The writing, the talking, the drawing

“I prefer drawing to talking.  Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”

I came across this quotation this morning from the architect Le Corbusier.  My sense is that this sentiment was issued somewhat cantankerously, and I know from firsthand experience that drawing is frequently not faster than talking, but it got me thinking about drawing, and writing, and people who are new to both. How common it is for a young person to crave time for drawing, and how attached we are to getting kids to write, and soon.

Several years ago I met with a mom and her seven year-old.  The seven year-old was fiercely committed to drawing at the time (two years later he took up painting and landed a local gallery showing).  Meanwhile, his mom was worried about his sloppy handwriting.  I watched him do a little of each, the drawing and the writing.  I suspected that he was indeed struggling a bit with the formation of letters, but he was also resistant to the act and it seemed that resistance was playing its own part.  When he was drawing, he had enormous patience with himself for getting a line or a mark just the way he wanted it.  If it didn’t come out right at first, he’d try again until he got it.

This child’s mom and I decided that it might be worth holding off on forced handwriting practice, because it seemed as though the motor function required to neaten up the writing and get it flowing more easily and less stressfully might well come as a side effect of her son’s drawing practice.

I saw these two again a year later. The now eight year-old still preferred drawing to writing (his temperament is such that I suspect he’d have agreed with old Le Corbusier about the talking) but the difficulty with the handwriting had settled itself out.  “I stopped bothering him about it,” the mom told me.  “It made sense that the drawing would help his hand get stronger and more used to forming the lines he intended.”  She smiled.  “I had to be patient, and trust him, and it worked.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson from that.”

Fun with circles and teeth

A friend handed me one of these the other day and said “Like Spirographs, remember?”

I didn’t remember, but if I ever used one I’m sure I loved it (and apparently it’s possible to find similar products now but Hasbro doesn’t make the original anymore; if I’m wrong please let me know!). This thing is great fun if you like shapes or patterns or color or the unexpected.

And it’s one of those things that the mathematicians like to play with and calculate about that blurs the boundaries between math and art. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing Paul Lockhart is talking about all the time; the math that tickles, and wrinkles the brow with amazement.

I mentioned a talk by Conrad Wolfram a while ago, which I remembered in the midst of playing with the hypotrochoid set because I went looking to find out how the thing works and found this animation on his MathWorld of a point rolling around inside a circle in a fixed way which is what goes on with hypotrochoids.  No numbers required in the marveling at it…

Not just about the math

Paul Lockhart has a new book out.  The title (Measurement) will likely strike dread in the hearts of those who despise mathematics for one reason or another, but I mention the event not for the math but for the potential contagion of Lockhart’s delight in his work. He’s made a short video to accompany the release of Measurement. Even if you want nothing to do with the math, you may find that the way Lockhart is about it inspires and reinvigorates – that he reminds you of what you care most about and why you care about it.

Also, though, if you are looking for a gentle invitation into the world of numbers, shapes, patterns, and mathematical happening and inquiry (whether for your own sake or that of your young), you won’t likely find anyone more eager to hold the door open for you than Lockhart.  He knows we won’t all love math the way he does, but he sees room in it for everyone who comes inquiring after it.  No matter how many times they’ve been otherwise told they’re not welcome and don’t have what it takes.


On my way out to water the tomatoes this morning I heard the unmistakable sound of an electric sander coming from across the street – the steady mid-range pitch of the thing spinning before it makes contact with a surface, the shift up to a wobbly whine when it touches, the drop when it rounds a corner or slips off an edge.  There are several handy folks in the neighborhood, so this sort of noise is not unusual and many of us recognize by ear the variation from saw to sander to shop-vac.

When I actually emerged from the house I discovered that what I’d heard was not an actual sander but a three year-old neighbor imitating a sander.  He and his brother were sanding a birdhouse manually, and he was adding the soundtrack, presumably to make it feel more like they were using the power tool their dad would. Or maybe he was just doing it for fun, because he could.

Even as I stood there watching him do it, I had trouble believing it wasn’t actually a sander.  He was that good at it.  It was like he was singing.  Which, of course, he was.  Not singing a song, but singing.  He’d figured out how to match exactly the wandering pitch and tone of the machine, he’d chosen a duration for each level, and he’d decided where the loop would start again.

