Sunday, August 12, 2007

You See, But You Do Not Observe

For children, the whole world is new and they explore it avidly from the very rudimentary beginnings (will this fit into my mouth?) to increasingly sophisticated efforts to understand what is going on in the environment about them. It was an unexpected thrill a couple of years ago when I first caught one of the kids, not reading a book or magazine I had bought for them, but rather, one of my magazines, written for an adult, in this instance, New Scientist. It was so unexpected and out of the routine and yet, on reflection, I knew that it was both a natural and a desirable progression. I also realized that I would have to start hiding my magazines until I was done with them.

How do we help children on this journey of discovery (Get that out of your mouth!)? As we pick and choose the books we provide them, we are making conscious or unconscious choices about the facts with which we are stocking their minds as well as the models for how to obtain and interpret those facts. The stories are providing them vicarious lessons about life itself and how to hold fast to facts, but to have the humility to understand that facts only take you so far. When the facts have taken you as far they can and you are left without answers, you are then in the territory of assumptions and probabilities, morality and ethics; the place where true wisdom is developed. It is a long journey. A journey often launched by the simplest of questions: Why? and Did you ever notice?

As a parent I have frequently found myself caught on both sides of the same coin. I have often been arrested by the level of detail that the kids will notice about something; detail which completely passed me by. It will usually arise when they are recollecting something and wanting to discuss it.

Child: "Daddy do you remember that little toy doll house when we were at the museum?"

Me: "No. Where were we?"

Child: "Well, it was in a big building and we were in a room that had three floor to ceiling windows and the curtains were made of red velvet and they had gold trim at the bottom with little pearly designs up the edges and the curtain rods had lions heads at the end."

Me: "Oh."

And then there are the other occasions when I wonder whether my children and I are actually in the same dimension. Some years ago, I had taken the family to Sweden where I had lived during part of my childhood. We spent a few days touring around Stockholm, the capital city where I had lived. We then flew down to Visby, Gotland. Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea and Visby is a charming medieval walled Hanseatic League city where it is easy to feel as if you are still in the 1400's it has so many ancient churches, houses, halls, etc.

We had been in Visby for two or three days (and therefore had been in Sweden for nearly a week) and were driving one afternoon from some fascinating site to another. Sally was in the front seat, the three kids in the back, everyone chit chatting about something, all the things that they had seen, the differences, what they liked about Sweden, what had surprised them the most, etc. when my oldest son asked "Daddy, why are all the signs in Swedish?". Trying to not preface my answer with "As you might have noticed," I responded "Well, we are in Sweden and they speak Swedish here". Pause. "Humph. That's annoying."

I think all children are perfectly capable of impressive observation; it is just a matter of how often they turn their attention to something, or the type of details that attract their notice. How can we train them to both focus their attention and scan broadly? These are techniques that can be learned. I am currently reading a fascinating history of electricity Empires of Light and in it a contemporary describes the powers of observation of Michael Faraday, one of those catholic geniuses that provide seminal discoveries in many fields.

The intentness of his vision in any direction did not apparently diminish his power of perception in other directions; and when he attacked a subject, expecting results, he had the faculty of keeping his mind alert, so that results different from those which he expected should not escape him through preoccupation.

There are plenty of books which we will cover later about interpreting the world around you and figuring out how to make choices (ranging from the likes of Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, through Mama's Bank Account and All-of-a-Kind Family). But before you interpret, you need facts and before you have facts you must discover through observation. Which books help children learn how to discover their world?

There are so many reasons to enjoy Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (and his other writings). One of the things which he does well, and which I think is often a characteristic shared with many other of the more enduring stories by other authors, is that there is so much information as well as wisdom embedded in his tales that is entirely incidental to the story you are reading and enjoying. He doesn't tell the tale to belabor some tendentious point, but the information is there for you to pick up osmotically. There is nothing quite like being improved while you are enjoying yourself.

I think Doyle answers my above question.

"It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own." Through the Magic Door

"It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important." A Case of Identity

"You see, but you do not observe." A Scandal in Bohemia

"I never guess. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." A Scandal in Bohemia

For children, we need to help them filter and comprehend the sensory tumult that cascades upon them, helping them sort fact from fiction, safe from dangerous, good from bad. And one of the best ways to do that is through stories. Simply the act of listening attentively to a story from start to finish is a major skill accomplishment. All story books share that characteristic. But some can help build the capacity to not just pay attention, but to observe and interpret information as well.

Before you get into the physics of sci-fi and fantasy, the metaphysics of ghosts stories, or even the romance of languages, all of which open up new worlds, there are books that in one way or another instruct us in how to observe the real world around us.

