Summary: Kids do incredible things. Instead of trying to teach them as little adults, give them some tools and flexibility and see what they create. They may not do what you expect, but it’s fascinating (and funny) to see how they think.
Blake and I were watching our morning spoonful of Jimmy Kimmel as Jimmy chatted with the youngest American member of Mensa. He started with a very sweet conversation with two-year-old Kashe West about trains and ice cream. Then, to show off her intelligence, Jimmy quizzed her on the elements of the periodic table, showing her the symbol “K” for potassium and asking her facts about the element.
Tricks like this are impressive because a two-year-old has learned something that most adults don’t know. But what’s really happening is that Kashe is exhibiting an early form of reading. When a child learns to read they start with sight words, connecting symbols to words in the same way Kashe is doing. Kashe doesn’t know that Pottasium is spelled “P-o-t-a-s-s-i-u-m.” To her, it could easily have been spelled “K.”
Children and adults learn differently, so what’s impressive for a child is different from what’s impressive for an adult. Artificial Intelligence researchers often point out that it’s much easier for a computer to learn how to play chess than to learn how to function as a one-year-old child. A one-year-old needs to take in inputs from the world and create a whole map of the world from nothing. That’s far harder than playing world-class chess, a game based on logic.
Children are language sponges. They can even create new languages. In his book, The Language Instinct, Stephen Pinker writes that adults thrown into a new language may never fully grasp it. They often create a pidgin hybrid between the old and new languages with no consistent grammar. However, their children will not only grasp the new and old languages but will create an entirely new language, a creole, with defined rules based on that pidgin hybrid.
A friend told me about her two-year-old was playing with his Italian grandparents on his father’s side and the American grandparents on his mother’s side. He picked up an apple and showed it to his maternal grandparents and said, “apple.” Then he took it over to his paternal grandparents and said, “mela.” Then he smiled at his discovery.
I can’t blame Jimmy Kimmel for being impressed by the young member of Mensa. It’s easy to get confused when we see a child doing something that they aren’t “supposed” to do. Recently, I was trying to get an eight-year-old to do his homework. He wasn’t in the mood. But he protested by saying, “I don’t find satisfaction in doing this work.” I didn’t know what to say! Maybe I should explain to him about satisfaction and how life isn’t always fair. Or maybe how satisfaction isn’t always the goal. Then I realized that this was just a more complicated way of saying “I don’t like doing this.” Once I realized this, I answered “You don’t have to like it. Just do it!”
Children learning sight words can cause adults problems. One teacher thought it would be good to start with a single word and point it out as she read the book to him. If you’re going to choose one word, you might as well start with the word “the” the most common word in the English language. The kid got pretty good and every time the teacher came to that word, the child would point and say, “the.”
One afternoon a babysitter took the child on a walk. The child said, “The…” and point for ten seconds like a statue. The babysitter waited for him, thinking he had a frozen muscle disorder. Then, she finally let out an exasperated, “The what?! What are you pointing at?!”
She later learned that the child was showing off his newfound skill of reading, pointing out the word “the” on street signs, store awnings, and even the occasional restaurant menu.
Similar to Pinker’s concepts about language, children can understand other concepts better than adults. We often think that kids need to be spoon-fed concepts in a very rigid way—the way that we would teach them to an adult. But when you let the kids direct the learning, you get some surprising results.
I know a child who picked up some math concepts far earlier than he’s supposed to. He goes to his first math class, meant for first graders, just as he’s turning four. His first math homework said, “Draw a line between the numeral and the written word. For example, draw a line between the number ‘4’ and the written word ‘four.'”
He said “I don’t know how to do this.”
And the teacher said, “Well do you know what the numeral ‘4’ is?”
“Yes. This.” he pointed.
“OK then. The letters F O U R make the word four.”
“I know that too,” he said impatiently.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“What does draw a line mean?”
Here’s my final learning trick for kids. You can try it yourself. Dragon Box is a puzzle game for kids, but it’s secretly teaching them algebra. How old do you think a kid needs to be to learn algebra? 11? 12? With Dragon Box kids can learn the basics of algebra when they’re as young as five.
Kids do incredible things. Instead of trying to teach them as little adults, give them some tools and flexibility and see what they create. They may not do what you expect, but it’s fascinating (and funny) to see how they think.