Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Environmental awareness for pre-schoolers - from 'On Looking' by Alexandra Horowitz

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These days learning using technology – exploring the 'virtual' world, seems to the latest ‘silver bullet’ and, all too often, this is at the expense of developing an awareness and appreciation of the real world. Clifford Still (a world recognised computer user) best summed this up in his book ‘Silicon Valley Snake Oil when he said that after an hour using a screen a person needed an a hour sitting by a tree to compensate.

On Looking Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz, who trained as a cognitive scientist, explains the startling power of human attention and what it means to be an expert observer

For many of us our experience walking is un-remembered because we  fail to pay attention and we miss the possibility of seeing what is in plain sight of us.

Horowitz’s book is about her taking walks in her suburb of New York with people who have distinctive ways of seeing all the unperceived ordinary events she learnt was missing.

Alexandra Horowitz
Horowitz believes we are born with the inherent capacity to see what is in front of us – something we all are aware of when we visit a new place, everything is sharp and clear, but with time we notice less and less. We lose the capacity to attend.

 The experts Horowitz chose have perceptions focused by their particular passion – or even a disability such as being blind.  Horowitz teaches psychology, animal behavior and canine cognition at Columbia University New York. Her earlier bestselling book was all about, as the title says, seeing from ‘Inside  of a Dog’!

I have chosen the chapter where Alexandra focuses on seeing the streets of New York through the eyes of her nineteen month old son.


Teachers, she writes, often tell their students to ‘pay attention’ when they should be doing their best to retain the ability to attend the young innately have. Paying attention was in earlier times a vital evolutionary means of survival. Today we learn to see without really seeing at all. Horowitz is writing about being ‘mindful’ - bringing active attention to our daily lives by noticing new things.



Taking her son for a walk was revelation. For adults it is a matter of getting from ‘a to b’- from somewhere to somewhere else. Horowitz had taken her son for many walks but this time her took her for a walk and she was to ask him what he saw and she set about to report on what he saw following his interests – ‘trying to imagine being in his six inch-long shoes.’

Her toddler’ walk started before they opened the door. She soon recognised that to her son walking is not about walking from ‘a’ to ‘b’. A walk for her son is ‘an investigatory exercise that begins with
energy and ends when (and only when) exhausted.’ It began with tying on his shoes, in the elevator, opening the front door.

A walk is exploring surfaces and textures with finger, toe, and – yuck- tongue…. Trying out different forms of locomotion… it is archaeology; exploring bits of discarded candy wrapper; collecting fistfuls of pebbles and a twig… it is stopping to admire the murmuring of the breeze in the trees; locating the source of the bird’s song….it is a time of sharing.’
Alexandra’s son notices all the ‘Os’ – ( I am presuming the letter his name started with) – he could see them everywhere.

  She writes that for the very young world is a ‘case in confused attention’.. ‘a crash course in sensory experience’ ..’a world is not yet organised into discrete objects’; a primordial way of experiencing the world, pre-knowledge and pre-categorization.  A sort of seeing the world with ‘crossed wires’ – slowly things fall into place.Her son was staring to make sense of the confusion.


On her walk ( determined by her son’s agenda) she followed her son’s attention to an awareness of edges, railings, basement level cavities and trash bags Her son, she realized ‘was blessed with the ability to admire the unlovely… or an inability to feel there is a difference’.


As adults we have learnt to ‘notice less than we are able to’ for our survival. Children sense the world at a different granularity, attending to parts of the visual world we gloss over’.  ‘The infant has The young suffer from neophilia – the love of the new.
a mind untrammelled by experience; he has no expectations, so he is not closed off from experiencing something anew.’ The brain of the very young does not know what to ignore as anyone who has been caught by the gaze of a baby knows.

For Alexandra was still seeing the shapes of the world she has stopped seeing.  Nothing escapes the attention of the very young. On the walk her son became exited by the discovery of thousands of the green seeds of an elm tree – something she had taken for granted.

A learning experience
A dump truck was next to attract her son’s attention. Together they admired it. Trucks were his newest love. No sooner than he had learnt the category ‘truck’ than he began to subcategories – big, little, fire, garbage and even ‘funny’. The same applied to mushroom shaped fire hydrants, mailboxes, bicycle holders, benches….

Her son she notes ‘is quietly but plainly rude .He gapes. He points with abandon…He stares fixedly, penetratingly at people as they approach… The infirm, elderly, and decrepit already register as unusual and he stares even more at them’.  On a typical walk with a toddler, every person must be stopped for and stared at. Each dog received the same attention as with pigeons and squirrels. Then his attention is drawn to colours of cars.

Piaget - expert observer
From all such experiences words were added to his vocabulary. Horowitz refers to Jean Piaget who observed and published the development of his own children’s language.  Piaget pointed questions about their knowledge of the world and recorded their answers. Young children have often animistic explanations for what they experience that with time are ‘corrected’. For the young the wind and the rain are alive – perfectly acceptable explanations for their age.

Through their experiences the young are constructing their minds.’ Concepts and words’ Horowitz writes are ‘stretched to see if they fit around new things. The newly minted language –user is playing with the applicability of new words…..There is a richness in the child’s analogies that we lose when we learn to be obsessed with “appropriate” word use’.


To complete the walk Alexandra’s son, passing things that had earlier attracted his attention, then chose to complete his walk by insisting they walk backwards. Late in the afternoon the final thing to attract his attention, as they reached their doorway, was their shadows and he set about for ten minutes examining how shadows changed. Her son realized everything has a shadow.

It would seem to me that, as many teachers express that many children enter school with poor language ability. The provision of  awareness walks, written so well about by Alexandra Horowitz, is
an ideal way to help such children. It would seem that through such experiences children's vocabularies and concepts develop  that in turn are necessary to develop reading facility. It would seem that in the beginning was not the word but the experience!




A blog that I have just received about creativity and walking

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Must get the book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. And, as you say, once such language experiences were the key to beginning reading/writing. Better to go back to such an approach that bring out the phonic worksheets!!

Bruce said...

Couldn't agree more. Although I haven't been in many classrooms the last couple of years my impression is that the children's learning is far too determined by their teachers- if teachers followed Horowitz's example they would be more observant about what attracts students' attention and value their questions and ideas - just as Piaget did!

I fear phonics is gaining support in schools - not that phonetical awareness is wrong if it is used in context.