Playground therapy, part II - FamilyEducation

Playground therapy, part II

March 15,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L.'s favorite thing to do at the playground, by far, is to swing. He's loved it from the time he was very little and I'd lower him into one of the baby swings and stand for what seemed like hours, my feet rooted in the mulch while I pushed, and pushed some more. There is something about swinging that regulates him, inside and out. When he got older, we'd have our best conversations while I pushed him in the swings. We still do. Swinging seems to give him a clarity of mind he has trouble securing for himself when he's on the ground, dealing with all the cacophony around him.

He used to love for me to push him as high as possible, but lately he has a fear about the physics of swinging (even though that playground tale about swinging clear over the bar is a myth) and the safety of the bolts securing the swing chains to the upper bar. When we go to a new playground he always spends some time examining the bolts for each swing, and then picks the one he thinks seems the most secure.These days, when L. is swinging he likes to keep a running commentary about how fast and high he thinks he's going, in mathematical terms, astounding the grownups around us. 

On Sunday, a woman who was busy pushing her young daughter in the swing next to us was suitably impressed (she turned out to be a teacher), by L.'s thoughts on relative velocity. Before i knew it, she was quizzing him on milliseconds and centiseconds, and then--horror of horrors--the dreaded multiplication tables.

What is this crazy lady thinking? I wondered.

I wasn't sure whether to be amused by this, or horrified for L. Here was math, encroaching on his peaceful swinging time! I held my breath, and waited to see what would happen. To my shock, he didn't seem to mind at all, and answered her good-natureredly, admitting that he was still struggling with certain multiplication facts, and that he wasn't too fond of school.

I read somewhere that most children learn math in an up and down, hierarchical way, building skills and working from the outside in, as far as learning concepts. We can see this with T., who already has a strong grasp on mathematical concepts in that hierarchically-based, broad, whole-picture way of tackling problems. Children with learning issues--and learning problems in math in particular--as well as many children on the autism spectrum, learn math very differently. Their brains act as "conveyor belts" and can only hold a certain amount of information in a very linear fashion and when they are asked to learn something new, the "old" information drops off the end of the "conveyor belt" and they can't retrieve it. Does that make sense? This has always explained to us so well how it is that L. struggles to learn concepts, seems to grasp them, and then can't retrieve them again. It's not that he didn't learn them, but that they have simply dropped off the belt out beyond his reach. 

Anyway, I had an a-ha! moment on Sunday at the swings. While the woman next to me quizzed L. and we worked on the answers together, I wondered if maybe the key to helping L. retain multiplication facts--and other "building blocks" of math concepts, could be as simple (or as complicated) as combining a physical activity like swinging with practicing math. Maybe the regulating movement of the swing could somehow encourage this, in ways that learning at a desk through traditional ways (overheard projector, copying problems, etc.) have not. When L. was in third grade we tried to combine a physical activity with learning multiplication facts but to no avail--it may be we were focusing on the wrong physical activity, since L. has hardly any interest in any activities involving ball throwing.

It's worth a try, of course. I think my arms have some more pushing power in them still.