When I talk to parents about what their children could do when they were very young, they almost always have a story about something quirky and unexpected like this.   The things kids do with astonishing skill and commitment, without being told and without being taught, the ones that seem odd, that another person might never have thought or been inspired to do, can be just the ones to lead us to their specific genius.

Their own devices

It’s tough to use this phrase without getting derailed by the obvious pun or irony available given the various portable game consoles, MP3 players, and smartphones that populate many a modern child’s existence.  But I still often find it asking for my attention when I see young people at work on whatever is truly their own; when they’re left to what are actually their own devices –the mechanisms that operate in their minds and internal worlds, made visible in what they create and share with their speaking, drawing, singing, building, imagining, and other art and craft.

Yesterday I saw a series of drawings penned by a nine year-old I know.  One of what I would call this child’s own devices is a knack for telling terrifically dramatic and often ironic stories on paper, with spare line drawings and few words.  At first my eye was tempted to wince at the size and shape of her lettering.  And it would be easy to mistake what she’d drawn and written for an unsophisticated product for someone her age.  It would be easy to worry that she’s behind.

But the plots of these stories, the behavior of the characters, and the choice of words in the dialogue betray their author and illustrator’s wisdom and knowledge.  More than once as I was looking over the body of work I heard myself saying “I’ve never seen that done before.”

Kids’ own devices are often of this nature – a surprising and subtle confluence of the distinct neurological wiring they arrive with and the things they’ve seen and heard along the way that shape and inspire them.  When we’re distracted by how well they are or aren’t forming their letters or whether or not they can remember, quickly, the difference between 17 and nine, we can miss their best stuff.

Which is a shame, because it’s much easier to practice your letters once you find reason to do so, or devise a strategy for managing calculation, than it is to reclaim an authentically original and unique way of responding to the world after it’s been pushed aside or snuffed out all together.

Smart as Springsteen

I read a profile of Bruce Springsteen the other day in which his manager, Jon Landau, says that Springsteen “is the smartest person I’ve ever known – not the most informed or the most educated – but the smartest. If you are ever confronted with a situation – a practical matter, an artistic problem – his read of the people involved is exquisite.  He is way ahead.”

What I like about this comment from Landau is that his assessment grows out of the context of Springsteen’s work.  The “situations” he’s talking about are those that a musician or other artist faces.  They’re not general.  And what Landau sees as Springsteen’s brilliance – the way he responds to and navigates such situations – is presumably the combined result of what was always true of him, from the time he was very young and began his work as a musician, and what he has experienced in the course of a lifetime spent mastering a craft.  Landau observes Springsteen’s intellect in the context of the work he was drawn to and then dedicated himself to.

What if we were to do this for everyone, even (or maybe especially), young children?  If we were to watch to see what they were up to, in which contexts they shone brightest and seemed most at ease, and built our conceptions of them from there?

Lots more of them would seem lots smarter.  Not the kind of smart we just tell kids they are no matter what, to boost their confidence when their school performance is flagging.  The kind of smart we can point out evidence of, the kind they can believe us about because it’s got context; it pertains to whatever life work they’ve already embarked upon, not the slippery ladder of arbitrary mandate.

And the thing about people, of any age, is that the way we seem to those who are watching has a big impact on the way we see ourselves.  So when more kids start seeming smart to us, more kids will start seeming smart to themselves.

The power of the intrinsic

Philippe Petit is best known for his various high-wire feats. (The Man Who Walked Between the Towers is a nice picture book rendition of one of his most famous walks.)  In this recent TED talk he tells of his journey to unlikely accomplishment, beginning at age six when he set about mastering a series of card tricks.

You may or may not hope that the passions of your six year-old will take them to the lengths and extents that Petit’s did. Either way, Petit’s account of his path hints at the kind of world we might create if we were to make it possible for children to explore the full range of what intrigues them enough to inspire a deep and lasting commitment to mastery.

For your young engineer/inventor/technician/designer/artist

Wow.  Look at this.

