By David Albert
The day arrives. Dad takes Junior, almost turned three, out to the backyard, with a plastic whiffleball and a plastic bat. The sun gleams brightly off their matching red St. Louis Cardinal baseball caps. Junior takes several awkward practice swings with the bat, just as he thought he had seen baseball players do on TV.
Dad backs up and underhand tosses the ball gently and slowly toward Junior. Junior takes a wild swing, and misses by about two feet, which is pretty difficult to do when you are only 29 inches tall. He smiles. Dad tries again, and again, each time tossing more gently and slowly, the ball almost hanging still in the air, with the bat consecutively missing the ball by an even greater distance. Junior is still smiling; Dad is getting frustrated.
Mom comes out the back door from the kitchen, still wearing her apron.
“Can I try?” she asks, knowing how important, in its own strange and messy way, this event is for her husband.
Dad hands her the whiffleball. She talks soothingly to Junior, telling him to watch carefully, and then tosses the ball - as it turns out at a speed roughly twice as fast as Dad’s slow pitch. Junior swings, and hits the ball right at Dad who catches it, startled. Mom does the same thing again. Again Junior swings, and this time hits the ball near the basement window. The cat, sunning herself on the ledge by the window, is offended, and moves off to find another warm spot. And the third time, Junior hits a little groundball right back to Mom.
“Time for dinner,” she says, collecting the grounder and handing it to Dad, “Why don’t the two of you go in and wash your hands?”
So what was going on? Was it mom’s especially encouraging words? Did Dad’s visions of a future major leaguer somehow cloud Junior’s abilities with the bat? Was Dad a potential hurler of no-hitters, while Mom the reincarnation of the most hittable pitcher ever to make it to the game?
All of the above are possible of course. But Dr. Terry Lewis, Professor of Psychology at McMaster University, arrived at a different conclusion, published in the July 2005 issue of Vision Research. Dad pitched the whiffleball too slowly.
“When you throw something slowly to a child, you think you’re doing them a favor by trying to be helpful,’ said Dr. Lewis, “Slow balls actually appear stationary to a child.” Add a little speed to the pitch, Lewis and her colleagues suggest, and Junior is able to judge its speed more accurately, and is hence more likely to hit it.
“Our brain has very few neurons that deal specifically with slow motion and many neurons that deal with faster motion,” added Dr. Lewis, “Even adults are worse at slow speeds than they are at faster speeds. And kids’ neurons are immature, making the task even more challenging for them.”
Sigh. I often wonder how much of my own education was hampered by the fact that so much of it was slowpitched. I don’t mean that I should have been “accelerated” (whatever that actually means; if I wasn’t accelerated, does it mean they were putting on the brakes? Or was coasting simply expected?), but rather that no one seemed to be ready to account for what I might actually be ready and prepared to do, or wanted to.
There are no such creatures as “average” children. There couldn’t be, not with eight possible “natural intelligences” (Howard Gardner gave us a good start, but there may be more as yet unnamed), 35 identifiable “learning styles”, a plethora of learning disabilities, proclivities, talents, and gifts, many of them changing over time, all wrapped inside bodies and minds and psyches developing at various rates and with varying speed. Once you remove the “average”, the pseudo-intellectual underpinning, from the practice of “education”, the rest of it collapses like a house of cards.
With very rare exceptions, you don’t need to know any of this stuff to be a successful homeschooler. Oh, it might occasionally help, and provide a common vocabulary for talking with other homeschoolers, and sometimes the grounds upon which you might be given some useful advice, and a validation of your experience. But none of this says anything in particular about your child’s needs, aspirations, hopes, and desires.
Now for the good news: if you listen hard enough, and the kids learn that you listen and act upon what you hear, for the most part they are going to tell you what they need. And get this: you were built with a very fine (and wireless) receiver, and with a little practice, you will learn to tune in on most of the signals.
Don’t be surprised if, in doing so, you find that they are often less than happy with “the slow pitch”. I know too many cases of children who became reluctant about reading because they did not learn early that books had information worth knowing; whose “kiddie” telescopes were mounted so unstably that they never got to see what they were hoping to, and their interest in astronomy disappeared for a lifetime; or whose mathematical curiosity was stunted by page after page of workbook pages when they really wanted to know the math necessary to build bridges. Sometimes they need the opportunity to play with the big kids’ stuff, just so they can plot a sense of their own development, and imagine what it would be like to walk in the big kids’ shoes. Having big kids around to talk to about it can be a help, too, And, sometimes, they, and you, will discover they are ready for it, in ways you might never have otherwise expected.
Slowpitch, fastpitch…oh, maybe in the course of your journey together, you may discover that it shouldn’t be any pitch at all, and that the three of you should be out playing soccer.
David H. Albert is a homeschooling father, speaker, and featured columnist for Home Education Magazine and The Link Homeschooling Journal. He is also author of several homeschooling books, includingAnd The Skylark Sings with Me, Homeschooling and the Voyage of of Self-Discovery, and Have Fun. Learn Stuff. Grow. Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Love. He has offered Gifted Homeschoolers Forum members a $2.00 discount on signed copies -- just go to his web site at www.skylarksings.com, order a copy, and write "GHF" on the comment line.