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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One Mouse Sideways

Son hasn't started Kindergarten yet, but there are lots of things that he has already learned in that way that all children have: something like osmosis, a little like the workings of a sponge, and one part mimicry. I have purposefully tried to teach him too, of course. ABCs and counting, parts of the body, days of the week...there is a very long list of things that we make our children learn and practice as they are learning to talk and walk.

It struck me the other day again, though, just how tremendous is the amount of information a human child must glean from its environment.

Reading and writing get taught to them, more or less purposefully, as we first sing the ABC song (off-key) 842,456 times with them in toddler-hood, then give them letters to trace and copy, then start playing letter games and issuing spelling challenges. But every single day, children learn things despite a lack of explicit lessons. They extrapolate from their experiences and situations, trying to figure out how the world works. Something deep in the development of the human brain understands that in order to flourish, they not only have to learn to read and write; they have to learn to take turns, to lose gracefully, and to be generous.

Even quantifiable things like how to tell time, count objects, and divide volumes in half come to them as much through extrapolation as through lessons.

"How long until we go to Grandma and Grandpa's house?"
"Three days."
"How long is that?"
"Well, today you'll play, have dinner, then go to sleep. That's one day. Then you wake up and do it two more times."
"So, it's three go-to-sleep-and-wake-ups before we go to their house?"
"Okay." [contented sigh]

And then suddenly, the unintended consequence of this conversation is that things that happened at daycare in the morning (before naptime) happened "yesterday." After all, didn't we come to the conclusion that every time you go to sleep and wake up, it's a new day?

Children learn practical things, like how to open a straw, through experimentation; it quickly becomes clear that the answer is not with your mouth because the soggy paper becomes unremovable from the desirable contents. Through trial-and-error, they learn how to ride bikes and how to wipe their own bottoms.

But, much more interestingly, through trial-and-error, they also must figure out far less tangible things like how to tell jokes and what constitutes funny in different situations. They decipher who likes to be hugged and fawned over and who prefers a simple "hello" in greeting. They intuit what constitutes a moment for sympathy.

Watching my children learn these things is fascinating to me because I see them not only learning the schema the world has created for how to understand concepts but also creating schema when they have not learned the "official" one.

The other day, for instance, Son was walking down the stairs when he stopped suddenly. He pushed the heels of his feet back against the riser and looked down at his toes. "Wow," he said, "my Crocs sure are big." He looked up at me for agreement, so I nodded. "They're almost as big as the steps." It was true. With his heels back as far as they would go, his toes were only about two inches from the front edge of the step. When, I wondered, did my son grow so big? But before I could wax nostalgic, he finished scrutinizing his feet and looked up at me helpfully. "They're just one mouse sideways bigger," he declared and kept walking.

I stood there for a moment, trying to register what he'd said. "One mouse sideways?" I asked.

He had reached the bottom of the stairs by this time, and he looked helpfully up at me. "One mouse," he held up his hands, parallel to each other about two inches apart, cupped slightly as if he were holding the precious mousie, "sideways," he turned his hands, still parallel to each other, sideways -- and quite obviously, there was a perfect measure of the distance between the toes of his shoes and the edge of the step.

I was speechless. Later, when I told the story to Husband, I laughed, and we joked about using mice sideways as a new unit of measure. "How tall will these flowers get?" "Oh, about three and a half mice sideways." But once I got past the giggles, I hit awe. The matter-of-fact delivery, the quickness of his assessment stunned me. Not in a "my child is brilliant" way, but in a "the human mind is awesome" way. I realize that we have not taught him inches and feet, and so he had no reliable standard measure to use to indicate the size difference. He knows he is 48 tall and that he weighs 50, but he doesn't seem to grasp that these two things are measured with different units. To him, they are both simply numbers. And so, lacking "inches" in his conceptual framework, he invented a measuring system. While I love the creativity, I also see that his mind, faced with a problem of measurement, did precisely what our forebears did when they decided that a foot made a good unit of measure. They chose something that seemed a recognizable size, and used it to draw a comparison. How cool is that?

I can see that there are still lots of things Son will need to learn. For starters, perhaps some basics of distance. But for now, I am reveling in the creative, interpretive learning, the exploration and extrapolation of childhood.

For a little while longer, at least, I think I'm going to let him keep measuring in mice sideways.

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AnnetteK said...

I love this. It's truly astounding the way kid's minds work.

Jaina said...

That is too cute. The development of the human brain is truly fascinating, it's so neat to read about it here.

LceeL said...

You see? THAT'S what I truly admire about you. You're smart. And wise enough to be able to apply your 'smarts' to your day to day existence. Anybody could say, "Wasn't that cute?" in response to his mouse measurement, but it takes intelligence and wit to recognize where that idea came from - and what it means in terms of your son's mind. That boy has NO IDEA how lucky he is - his Mom is SMART.

Danielle said...

I think about this with my daughter all the time. The human brain is so amazing. Funny how it takes us grownups to "get it" from watching a child grow.

bluecottonmemory said...

One mouse sideways! How great! I so love it when children provide visuals! According to linguistic studies,children learn about language in a very internallly, programmed system. If one step is missed, then the entire system develops a glitch that takes time and patience to readjust. That linguistic system is amazingly beautiful, as your son has shown!

TeacherMommy said...

I LOVE that. Absolutely perfect. And yes, I am in awe of the human processing center when I watch my children learn. Besides, computers may be impressive, but they're nowhere near as cute.

Loukia said...

That is so sweet, and very smart of your little boy! You should be proud. I'm constantly amazed at the things my almost 4 year old says in a day, the way his mind works, when he tells a joke, everything! I'm terrified that he is starting kindergarten in the fall - very emotional for me - and at times I worry that he might even be bored - but deep down I know and I hope he'll love it, learn even more, and look forward to each day of school.

blissfully caffeinated said...

"One mouse sideways." That is the best thing I've read in a while. Kids are amazing. I'm going to start measuring in mouse sideways units. No one will understand but my children.

MommyTime said...

LceeL: and THIS is what I mean about you leaving the nicest comments around. Thank you. Truly.

Annette, Danielle, Jaina, and TeacherMommy: thanks for sharing the awe with me.

Bluecottonmemory: thanks for that great linguistics tidbit! I work with some linguists and I always am fascinated by the things they can tell me.

Louika: my son starts kindergarten in the fall too, so I know how you feel. He is so excited about it, though, that it helps me realize that something so NOT sad for him should not be all sad for me.

BC: I think we should ALL measure that way.

Annje said...

Great story! I love how kids think and problem-solve. I think about that too... how much they have to learn. One of the most interesting things about being a parent is watching how they figure things out.


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