Basic Skills and Knowledge

Natural Learning by Kathleen McCurdy

Basic skills are acquired abilities. Unlike breathing or blinking, we are not born with them; they must be learned. Furthermore, skills can be lost through disuse. They require drill or practice in order to perfect them. Does that make you think of flash cards and multiplication tables? Instead, let’s consider walking. It would be hard to make it in this world if we lost our ability to walk, so it is very basic.

Most of us acquire the ability to walk near the time of our first birthday. We somehow figured out the process and began taking steps, unskillful at first but soon with a clear goal in mind (the vase on the coffee table, or the open front door). But even if Junior passes his first birthday without taking that first step, we don’t really expect children to practice and drill until they can walk correctly. We may have coaxed and prodded, and maybe even bribed with a cookie or toy to get him to let go and start walking, but once those first toddling steps are ventured, we usually give no further thought to the difficult process of mastering the skill of walking. And yet, every normal child proceeds to practice and drill, day after day, without the slightest prompting on our part, until at last the skill is mastered and he can walk without thinking about it.

On of my children was born with an extra measure of ambition. He would walk before the others, he would! Soon he found out that falling was involved—so he practiced falling. At seven months he was intent on mastering the skill of falling without getting hurt so that he could get on with the process of walking. We laughed, watching him climb up by the furniture, slowly turn himself around and let go, then throw himself down with great concentration. No one ever asked him to practice falling, nevertheless at eight and a half months he was able to walk across the living room on his own, and a few weeks later he was triumphantly heading out the door.

So why didn’t he ever take to flash cards and the multiplication tables? Where do they come in? Well first, we have to settle on what are basic skills. Walking is, and so is talking. Perhaps you’ve noticed that children learn to talk without much effort and, like walking, at different ages. What about eating wit a fork or tying their shoe laces. Don’t most kids learn to ride a bike if they have the chance?  And who is asking about taking the car for a practice run? Yes, even driving is a basic skill in our society.

So what about reading and writing? They are certainly basic skills, so shouldn’t children be practicing them as well? Actually, they will if we’re patient. First, they must be ready. When the child is ready to learn, he will. Schools can’t seem to operate that way, but we can. How many of us have tried to potty-train a child at 15 months with dismal results, only to find that he trained himself just fine at 30 months when he was ready. One of my grandchildren didn’t learn to walk until he was 16 months old. And he never practiced a single time, that we could see. He just sat and watched us until one day, when his Mama was on the telephone, he jumped up and ran down the hallway to the forbidden drawer he had always wanted to explore! But now that they are all grown up, he walks just as well as the one who learned to walk at half his age.

This points to another factor in learning. Some children learn best by doing while others learn more by watching. That is why parental example is so important. If you want your child to read and write, be sure he has the opportunity to observe you using these skills. And there may be other ways to learn. Some kids learn to ride a bike using training wheels, while others start right out on a full sized bike. One of my boys is a whiz at math, so I asked him one day if he had ever learned the multiplication tables. This young electronics engineer admitted that though he had memorized them three different times as a kid, he still couldn’t recite them. “I can’t tell you what 7 x 8 is, but I can figure it out. I know the most common ones, and figure out the others if I have to.” Of course he uses a calculator most of the time. Maybe the tables aren’t so ‘basic’ any more.

The need to know is another factor that is often ignored. A child doesn’t learn to walk because someone thinks he should. He wants to go places—over to Dad’s outstretched arms, down the hall to the toy box, or out the door. He walks in order to get to where he’s going. Once he becomes aware that books and magazines can inform and entertain, he won’t stop until he has mastered the skill of reading. The child must see its usefulness in his own frame of reference before he will be ready to invest time and energy in learning or perfecting a given skill.

So some skills may be more ‘basic’ for him than others, and this depends on the child’s natural talents and abilities and stage of development. We should ask, does he have the aptitude to learn this skill. For example, being able to carry a tune is pretty basic to being a musician but not necessarily for a writer or a painter. Being able to calculate using logarithms is important to engineers and scientists but would be of little use to the musician or the social worker. A child with a an artistic bent may spend many hours sharpening his drawing skills, yet have little patience to practice spelling or calligraphy.

Knowledge is an organized collection of meaningful facts. But the organizing is in the mind, not in someone’s textbook. Not so many centuries ago children were expected to learn everything by rote. They had to chant the names of the states and their capitals, list the major battles and their generals, they had to learn by heart all the rules of grammar even though often the rules didn’t work, and they had to practice conjugating Latin verbs and reciting many works of prose and poetry. And how many chemistry students have labored to memorize the periodic table of elements only to forget such information as soon as the mid-term tests were over. Simply put, such knowledge is not retained for the brain doesn’t work that way.

Children (and all of us) will pick up knowledge wherever it may be found, as long as it is meaningful to them and they can relate it to what they already know. For instance, before September 11, 2001, how many of us knew where to find Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan on the map? And no doubt most of our knowledge of history has been acquired not in class but in the movies. So hang a map of the world on the kitchen wall and then tune in to the morning news each day. Your children will learn more geography than you could ever dream possible. Or dig up some stories about your great-great uncle that fought in the Civil War and watch how interested they become in discussing the issues that separated the North from the South. On the occasion of a volcanic eruption in our state, we only had leave out some books on geology, volcanoes, and related subjects for lots of spontaneous learning to take place.

Available information plus a reason to know is all it takes to provide children with an extensive fund of knowledge. So who needs school? Those who think that children’s minds are like empty bottles just waiting to be filled. Some have theorized that children’s minds are like a sponge, absorbing whatever is available. But in reality, the mind is always actively hunting for information that it can use, organizing and classifying everything in ways that are most useful, based on the experience of the individual.


So what should we do if we want our child  to master a certain basic skill?

  1. Determine if he’s ready. Maturity, previous experience and accessory skills are involved.
  2. Provide an example he can copy. Parental modeling is most important.
  3. Find a motivating factor. It must be useful, interesting, entertaining, or marketable.
  4. Make sure the child has enough aptitude to make it worth his while. Just as some kids aren’t built for contact sports, others were just not meant to comprehend algebra.

And how can we ensure that our child acquires sufficient knowledge?

  1. Answer his questions. When a child is asking questions, he’s learning.
  2. Create opportunities for more questions: visits to museums, field trips to other interesting places.
  3. Make the information relevant. When Grandma had cataract surgery, optics and anatomy of the eye suddenly became fascinating to my boys.
  4. Provide enough reference tools. Maps, dictionaries, and encyclopedias should be handy when you need them. Even a good high school or college textbook can be used as a reference for looking up pertinent questions: “Mama, what do crawdads eat?” We found the answer in an old college zoology book bought at a yard sale. But then the cat ate the crawdad, so we found out what a cat would eat…

Think of this kind of education as building a wall of knowledge, with each fact a brick, and the mortar of experience holding it all together. The value of this kind of education is incalculable, and it won’t be forgotten as soon as summer arrives. Children who learn in this way know their stuff, and know that they know. They understand and can apply their knowledge, and this gives them self confidence and the assurance that they can do anything they set their hearts on.