The ability to make decisions when no decision is obvious to pick and choose among many options, and to predict the consequences of future actions in a complex, mature skill. Anyone who has had to choose a meal, a pair of shoes, a book, a life style will understand this.
Decision-making rests on numerous techniques -- the ability to categorize, to follow sequences, to visualize -- and requires a large, conceptual vocabulary. To raise a thinking, decision-making child requires that all of these techniques be taught.
Sounds deadly, doesn't it?
It doesn't have to be. The folks at George Washington University's Reading Center have found a low-key, innovative way to teach young children these skills and expand their vocabularies with a blob of clay, a charcoal stick, a dab of paint, and some pipe-cleaners.
They offer a Saturday-morning course called "Creative Journeys" for families (dads especially wanted) that teaches vocabulary and thinking skills through art. Each week, one of six techniques is taught -- painting, pastels, collage, charcoal, three-dimensional sculpture and clay -- accompanied by art words that quickly fill the children's minds. (Five-year-old Colin Findley tears around the room, crashes into this father and shouts, "Lets do something delicate, Dad!")
Parents and children work separately at first, and try to let their imaginations loose on the different mediums. ("Now, Mrs. Randolph, this is a nice clay pot, but you can do something more interesting if you try," counsels course designer Ingrid Jacobsen.) While large and small students experiment with the different materials, Jacobsen describes the work of an artist, anyone from Henri Matisse to sculptor Louise Nevelson.
Reading specialist Karen Edgell then reviews a list of vocabulary words relating to that morning's art, and uses the new words to teach skills like categorizing. ("Let's divide these words between people who do things and the things that they do.")
After some serious snacking, parents and children work together in family teams to plan and complete an art project. "Amazing" is perhaps the best way to describe the results.
Ed Winner and his 5-year-old daughter Diane, for example, developed during their six weeks what we called the "Winner School of Art": an angular, precise, stark combination of black, yellow and blue that looks rather like the figures Ed works with in the District's Budget Office.
"We want it to be fun, not work," says Jacobsen. "Of course we want the parents to learn how to teach their children, and we want the children to pick up these skills, but it should be almost subliminal."
It's the parents Jacobsen has the most trouble teaching. "The youngest children do big, bold, imaginative work, but the farther they are into the system, the more predictable their art becomes. It's like society is strangling these kids' imaginations, until, as adults, they're completely unable to let go."
Using art experiences, GW reading specialists suggest that you teach these skills:
Word Recognition: "Don't just say the word 'soft,'" advises program coordinator Judith Findley. "Get your child to draw something soft, or act like something soft, or describe something soft."
Another vocabulary-stretching game: Use the alphabet and go around a group, the first person thinking of a word that starts with "A," the next person thinking of a "B" word, the next a "C" word, etc.
Memory; "Often children can't draw dogs because they just don't remember what a dog looks like," says reading specialist Edgell. "Ask the child to describe someone he knows very well who is not in the room -- his teacher, his mother, his best friend. Ask for greater and greater detail."
Visualization: "Some people are 2-D thinkers -- we want them to be 3-D thinkers," says Edgell. "If you're reading a story to your children and the author paints a word picture, help the child set up a screen for that picture in his mind. What does the dog look like? What is the weather like outside? iHow does the wind feel? What can you smell in this story?"
Categorizing: "Almost anything can be divided into categories," Edgell says. "Divide paints by color, divide collage materials by texture, in a gallery look for all the portraits, all the still lifes, all the sculptures."
Sequencing: Essential to any planning, this skill can be used in a shared project. "Before you start your art work, plan it out," advises art specialist Jacobsen. "What do you need first? What are you going to put in your art? Where are you going to put it?"
Edgell stresses the importance of sequencing in reading, and suggests that you use comics to give your child practice. Cut up your child's favorite comic strip, panel by panel, and ask him to put it back in the right order. Use the simpler comics, if possible: "Nancy," and "Henry."
Consequences: As any observer of today's economy can tell you, the ability to predict is a sorely needed, rarely perfected skill. Accustom your child to looking before he leaps by asking him to describe the consequences of each action. "What will happen if you put the paint there?" Jacobsen asks. "If you put more straws on this sculpture, will it be able to stand up? How can you work with charcoal without smudging it?"
Inference: GW Reading Center director Florence Hesser once gave a group of Pakistanis, Indians and Afghans one of the reading-comprehension tests used with U.S. high schoolers. This group was made up exclusively of college graduates, many with masters degrees from U.S. universities.
They all flunked the test, "because they could not infer," says Hesser. "Their culture seldom calls for that skill."
Because our culture does, Hesser urges that parents ask their children questions that require non-literal answers:
"Yesterday I played with clay, and now it has hardened -- why?" or "I was using yellow and blue paint, and now my brush is green -- what happened?"