When I was in my early twenties, I hitchhiked to Halifax, and as we were passing the Northwest Arm, where I first caught sight of the Atlantic, I asked the driver to pull over.
I leapt from the car, raced to the ocean’s edge, threw myself down, and eagerly sipped the water. The driver was dumbfounded. Not quite sure whether I was safe to approach, he stood at the rear of his car and yelled, « Are you okay? »
« Yeah, » I shouted back. And after spitting out another mouthful, « Oh yeah. This is incredible. »
When I got back in the car, I explained that having grown up in Sudbury, I couldn’t imagine what sea water tasted like. From my early teens I had been in love with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Moby Dick, and the novels of Joseph Conrad, and Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki expedition, but they had never been complete for me because the ocean had been an inscrutable stranger to my understanding.
I was reminded of this need for experience during a meeting with Mary Gordon, head of the parenting program that operates in 34 of Toronto’s public elementary schools.
« Young children learn from the senses, » she was saying. From three-dimensional learning. Touching. Doing. Whole-body experiences. « The more real, live things children do, the more knowledge they bring to the learning experience.
« They take their understanding to a book. They don’t get their understanding from a book. And this is what a lot of parents, and even educators don’t realize. It’s only when you’re a very independent and experienced reader that a book brings revelations to you. »
In the slight lilt of a Newfoundlander long away from home, Gordon explains that parenting centres help pre-school children experience words. « We’ll say, `We’re going under the table.’ And it’s there the child gets the idea of underneath. That’s what three-dimensional learning is all about. »
We’re meeting at Dundas Elementary School, at Broadview Ave. and Dundas St., in a parenting class run by Gaye Zimmerman. The children are mostly from immigrant and poor, single-parent families.
« We particularly have to help inner city children, » says Gordon. « And we do that. Our children arrive in kindergarten at the same spot as middle class kids who have all the advantages. »
So, in what other ways do they encourage three-dimensional learning? Well, with bean bags that have large numbers on them, and Zimmerman saying, « Go jump on five. » Or a game of fish where kids go fishing in a bowl for a letter cut from sturdy foam rubber, and match it to the same letter attached to a board.
It’s done with ziplock bags, numbered and filled with gloop, so kids can « feel » the number as they trace it with a finger, and push its impression into the gloop.
It’s done with hoops bearing letters, and Zimmerman urging a child to, « Jump through `J’. » By ensuring every child has a big cardboard box at home in which to play `pretend’. And by repeatedly explaining the word `stuck’ while helping a toddler who has jammed his wagon’s wheel behind a chair leg.
« I guess I feel passionately, » says Gordon, « about people who push children into pencil and paper tasks too early, when what they really need is to be engaged in sensory learning. »
This fall, her work caught the eye of Naomi Karp, director of the National Institute of Early Childhood Development and Learning within the U.S Department of Education. Karp invited Gordon to present details of the parenting program to a workshop in Washington next week for representatives from school districts across the United States.
« What Mary is doing in Toronto is what many people in the States would like to be able to do, » says Donna Hinkle, an aide to Karp.
Early in Bill Clinton’s presidency, she explained, he and state governors agreed to a set of seven national education goals. The first is that all children enter kindergarten ready to learn. Gordon is demonstrating how that can be done.
And how does this bear on sustainability? Next Saturday, I’ll explain.