writes about a study published in 2018: "(T)hey asked groups of volunteers to solve a set of math problems in their heads while staying still, while remaining relaxed "but without substantial movement," or while moving slightly in a rhythmic pattern. All the while, the participants' cognitive load -- how hard their brains were working -- was being measured . . . Subjects' cognitive load "considerably increased under the instruction 'not to move'" . . . Of the three conditions, the requirement to remain still produced the poorest performance on the math problems . . . "Sitting quietly," the researchers conclude, "is not necessarily the best condition for learning in school."

Or, I will assert, anywhere. My tendency to fidget in meetings used to embarrass me, but now I understand that when I bounce my leg or tap my fingers or play with my hair or doodle or repeatedly shift my weight, what I'm doing is enhancing my ability to concentrate. If it was socially acceptable, I would pace like Hazel.

At Woodland Park, we agreed to let Hazel pace during circle time. The control-freak caution that this would encourage all the other kids to imitate her proved partly true, but in a fascinating way. The main thing that bugged the other kids about her pacing was that she would often block their views. The kids decided that our circle time rug should have various zones. Up front, near me, was the "lying down zone." Next came the "sitting on bottoms zone," followed by the "knees zone," the "standing zone," and then, in the back, the "jumping up and down zone." It took a few days, but before long we had settled into a wonderfully active and intellectually profitable pattern, one quite suitable for the kind of embodied thinking that humans do best.

But, of course, in the very back there was a zone behind the jumpers for Hazel, who continued to pace, doing her best thinking at three miles per hour.


I'm Teacher Tom and this is my podcast . . . In this episode, Dr. Denisha Jones, director of Defending the Early Years and I discuss how schools tend to kill curiosity and how play-centered learning in preschool is the anecdote for all children. As Denisha says, "Play serves diversity because there is no one way to be or learn . . . Play is the embodiment of learning and development coming together." To listen to our full conversation, click here for Teacher Tom's Podcast, or find us wherever you like to download podcasts.

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