I had a friend over the other night who told me a strange little anecdote. He had been at an old school friends house, noting with quiet disapproval how many unplayed with toys their kids had. This led him to making his own social experiment.
Waiting until he could find a moment alone in the kitchen with one of their four year olds, he then studiously ignored them, and all the interesting things in the room. Instead of engaging with any of it, he began randomly, and with intense focus, poking at a piece of broken something which happened to be sitting on the table.
The kid watched for a while, and then asked, ‘What are you doing?’
‘I’m playing Poke This.’
‘Oh.’ More watching and thinking. ‘Can I join in?’
So the pair of them sat down and played a game without rules where they poked a piece of plastic around the table. The point that he was making here, was that elaborate toys are not necessary. Kids will take an interest in literally just about anything, as long as you are prepared to engage in it with them.
Although this seems a silly kind of story at first glance, I think it touches on a very important point. When giving a lesson, it is critical to do it right along with the boys. They see that I value it, and it becomes something we all do together. I am pretty sure the required intensity of this will decrease over time. My oldest boy is still only five. The principle seems a pretty solid one, though, across all age groups.
The first time I consciously used this, not surprisingly, was filling out worksheets. No matter how fun they try to make themselves, worksheets are intrinsically dull.
I was trying to get him to do a sheet where you identify all the shapes on a page by colour. Fill out the circles orange, and the triangles blue. That sort of thing. It was not going very well, so I printed off a second sheet, and did one with him. Suddenly, we were skipping through the exercise. In fact, he made us do it a number of times.
Interestingly, in a school setting, he probably would have been marked down for filling them in with patterns rather than solid blocks of colour. It did not bother me. He clearly identified groups of shapes, and that was the whole purpose.
Similarly, a writing exercise which had been screwed up and thrown across the room was done in record time, and with a high degree of accuracy, once I joined in with my own. He would have been punished in a regular classroom setting for this particular exercise, as well, because our pencils had to be racing cars, and there was lots of screeching tyres and screams on the corners.
We were not in a classroom setting, however. We were at home in the kitchen, so I didn’t care. What I did care about, was that it demonstrated to me how well he can do this work when he has a genuine reason to.
Other benefits become apparent as well. When he was doing his gymnastics exercises, he got me to do them too. They are genuinely pretty hard to do, but he was very encouraging, and assured me that, with practice, I would get better at them. This impressed me greatly for three main reasons.
First, it means that he is embracing the whole argument that you improve with practice. Not everything comes easy the first time, but it is still worth persevering.
Second, I thought it was beneficial that he could teach me something for once. Directions flow from adults to children all day in all aspects of their lives. It is healthy to be able to reverse it sometimes.
Lastly, it was nice to see one of my mannerisms being reflected so positively. Their instinctive copying of my behaviour can be unnerving at times. It was a real affirmation that I am doing well to have it handed back to me like this.
So I am putting myself through kindergarten. I am doing all the lessons, and we all get a lot out if it.
Actively doing all the lessons I have set for the boys is one of the best methods I can think of for teaching them. It allows us to step out of the teacher/ student dynamic and become collaborators. By sharing the excitement of learning, we cannot help but encourage each other to learn more.