COLUMN: Open your child’s eyes to visual thinking

Tommy Fairweather, Teachable Moments
Tommy Fairweather

A semi-recent Wall Street Journal article titled “A Cure for the Age of Inattention” by Holly Finn caught my eye. The subtitle, “Could a Yale program for doctors help everyone pick up on details?” made me want to read on to see what the author had to say.

In essence, she said that faculty members at a medical school were concerned that the younger students had not really developed their powers of observation during childhood. Therefore, the professors created a course to help these fledgling doctors improve their visual abilities and attention to details.

The plan for this course was simple.

The doctors in training went on a field trip to an art museum and were assigned a certain work of art. They had a series of questions to answer that would cause them to observe the portrait closely. Upon return to class, the medical students debated their observations. This type of attention to detail is certainly what you would expect when you are the patient. A good doctor should always look closely at your body and listen carefully to what you tell him or her.

Also recently, I happened to watch a DVD titled “The Big Year.” This is a humorous story about consummate birdwatchers competing to identify the most birds in one year. I noticed one of the birders could identify every bird by its song.

This reminded me of one of Richard Feynman’s memoirs, “Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman,” that told of his father taking him on nature walks when he was very young, around four or five. His father insisted that Richard learn both the common and scientific names for birds. Children’s brains are like sponges and for the most part can learn anything. Children just need the guided exposure to new information.

You can combine the drawing and learning about birds for your children by starting with two simple books. The first is “Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book” by Sy Barlowe (Dover Publications). It features 48 common birds plus informational text on the bird’s size, habitat, eating habits and other data. The second book is “How to Draw Birds” by John Green (Dover Publications), which provides step-by-step instructions to draw 30 birds.

Add to these two books a set of binoculars for real bird watching, and you can cultivate a future hobby. A CD with birdcalls would be icing on the cake.

There are many activities that can turn on visual thinking. The best of course is any kind of drawing. From reading hundreds of biographies of scientists, inventors, writers, and naturally artists, I have found that drawing is one of the commonalities in their childhoods.

I am amazed at how many “how to draw” sites there are on the internet and many of the YouTube videos are like having an art teacher in hour house.

A related skill is putting together picture puzzles. Once you turn children on to practicing visual thinking, they will start finding applications of their own. This will give them a broader appreciation of what the world offers humans and how they can live significant lives.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher, who lives in Destin and works at Smarts & Arts on Airport Road in Destin.