Not too long ago, I visited with some friends who had just adopted a 20-month old daughter from Korea. We went to the local playground, where the girl squatted down, as only a flexible toddler can, to examine a pile of pebbles on the ground. She picked one up, held it between thumb and forefinger, and, staring intently, she slowly turned it round and round to view it from different angles. She carefully replaced the pebble, scanned the remaining pebbles most deliberately, and then picked up another, which she proceeded to examine with equal scrutiny.
Ever an observer of children, I was fascinated by the child’s sense of wonder and sheer pleasure at the shape, look and feel of the pebbles. Totally engrossed in her observations, this little girl was in that state of intense concentration that Mihaly Cskikszentmihalyi calls flow, that focussed, don’t-know-time-is-passing state when we do our most creative and productive work. Left to her own devices, I believe she might have studied those pebbles for a quite a long time. But her new parents, eager to interact and to show her all the great things in the playground, lacked patience for her explorations. She knew very little English, so Dad took her hand and led her off to the swings.
This story could now go in many directions. I could point out something we all know — that children are fascinated with pebbles and sand and water and sticks and cardboard boxes — and they do not need most of the toys that we purchase for them. Just this week, a group of boys in After Ancona was having a grand imaginative time tucked under the bushes in the playground collaborating on what they could build with the sticks they found there.
Or I could point out that Montessori teachers believe in following the child, letting him choose his activities and giving him the the time to become engrossed. Maria Montessori called that intense focus absorption. Rather than draw a child away from what he’s interested in to pursue an adult agenda, why not help him to embellish or extend his own? When children select the right materials for themselves, they become absorbed in serious exploration for long periods of time. From those experiences grow concentration and problem-solving — critical faculties for learning. And locked in a pebble or a pile of sticks is a world of scientific studies.
Concentration, absorption, fascination with everyday materials – these are not only for preschoolers. Around the country, educators are rediscovering what progressive educators have always known: that authentic, hands-on, child-centered investigations are critical for building creative capacities in our kids. All were at play — along with creativity, problem-solving, collaboration and cooperation – when our 3rd/4th graders began the Global Cardboard Challenge (http://www.imagination.is/cardboard_challenge) last Friday. The projects spilled out of the classrooms and into the corridors as our eight and nine-year-olds worked non-stop for five hours designing, building and decorating arcade games and other constructions. On Flex Days to come, they will critique, refine and field test their products, and this is just the first of many such design challenges to come at Ancona.
There’s nothing wrong with leading a child to the swings, but in our fast-paced and material world, it’s critical that we provide him the time and the places for wonder and flow.