Many children enjoy a couple of types of activity books that are not stories but do help train them in the skills of focus and attention. Spot the Difference books are one type of activity book which I used to enjoy immensely. I could sit for hours trying to find that last difference that I knew was there and yet could not identify. Another type of activity book for early readers is the Word Search books in which they have to pick out a word embedded in a block of text. Again, it is excellent training in letting your eye pick out a pattern not immediately obvious.

In a similar vein, Jean Marzollo and Walter Wick have a series of books "I Spy . . ." such as I Spy Treasure Hunt, I Spy Mystery, I Spy Christmas, etc. that are an excellent and fun way to train your eye to see that which is not obvious. The books are usually formatted in a double spread photograph with some rhyme at the bottom of the page identifying a dozen or so items to be spotted in the photo above. It sounds easy but it can be quite engaging and challenging.

Finally, in the training-of-the-eye category, there is the ever popular Where's Waldo series (Where's Waldo, Where's Waldo in Hollywood, Where's Waldo; The Great Picture Hunt, Where's Waldo; The Wonder Book, etc.) As you might guess, the exercise is to pick out the pseudonymous Waldo from the crowds in which he is usually lurking.

Margaret Wise Brown wrote a marvelous story, The Little Noisy Book (currently out of print) that is good for reading to three and four year olds. The protagonist is a dog, Muffin, who has gotten a cinder in his eye and the vet wraps a bandage around his head for a day. The whole story is then constructed around what Muffin hears and trying to guess what it is. Kids love to play the game in the story and of course it is easy to extend the game into real life as well. It can be one of the first formal lessons in paying close attention.

Margaret Wise Brown also has a couple of other books that, by emphasizing the world around us, are good for bringing things to the attention of children that they might not notice. Little Fur Family has a, surprise-surprise, little furry protagonist who explores his world and his discoveries become those of the reader, noticing things they have probably seen but never noticed before. Likewise with Wait Till the Moon is Full. Sally used to read this one to the kids on a full moon and then take them out and get them to realize you could have moon-shadows, that the night was bright enough to see without a flashlight, etc. Their excitement at simple discoveries is the perfect antidote to the jadedness we as adults can too easily acquire.

For six to ten year olds, if you can stand it, riddle books and joke books are often a popular past time. With these types of books, they have moved beyond the simple task of decoding words. The humor is only gotten when you understand the verbal legerdemain that is being pulled on you. Excellent training for observing what is out of the ordinary.

Along about this age is when kids often start reading such mystery series as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. While relatively light in structured analytics and fact finding, there is enough there, along with the simple fact that they are a fun read, to warrant inclusion in this list.

Also good at this age and older is Snowflake Bentley, the story of an amateur scientist in Vermont who was the first to systematically study and photograph snowflakes to understand the geometry of their shapes. It is worth reminding kids that for all our huge institutional and university research centers, much of our scientific knowledge was originally generated by gifted amateurs pursuing their science as a love rather than an occupation (Darwin and Einstein leap to mind), and that, even today, there is a role for the attentive amateur. Even with all the major space telescopes around the world and in space, each year hundreds of comets, asteroids, etc. are located and identified by enthusiastic amateurs with backyard telescopes.

Theodoric's Rainbow (currently out of print) is a similar tale set in a Dominican monastery in the middle ages. A highly fictionalized account (we know little of him other than his research) of a real monk, the story explains how Theodoric rejected the wildly speculative superstitious explanations offered by his fellow monks for rainbows and the experiments he undertook to discover what caused these beautiful gifts of light.

Beyond the independent reader level, you are entering the territory where a child is more likely to be learning from examples of explorers, scientists, etc. which we will cover in separate essays and booklists. However that journey can only be undertaken through the power of sustained attention and observation, the habits of which can be cultivated at the earliest ages, always sustained by the twin questions: "Why?" and "Did you ever notice?"

What books have you used to help your children observe their world more closely?

Picture Books

I Spy Christmas by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Walter Wick

I Spy Mystery by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Walter Wick

I Spy Treasure Hunt by Jean Marzollo and illustrated by Walter Wick

Little Fur Family by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams

Snowflake Bentley by Jacqueline Martin Briggs and illustrated by Mary Azarian

Wait Till the Moon is Full by Margaret Wise Brown and illustrated by Garth Williams

Where's Waldo by Martin Handford

Where's Waldo in Hollywood by Martin Handford

Where's Waldo; The Great Picture Hunt by Martin Handford

Where's Waldo; The Wonder Book by Martin Handford

Independent Reader

The Best of The Hardy Boys by Franklin W. Dixon

Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene

Young Adult

Empires of Light by Jill Jonnes

Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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