We have a brand-new grandson. When he is awake he is constantly exploring; looking and reaching. He does not need to be taught the important things that he needs to be learning at this stage of his life. He just needs love, health, and opportunity.
As he grows, it is important that he keep that curiosity, not just for learning, but for joy and amazement. Young children are resilient. They do not quit. They keep trying as long as they are interested; as long as it is something that they want.
We all agree that there are things that children should learn to prepare for life and life’s responsibilities. How can this innate curiosity be wedded to this process? If they are not interested in learning arithmetic or how to read, is that due to them or to us?
Oliver Sacks was not an average person. His talents and accomplishments were many. He loved learning, libraries, and museums, but not school. His reading was deep and varied, but reading was not his primary method for learning. He experienced, he observed, he questioned, and he reflected. His is still just one experience from one person, but his words and thoughts are worth considering. The following are from Everything in its Place: First Loves and Last Tales which is a collection of his writings that were just published. They are on learning, on school, on the complexities of reading, and on the importance of nature – things for us to experience, question, and reflect on.
On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive – I had to be active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden Library – and all the libraries that came later – I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow paths that fascinated me, to become myself.
Reading is a hugely complex task, one that calls upon many parts of the brain, but it is not a skill humans have acquired through evolution (unlike speech, which is largely hardwired). Reading is a relatively recent development, arising perhaps five thousand years ago, and it depends on a tiny area of the brain’s visual cortex. What we now call the visual word form area is part of the cortical region near the back of the left side of the brain that evolved to recognize basic shapes in nature but can be redeployed for the recognition of letters or words. This elementary shape or letter recognition is only the first step.
From this visual word form area, two-way connections must be made to many other parts of the brain, including those responsible for grammar, memories, associations, and feelings, so that letters and words acquire their particular meanings for us. We each form unique neural pathways associated with reading, and we each bring to the act of reading a unique combination not only of memory and experience, but of sensory modalities, too. Some people may “hear” the sounds of words as they read (I do, but only if I am reading for pleasure, not when I am reading for information); others may visualize them, consciously or not. Some may be acutely aware of the acoustic rhythms or emphases of a sentence; others are more aware of its look or its shape.
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.
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