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What Children Know That Adults Don't: Celebrating the Magic of Childhood

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“There is a wisdom in children, a kind of knowing, a kind of believing, that we, as adults, do not have.” —A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz

What do we lose in the passage from childhood to adulthood?

It’s easy to see that passage as a positive progression. The ways of childhood must be replaced, as quickly and efficiently as possible, by the ways of adulthood.

That’s only accurate, though, if we see children as miniature, imperfect adults. If we see them as remarkable little beings of another kind, almost like alien visitors from a distant realm with their own troves of wisdom and ways of perceiving the world, our task as teachers and parents becomes very different.

If we make that shift, it is no longer our sole job to shepherd the children in our care as quickly as possible from their world to ours. We might, instead, want to make sure they spend as much time as possible in the realm of childhood, because we know those days are both precious and numbered.

We might even encourage them to hang on to some of those childlike ways of being, knowing, and exploring as they grow up, so they can apply them to the realities they will face as adults. We might also begin to pay careful attention to what we can learn from their knowledge, not just trying to fill them with our own.

On Christmas night, I asked my Facebook friends—most of them moms and dads, many of them teachers—what they believe children possess that we lose as we become adults.

Here is a sampling of their many responses:

“The ability to find magic in simple things.” —Erin Fisher, kindergarten teacher

“Imagination, above all else. And unstructured spirited play, which requires imagination.” —Michael Ward, parent

“The permission to imagine boundlessly. The little vocalized gasp of exultant joy that accompanies a raised hand and signals enthusiasm in a child to answer a question or share an idea. The ease of crying and laughing—not smothering emotions like adults do, but knowing the fluidity of those emotions and allowing them just the same.” —Kathy Nimmer, high school English teacher and 2015 Indiana Teacher of the Year

“Reckless curiosity.” —Casey M. Bethel, high school science teacher and 2017 Georgia Teacher of the Year

“Kids take joy in not knowing. They don't know if they can jump from that swing. They have fear but they also want to know where the end of possible is.” —John Holland, art teacher.

Our job as teachers is, in part, to guide children through one year of their journey toward adulthood. But what happens if we focus a little less on all they don’t know yet, and focus more on what they still know but we may have forgotten?

We still teach them to read, write, do math and science, work toward their goals, and how to calm down when they’re angry. But we also begin to learn from the capabilities they possess: wonder, unbounded creativity, the kind of curiosity that compels persistent digging and reckless leaps, the ability to feel joy unclouded by cynicism or doubt.

We need to make our own classroom a place where those abilities, the expertise of children, can thrive.

How do we do that in this bleak era? How do we nurture play in a time when recess has been cut to 20 minutes, when kindergartners spend more time with worksheets than finger paint or dress-up clothes?

Here are a few ways we can honor the gifts children possess, while giving them a little more time to sustain those abilities—creativity, risk-taking, the joy of discovery—that will be just as vital to their happiness when they become adults.

Pay attention to what kids say, do, and think.

Have a clipboard with you, all the time, to write down what your students say—and write it down word for word. When they do a think-pair-share, walk around listening to what the pairs are talking about. Take notes, as if you’re an anthropologist deeply curious about this new society you’ve just discovered.

The simple act of writing down something a student says will confer value on that child’s words, and she will value her own ideas more highly as a result.

When we have morning meetings about topics like what the kids think we should change about our class, I write down almost everything they say. When I refer back verbatim, days or weeks later, to something that Carlos or Jahlissa said in that meeting, they sit up a little straighter, startled that I remembered their precise words.

On our wall, along with quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor, I have space for quotes by my students. On the very first day of school, after a team project with Legos, 7-year-old Mia said, “At first it was getting a little bit hard, but then we teamed up and we figured it out.” That’s a line worthy of a place on the classroom wall.

Make space for individuality and creativity—especially when it comes to student work.

If no one on Earth but that individual child could have created it, it’s true student work. If 10 or 12 pages turn out identical, it’s actually teacher work, duplicated by students.

The week before Christmas, two classes made gingerbread houses. In one classroom, the houses were all identical, neat and tidy as though a factory had turned them out. In the class across the hall, each house was unique. Many of them looked lopsided, or a little slouched, and a couple had collapsed altogether. But the kids who made those individual houses learned a lot from trying to figure out how to put them together, while the students who followed a prescribed set of instructions ended up replicating work that could have been made by a machine.

In Writer’s Workshop, the students almost always choose what to write about, rather than following a prompt. My student Tojo wrote about Bigfoot’s dog—which, it turns out, Bigfoot won in a cooking contest—who has a lion-like mane and green fur. I have no idea what mysterious recesses of Tojo’s imagination and experiences gave rise to that story. Who knew Bigfoot even had a dog, let alone that Bigfoot knew how to cook? What I do know is that no other child in that room could have written the story Tojo wrote. It was his own original creation, rendered straight from his imagination onto the page.

Let the student become the teacher. Let the teacher become the student.

A few weeks ago, my student Bonnie was in a bad mood. Another child sat down too close to her on the rug and she snapped, “Get away from me!” I looked down at her, startled, and said, “Bonnie, you’re being really grumpy today.”

Her little face broke into a smile and she said, “I know, right? I’ve been like that all day—I don’t know why I’m like that.”

I was dumbfounded by her ability to laugh at herself, shrug out of her bad mood like an itchy coat, and cheer up. If I had been in a cranky mood and one of my students had called me on it, I doubt I would have responded with Bonnie’s Buddha-like good nature.

Those moments happen every day in our classrooms. If we pay attention to them, we’ll realize our class doesn’t have one teacher and 25 students, but 26 teachers and 26 students.

Be patient. Slow down the headlong rush toward the next phase.

When Jean Piaget gave lectures about the stages of child development, he often got what he called “the American question”: “How can we speed up a child’s progression through these stages?” His answer was, “Why would you want to? There’s no advantage to speeding them up!”

I teach high-poverty English-language learners. Many of them begin the year far below grade level, and I feel a pressure to accelerate their learning to catch them up. But that hurry can sometimes do more harm than good.

We move students away from manipulatives too quickly, before they have developed a deep number sense or solidified concepts of place value. We rush to replace picture books with chapter books for students in upper elementary, when ELLs in particular need the visual support that rich illustrations provide. We sometimes move newer ELLs too quickly toward print, without giving them enough time for the oral conversation they need to acquire vocabulary, figure out the diabolical rules of English grammar, and distinguish spoken sounds that might not even exist in their native language. In our hurry, some valuable learning is lost.

We have to let kids be kids. We need to take them outside a lot, give them a chance to get their hands messy, do plenty of art projects, and make sure they get to run around enough. Any parent will tell you that our children grow up too fast as it is. We don’t need to rush them toward adulthood.

We might even want to reverse that journey for ourselves. To ask what abilities—a sense of wonder, a depth of curiosity, the courage to look foolish—we may have lost along our own hurried passage from the realm of childhood to the adult world.

Children can teach us to rediscover those qualities we still contain within our adult selves, like the smallest figures at the center of a Russian nesting doll. They know the way back. We just have to slow down, pay attention, and let them teach us the way.

Photos provided by author.

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