When Daughter was a year old she used to love watching me draw things. She’d want me to draw fruit and she’d pick the colours used to fill in the lines. Her favorite was grapes: a different colour for each grape on the cluster. It wasn’t long before she was doodling herself, and these days she carries around a portfolio-style organizer filled with pens of different colours, blank paper, and oodles of creations so she can indulge in her passion of drawing anywhere she goes.
Son, on the other hand, didn’t so much as pick up a pencil until he was close to 4. When he did, he grasped it in his fist. One day he wrote his name on a blackboard, to the astonishment of myself and everybody else who saw it, but he was unhappy with how the letters looked and his reluctance and disinterest in drawing and writing became apparent.
At one point I began to worry about his “fine motor skills”. It’s probably no coincidence that this happened while he was in his sole year of preschool, where milestones seem so important to everybody. The next year when we enrolled in our homeschool program I discussed my concerns with our Learning Consultant, who reassured me that he was still at an appropriate stage of development in this regard. I also began to read about others’ experiences, and discuss it with my fellow homeschooling mums, and it became apparent pretty quickly that this is one of those things where boys appear to be “delayed” compared to girls. My own father had stories to share of his struggles with writing and how school pushed that on him, causing him to develop an intense aversion to writing. I think this is more about homogenization in the classroom rather than gender inequality, not to mention a lack of appreciation for some of boys’ less “academic” interests and inclinations.
Anyways, I decided to sit back and see what happened with Son’s drawing, to continue to trust in the natural process of learning. My thinking was that if Son got to a point where he expressed frustration at not being able to draw, then I would step in with suggestions for remedial work. But if he wasn’t unhappy about it, then neither would I be.
Well, I’m happy to report that once again, Natural Learning has not let me down. Suddenly, in the last 2 – 3 weeks, there has been an explosion of drawing on the part of my boy. And he has gone from formless scribbles to shapes and controlled lines in the blink of an eye.* What has driven this sudden interest in drawing? …wait for it…Video Games!
I’ll be writing more about video games and my recent full embrace of them as a valid and useful passion, but in the meantime allow me to explain how this has all come about. Yes, my son loves to play video and computer games. But his passion extends beyond that single form of media. He can often be found with a handful of toys acting out imaginary games that usually involve worlds made up of levels with bosses and mini-bosses that must be defeated. Several months ago he became interested in making Lego miniatures, specifically, mini game consoles, mini arcade games, and even a mini- flatscreen TV on which to pretend-play his mini games. Then, a couple of weeks ago, he came up with the idea of making video games, game consoles, and remotes using paper.
His first attempt was a hybrid game he named “Pac-Galaga”. On a sheet of blank printer paper he’d drawn a screen, some control buttons at the bottom, and filled in the screen with a “screen shot” of a game that combined the classic space attack game Galaga with a few Pac Man elements. When he showed it to me I was immediately struck with the fact that he’d drawn forms that were recognizable as shapes, crude triangles and squares, and that there was a recognizable order to his scribblings. He asked me to help him draw some little spaceships; I made the bodies and he drew the several short straight lines emanating from the wings and tail (the “lasers”).
Shortly afterwards he approached me asking to help him make a paper Nintendo DS. Pretty soon he was designing and making (with some help from me) five different kinds of remote control, a paper Nintendo 64 (complete with a slot for paper game cartridges), and working on the design of a paper Wii. I should point out that we own a Wii, a Nintendo Game Cube, and a Nintendo DSi and yet he was so excited about making paper ones. He played with them in bed, in the car, and basically took them everywhere with him for days on end.
During these projects he would assist where he could. Being somewhat of a perfectionist he insisted that I draw the smaller buttons, but he did readily agree to help me with drawing the larger elements. He also helped by cutting the paper, and thus for the first time in his little life he picked up a pair of scissors and cut a series of impressively straight lines. Yes, that’s right, his disinterest in drawing extended to using scissors – when he was younger he downright refused, and the one time he tried to use them he couldn’t even figure out how to hold them, soon got frustrated, and gave up. Yet here he was, 6.5 years old, picking them up and using them quite capably without any fuss.
Then this past week he added something new: he found an old dollar-store variety magna-doodle at the bottom of our toy bin, brought it out, and proceeded to make it into a game controller by drawing a four-way button (think of it as a thick cross) and a series of small circles. They weren’t perfect, but they were very recognizable as such. By the end of the day something new had developed: he decided to make the magna-doodle a video game screen and began to draw “screen shots”. One of the first series’ he designed was a game he called “Snoodle Doodle”, which appeared to be a hybrid of Run (an iPhone game) and Fireboy and Watergirl. Basically he draws a platform extending from the upper left hand corner upon which he places a number of stick figures (at first he had me draw them, but within 2 days he was drawing them himself). The rest of the doodle pad is filled with a series of lines that create obstacles the stick figures must navigate to get to the end goal.
He also experimented with drawing other objects, such as this vehicle.
(You may note that in the top picture he’s using his left hand, and in the bottom his right. While he is mostly left-handed, he does on occasion draw with his right.)
Last night I sat down to watch him play Pac-Pix on the DSi we got him for Christmas. About a month ago he used his allowance money to buy a used copy of Pac-Pix from our local Play-n-Trade game swap store. As a drawing exercise I couldn’t ask for anything better. The game is based on Pac-Man but in this game you draw your Pac Man and he comes to life, then you direct him around the screen by drawing lines in front of him – a vertical line drawn in a bottom-to-top direction will cause your Pac Man to turn up, for example. When he first got the game he was very frustrated as he couldn’t draw a Pac Man that the computer would recognize and animate. But last night, after all this intensive drawing activity going on lately, I saw that not only could he get Pac Man animated every time, but he was also drawing arrows as part of the higher levels of play (the arrows have to be drawn without “pen leaving paper”, so basically a triangle ending at the top and then continuing with a line straight downwards).
Seeing him playing this game and comparing it to how he played it a mere 4 weeks ago was a great yardstick upon which to measure just how far his skills have progressed. With respect to technical details, his grip on the pen has improved too, and he’s learned how to hold the pen so the side of his palm rests on the surface, thus making it easier for him to control movement of the pen.
This has been yet one more in a series of experiences throughout our unschooling journey that validates to me what we are doing. It is living proof of the power of natural learning, and the rewards that can happen when we sit back and let children develop according to their own inner schedule. A few months ago, my son would most likely be considered “behind” in his drawing skills compared to other 6 year olds, yet in a burst of 3 weeks has made huge strides.* The best part of this all is that nobody ever suggested to him that there was something wrong with him because he couldn’t draw, or wasn’t interested in drawing. Nobody gave him the idea that he was “behind”. Nobody tried to force it on him thus turning him away from this at such a tender age. He has “discovered” drawing all on his own, it feels right to him now at this time in his life, and he is getting much joy out of the process.
* this is a common observation among unschooling parents: a child who starts something very early – like say reading – may take a couple of years to become fully competent in that skill, but another child who starts something relatively late is able to reach the same level of competency in a matter of weeks