The other day I went running with my 13-year-old son, Louis, in Rock Creek Park. It used to be that we’d go running and I’d adjust my pace, and maybe even our course, so that we could run together–so that Louis wasn’t chasing me through the woods. This run, however, was different. From our first steps into the woods it was clear, I had become the hound chasing the fox. The fox slid through narrow turns and over obstacles, while I, the clumsy hound, tried my best to keep up lumbering along with my tongue out and haunches flailing.
Now let’s make no mistake, I still have some chops as a trail runner, and this was my trail. The Pulpit Rock trail we were running is a narrow, winding, root- and rock-filled path. It takes you up and down some steep hills, and along the creek. It’s a ton of fun. From years of running the trail I’ve become attuned to its twists and turns, roots and rocks, and seasonal changes. But Louis has a natural grace and ability at 13 that I never had. Small for his age, his physical intelligence is remarkable for a boy who can’t find his socks when they’re on his feet. It’s something I’ve always known about Lou, but watching his feet fly over the trail–from behind, which is where I was for most of this run–I was able to see how smart his feet are.
We do don’t often think of physical acumen as an intelligence, but what else would you call it? Perhaps because it comes so naturally to some we see it as a gift rather than intelligence–and like any intelligence it is a gift. But it’s a gift that must be used, explored and fostered if it’s going to grow and develop.
I encounter students–boys mostly, but by no means exclusively–who don’t think they’re smart, but who can run like the wind, climb without fear or consistently toss exquisite layups. We encourage them on the court or out on the rocks. We stand in awe of their abilities and their fearlessness. It goes beyond our awe of youth, these people are physically brilliant.
Physical intelligence is just one example. I also know young people who shine outdoors. Put them in the woods and they come to life. Then there are those people who can manipulate clay or wood or some other material in almost magical ways–pulling beauty and function from what many of us consider a lump of dirt or firewood.
As educators we spend a good deal of time talking about how we can harness a students love of sports, nature, art… you name it, in the service of teaching math or writing. And I’m not saying this is always a bad thing. But what we essentially tell that person is “You know the way your smart at (fill in the blank)? Well, that’s nice, but it really doesn’t mean a lot. Here’s how you need to be smart.” Is that really the message we intend to send?