The Math of Moving

Hiking the rugged foothills country behind our ten acres often takes me back to my childhood when I least expect it. A certain smell or slant of light or even a change in the wind can trigger rich memories of not only clambering over the Rocky Mountains with my father, but also exploring the back alleys and bluffs of Kansas City, by foot or bicycle.

Who needs playground equipment?

I often played outdoors alone when I was growing up. We moved enough that I attended six different grade schools, and rarely lived near anyone who could just “come out and play.” I loved finding new ways of getting from one place in my little sphere of influence to another, and I would suss out idle or abandoned parking garages, construction sites, and vacant lots to make imaginary race courses and fantasy spy or army settings for my comic-book-influenced story lines.

What I notice now as I hike this terrain is how much I learned from that kind of play. Climbing over rocks and walls and fences, crossing streams and marshy areas, and dealing with the vagaries of urban pavement and alleyways — these were the challenges my body learned to meet in the pursuit of… just playing.

The world is full of problems to solve.

Noticing this made me also wonder: to what extent do I just naturally notice how I move, and how much of that is the result of my (later in life) dance training? For example, I noticed this morning a stretch of what might look like a jumble of rocks and trees to some folks. But to my eyes, there were a couple of clear options for traversing that stretch with minimum effort. As I walked, I could see a path emerging in front of me, and I felt my body adjusting for length of stride, traction, angle of surface, and slope with each step.

I also noticed how I was looking ahead, estimating distance and proportion, and preparing for the next several steps even while taking the current one. I started thinking about the number and speed of the mathematical operations my brain/body was performing, just in order to move smoothly across the landscape. Watching our pack of seven dogs (two on temporary “camp” assignment with us while our older daughter copes with newborn twins) weave over the terrain, I was also struck by their ability to use the same calculus.

Aurora, mother of three of these canine crew members, raced after a cottontail that was doing its best to escape by changing pathway rapidly through the sparse underbrush and plentiful slash. She followed its every move, in larger arcs but always aiming to intercept where the rabbit was going to be next, rather than where it was at the moment. Rounding a pinon tree and leaping over a fallen trunk, she was already prepared to push off at an angle on landing. Routine stuff, but mathematically incredibly complex.

As a life-long bicycle and motorcycle rider, I notice similar things when I’m guiding a 2-wheeler. I wonder how much physics I learned intuitively from my time in the saddle, and how much that helped me to understand the concepts (if not all the math) when I got to freshman Physics in high school. Momentum, friction, work, and simple machines all make a lot more sense to a rider.

Physics experiments can be fun.

I do know that I used all that experience, plus my time served in various sports and other organized physical activities, when I fell into dance at age 19. As a dancer,  I became aware that this kind of thinking is crucial.

Dance is all about estimating distances and forces, predicting, counting, paying attention to pattern (in shape and space and time), and being aware of every part of the complex machine that is the human body. It is a different set of skills to be able to translate this knowledge into symbolic language (W = F x D) and to be able to generalize from the specific. To me, though, it is far easier to go from experience to math than the other way around.

My big question here is: What are we doing to our children by failing to provide them with the time to play with the world before they have to put their learning into formal terms? We know that the use of electronics  has skyrocketed among today’s children; in the US they average something like seven hours a day of using some sort of electronic device, not including time spent using them in school. By my calculations, that doesn’t leave very much time for unstructured, physical play.

How early do children really need to learn how to use gadgets?

We also know that, in response to (idiotic) demands for better test scores, schools are eliminating any activities that do not directly relate to test preparation. That means no PE (cutting the already pitiful 30 or 60 minutes a week that most children were able to get), less or no recess time, and in many cases extended-day programs that add to the amount of time children are expected to remain still during the day. It would be one thing if the tests were actually measuring anything important, but they are essentially game-show trivia quizzes, with about the equivalent meaningfulness.

Brain researchers are unequivocal in their support for the idea that it is physical movement that is the source of much of our brain’s development. That means if we do not move our bodies, our brains will not develop properly. Children who do not experience physical play in any form are therefore probably disabled.

Industrial education puts children in seats, in orderly rows, and insists that each of them learn the same things at the same time, and that they be able to regurgitate their learning in identical ways. Industrial education insists on order and uniformity, while in the “real world” complexity and variation are the rules. To what extent is it possible that “ADD/ADHD” (attention deficit disorder, with or without the hyperactivity part) is a creature of industrial education? Maybe it’s a new meaning for IED: Industrial Education Disorder.

By depriving our children of brain stimulation and growth, we have created generations of cerebrally-emaciated citizens who are now unable to even comprehend that Barack Hussein Obama is actually a natural-born US citizen who is a Christian and not a Muslim. They just don’t have the skills to distinguish between fact and assertion, possibly because reasoning and experience have been drowned out by sheer rote repetition at high volume.

The prescription for ADHD is often to give stimulants to the child. Yep, if they are distracted, speed them up. What does that tell us? Our system of education is systematically depriving our children of sensation, especially in the kinesthetic realm. They are literally starving for meaningful stimulation. If we truly want our children to be mathematicians and scientists and engineers as well as all the other things we want them to be, we have to make it possible for them to explore the universe in their own way.

Play is how we learn.

That means stepping up in our role in loco parentis, literally, to put some limits on how our children spend their “free” time. Why not limit electronic use to an hour a day? In solving the problem of “what to do” when plugging in is not an option, children may rediscover that the human body is an exceptional tool for creative play. In the process, they may find themselves engaged in problem-solving, creative, and playful learning that is truly “authentic” and life-long. Unlike those for whom “learning” is ultimately a collection of unconnected facts, they will construct their own frameworks that will let them apply their learning. Then we can all move on to tackle the truly troublesome issues we face as a society and as caretakers of the Earth.

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About rbdancer

Randy has been a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and Workshop Leader since 1995. During 35 years as a teaching artist, he has led over 300 in-depth workshops, courses, and seminars for teachers and teaching artists, traveling to 37 states in the process. As a choreographer and professional dancer, Randy has danced and produced dance concerts in some of the country's most storied theaters. Randy now lives with his wife in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains in northeastern New Mexico.
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2 Responses to The Math of Moving

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review: Blog Stats « Classroom Choreography

  2. Frankie B. says:

    Great post! There’s a good article in Newsweek about creativity and what we are NOT doing in our schools to develop our children. Here’s the web address: http://www.newsweek.com/2010/07/10/the-creativity-crisis.html

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