Word art

One of my favorite publishers of math materials (Key Press) has been clearing out their warehouse and in so doing reminded me of Scott Kim’s book Inversions. They’ve apparently run out of their copies, but you can get it from amazon.  Scott’s work is very cool; the inversions are word designs that flip around a line or point of symmetry to read the same.  I’m not going to try any harder than that to explain it – have a look. The book itself is fairly involved, but if you explore his site (that’s where the ‘have a look’ link’ll take you) you’ll get an idea for whether it’s something someone in your house might want to fuss around with more intensely.  And if so, the book might be a good buy.

While I’m on the subject of word-math-art, my calligraphy post prompted a request for recommended resources in that realm.  I stalled, as I’m not entirely thrilled with the book I have.  It’s Calligraphy for Kids.  It’s OK, but not great.  When I returned to amazon to see if I could find anything I liked better, I realized to my mortification that my first error was searching under “calligraphy for kids.”  What I wanted, of course, was calligraphy for beginners. What’s important is not, obviously, that the author was imagining a childish or childlike audience but that he or she was writing for someone new to the craft.  So.  I didn’t find anything I thought failsafe (most of the previews show only the TOC, the introductory, informational chapters and the index), but after flipping through all the available previews I thought the most promising books were the ones by Arthur Newhall.  They seem to be less text-heavy (which I prefer when it comes to learning how to do something as opposed to about it) and more specific in their guidance with forming letters.  This one includes pens, but a couple of reviewers complained that they arrived dried out.  This one does not include pens.

If you know of other/preferred resources for calligraphy and related pursuits others might find useful, please post a comment!


A friend of mine has a five year-old son who’s likely to wave, nod, or smile when you greet him, but not actually say anything.  It’s not because he can’t or doesn’t talk.  He just doesn’t tend to greet people with words.  This, as you can imagine, makes many people uncomfortable.  His mom told me she’s amazed at how offended people get, how quick they are to criticize him for it: “Why don’t you say hi?” “How come you’re so quiet?”  The interesting thing is that his attention is fully on the person he’s greeting, which in my experience is truly rare and quite refreshing and powerful.  But that gets missed because it’s the words that put us at ease, not the quality of an interaction.  We’d rather a child shout “Hi!” over a shoulder as they dart off or mumble “Hello, Mrs. So and So how are you today” while staring flatly into our faces.  We’re so busy expecting words that we don’t notice the kind of presence and attention a person can convey otherwise.

I thought of this child yesterday when a similarly quiet electrician arrived at my house to do some work.  He’s an employee of our usual guy; I was meeting him for the first time.  I don’t think of myself as a big talker, but I quickly began to sound very noisy to myself.  It went something like this:

(blank lines intentionally left blank)

Me: Hi!

Him: (small smile) I’m Josh.

Me: Thanks so much for coming.  Gosh, it’s cold this morning.

Him: (another smile)

Me: (feeling awkward) So, did Andy tell you what we need done?

Him: (with a small nod) Two outlets?

Me: (walking toward the stairs) Yeah; when we bought the house we didn’t use this room so we didn’t know that these two outlets weren’t working and then when we… (this is the point at which the sound of my voice has begun to hurt my ears, so I decide to dial it back) Well, you’ll see.


Me: (at the top of the stairs, pointing) It’s these two over here.

Him: (nodding)


Him: (several minutes later) So, all of this BX cable is dead.  Something might have happened when this other circuit went in.  I’ll just have to refeed it, OK?

Me: Sure.

He was perfectly pleasant, cheerful, responsive.  He just didn’t say very many things.  He did the work quickly and carefully and communicated with me as much as he needed to.

There are more words flying around the planet than ever before.  The internet and all the associated devices have us more or less buried in words.  The more of them there are, the harder they can be to hear and the more their meaning can get lost.  We might be wise to stop trying to get the few among us who choose carefully to talk more just so they’ll seem more like everyone else.  And while we’re at it, we might consider following their example from time to time. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone try to talk less just because some people are naturally economical with their words.  Trying to get everyone to be one way never works very well.  I just think we might want to make sure we’re not just talking because someone told us we should, told us that that’s what polite, normal, social, looks like…

And while we’re on the subject of words, have a look at this new TED talk from John Bohannon