by Jeffrey Davis of Tracking Wonder
In eighth grade, I almost failed wood shop class. In a full semester, the only project I completed was a lopsided, uneven cutting board that my mother faithfully used for years. Bless her.
“Come on, Papa,”the four-year-old says as she takes me by the hand. “Let’s go make some star sticks and May crowns.”She leads me to the front porch and carefully shows me how to make a star stick. “You make two of these while I gather flowers for the May crowns,”she says. “You let me know if you need me for anything, okay?”
A little stunned by her calm presence and command, I simply whisper “Okay”and continue weaving yarn around two sticks. As the star stick takes shape, I feel inexplicably happy.
By the time I reached teendom, it was clear I was not much of a maker, in the Bill Coperthwaite sense (http://circlein.wordpress.com/2013/03/26/a-day-with-bill-coperthwaite/). I can make poems. I can make books. I can make ideas fly. I can make believe quite well, thank you. But I lack the wits and skills to date to make a book shelf or chair or even a decent set of stone steps. Among the bushy Waldorfian fathers who tote tool belts instead of laptop cases, I can feel a wee small.
I grew up prejudiced against making things with hands, honestly, against vocational education. I don’t think I’m unique in that sense or what our educational system or economy or culture-at-large seems biased against.
So when a trusted friend several years ago told me that Waldorf schools don’t teach children how to read until they are nine or ten, I balked. When he convinced me I didn’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Waldorfian who praises bee’s wax and shuns all printed matter, I leaned back in.
And I had remembered a few years earlier seeing another friend’s two boys who attended a Waldorf school in Woodstock. While I spoke with my friend in her kitchen, her 6-year-old and 9-year-old came waltzing through the kitchen sword fighting like Jedi masters. Not six minutes later, they sat quietly at a small table, holding balls of yarn.
“What are they doing?”I said.
“Knitting their socks,”my friend said.
I was enchanted.
But when any of us think about our children’s future, we make decisions on more than being enchanted with seemingly quaint practices.
Still, here’s what you and I know. Moving and using our hands helps us think. Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago has a lab with her name devoted to cognition, linguistics, and education. Her TEDx Talk “What Our Hands Can Tell Us About Our Minds”is a brilliant primer. My favorite lines: “Our hands indicate who is ready to learn”and “Our gestures can change our minds.”
A group of scholars at the University of Westchester and the Edge Centre for Real-World Learning argue in “Bodies of Knowledge” that “Practical and vocational learning is no less intelligent than academic learning and every bit as worthy of our full admiration.”
You know this. You don’t need the references to confirm it. But what about your parents or in-laws? Or your friends who question your choices for your child’s education?
My 4-year-old’s grandmother, case in point. On one hand, she is an exquisite knitter and weaver. She spends two or more whole days with her granddaughter. They adore each other. The influence is evident. The other evening, the four-year-old and I tossed leaves in the water. When I suggested we make boats somehow, she ran to get her ball of yarn, tied the yarn strings to leaves, and floated them in the stream and pond like boat-kites she could reel back in. Again, I stood a little astonished as I watched her confidently tie knots and figure it all out on her own. She exhibited more resourcefulness and practical creative problem-solving than many of my 40-something clients.
Still, the grandmother frets about the four-year-old “getting behind”if she doesn’t enter a school where she learns math and reading sooner than later.
“Get behind what?”I asked.
“You know, the other kids.”
“So they can get into freshman comp?”I said. “I’ve taught freshman comp. She’s not getting behind.”I wanted to say so much more, about how she’s miles ahead already. I had become a “convert,”I thought.
The truth is now I admire if not envy carpenters, wood workers, weavers, knitters, and sculptors of all stripes, and I was hearing what philosopher-author Alain de Botton had said recently in an interview about his kids: “I hope they don’t become writers. I hope they don’t turn to books too soon. We turn to books as kids because we’re anxious. I hope they’re not anxious like I was as a boy.”
On the evening the four-year-old taught me to make star sticks, we walked around the yard to gather flowers and branches for the May crowns. She designated my work space on a large stone and her own space. We knelt and got to work. In the household, her mama and I set the tone. In this space, she relished setting it.
“You see, Papa,”she said, “we can make things, and it’s fun to work together.”
“I love working together with you, Boo.”
“I love working together with you, too.”
How we use our hands and how we relate to our physical resources and how we relate to each other does change how we make. It changes how we make families. How we make communities and neighborhoods. How we make the future.
In the land of hand-held devices, we can either program our lives or be programmed.
A teacher’s highest calling is not to prepare a child for the SAT but to preserve the sanctity of and to allow to unfold of its natural accord a child’s original genius that she feels empowered to make things, make a life, make a difference.
In this sense, we are all makers, and this I believe: In a Wiki-Google age of digital consuming, the makers shall inherit the earth.
Author, Speaker, Creativity Consultant
Psychology Today Online Column: Tracking Wonder