The Disembodied Mind

I am a nerd.  (It’s OK.  While the term might have made me cringe in high school, I’ve finally learned to embrace my nerdiness.)  I recently found myself on a short trip with some down time for a little reading, and as any good nerd would, I packed along one of my favorite textbooks from grad school.  (I know, I just confessed to having a favorite textbook.) 

I have hung on to the fourth edition of William Crain’s book, Theories of Development for the past decade or so.  I had heard there was a new sixth edition out, and since I didn’t want to pay the new edition price, I decided to buy a used version of the fifth edition from   Just in case there was anything new.  (Nerd.) 

The thing is, Jean Piaget  and my old buddy Lev haven’t had anything to say for a few decades.

However, as I flipped through my “new” fifth edition, comparing it to my old fourth edition, I stumbled upon a quote in the epilogue that I hadn’t noticed before.  The statement hit on my core beliefs about early childhood education. 

It comes as Crain discusses the limitations that come along with the advances of technology.  He writes:

“The computer monitor presents only symbols — words, pictures, numbers and graphs.  The child is exposed to a great deal of information, but the child receives it on a purely secondhand, mental level.  What does it mean to learn biology strictly from words, pictures, and other symbols, without first having rich, personal experience with plant and animal life?  Or to learn principles of physics — principles such as velocity, force, and balance — without lots of experience throwing, hammering, seesawing, and climbing?  The child learns symbols, but without the personal, bodily, sensory experiences that make the symbols meaningful.  The danger is that the child who is learning a great deal for the first time at the computer terminal is learning at too cerebral a level.  The child is becoming a disembodied mind.”

I was so struck by that last phrase, “disembodied mind“.  It felt true, not just in application to computers, but in many approaches to education.  Too often the mistake is made, to view the vessel as a disembodied mind and to simply attempt to fill it with information.  In reality, the mind is not only housed in a physical body, but its functions pertain to a whole child, whose developmental needs extend beyond the cognitive and academic and include the physical as well as the social, emotional, and creative aspects of a whole and healthy child. 

And these varied components are interwoven in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Recognizing the connection between the developmental aspects of the whole child is much more effective than trying to teach and train one area in isolation.

When I asked Joye Newman, Director of Kids Moving Company, about her thoughts on Crain’s quote, she referred to a passage in the book she co-wrote with Carol Kranowitz (a book I’ll be reviewing fully in the next few weeks) called Growing an In-Sync Child:

As we walk along the river one spring day, we see a six-year-old jump across a puddle and a 12-year-old balancing on a fallen tree trunk.  We know that these children are strengthening their bodies and brains — much more than many of their peers who are indoors staring at a video screen or being drilled with flash cards.  Such seemingly unremarkable experiences can, in fact, be the foundation for optimal physical, academic, social, and emotional growth.    


As educators, we worry that we see so few children having these really important movement adventures.   On this beautiful day, as we walk, we talk about how jumping over a puddle improves math skills, how maneuvering a stroller prepares a child for handwriting, and how walking across a tree trunk enhances visual skills.  We agree that sensory and motor experiences are crucial for children’s development and learning.  


Unfortunately, many parents and educators believe that the earlier a child learns to read and write, the better off he will be.  To that end, they provide video and computer programs, paper and pencil games, and other sedentary tasks, hoping to develop the child’s academic skills.  Parents and teachers may not understand that for the young child, a walk along the river is a much more developmentally and academically appropriate use of the child’s time. “

In a great irony, teachers and parents are discovering that their efforts to streamline childhood to “get ahead” are actually counterproductive to the way that young children truly learn.  The experiences and discoveries that may be viewed by some as superfluous, are actually the foundation for real, meaningful learning.  And without that foundation, superficial learning begins to crumble.

So slow down.  Give children the time and space to explore, to be active, and to play within the context of learning.  It is in embracing and nourishing the whole child that we create the connections necessary for the body and mind– as well as the heart and the soul– to truly thrive.

Top photo by Rodrigo Galindo.
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15 responses to “The Disembodied Mind

  1. Kathy

    Funny how the obvious can knock you off your chair. Thank you for the insightful article. I also enjoyed Praise Junkies Beware!

  2. Yes! Thankyou for these links to writers who are new to me but who voice my concerns and beliefs so clearly – as you do. What memories will those adults have who spent many hours in front of a screen as young children – what identities will they have developed? How will they be able to deal with the real not virtual world. They are our guinea pigs, in our (well our generation’s, anyway) love affair with technology and increasing fear of a reality which cannot be completely controlled. Thanks!

  3. This is a fantastically useful article. I think even as teachers it is hard not to succumb to the pressures of “preparing children” and “giving them an “early start.” Our program was recently review by New York State and the biggest area that my room lost points was for “television, computer and electronic use.” I was so frustrated that there was even a catergory for this by the state! There are way more important experiences they are gaining everyday than sitting in front of an “educational video” or doing “work” on a computer. They are preschoolers! Sorry for my rant but it is just nice to know that there are other people out there who know this to be true, and also to be able to find new information. I definitely want to read the In Sync Child, thank you for pointing me to it!

    • notjustcute

      That’s so frustrating! Print up the two quotes and attach them to your evaluation!

      There are certainly ways to appropriately use technology, but if you have to err on one side or the other, I’d rather have too little than too much in those early years!

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  5. Fantastic article, I can’t wait to read that book. It is ironic, isn’t it? I just met a parent whose kindergartener only has recess on Fridays – can you imagine? It’s beyond horrifying! Thanks for your blog, I always learn something.

  6. Another great post! I checked out the Kids Moving Company, and it looks very similar to the company I mentioned. Now if only the schools would quit sending so much homework so we had more time for activity!!

  7. Love this!! Thank you for helping me articulate this truth. I am a new reader and am really enjoying your blog!

  8. Thank you for this! I am so frustrated with my son’s school this year — he is in grade 1 and he has at least an hour of homework every night. Not just reading books (which I was expecting) but flashcards and spelling words and counting by twos . . . so much rote memory work for his age. And he is complaining about too many worksheets at school, saying “I don’t think worksheets even teach you anything!”. I agree, and I want to get him out in nature, but when? I feel like throwing his homework out the window sometimes, but then he starts getting behind because he can’t do the worksheets at school if he hasn’t done the memory work at home . . .

  9. I couldn’t agree more – which is why I’m such a big advocate of learning through play! With that in mind, check out my play dough post today… you may even find a mention of someone you know 😉

  10. RJ

    SO enjoyed your perspective! And resonate with the frustration expressed by other readers, especially when it comes to dealing with the school system. Seems that no matter what is learned about how children best learn, the school system keeps doing the same thing over and over (well, with a few variations thrown in there to help them justify new funding) expecting their methods to somehow magically work. They don’t! And we continually repeat generations of children growing up handicapped by the latest and greatest technological advances and wondering why they don’t understand life.

    Hmmm… can you tell I feel strongly about this?!


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