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.