I don’t know if I have ever met a child who wasn’t innately curious—about almost everything. Every millisecond is an opportunity for them to learn something, and they will usually let you know this with their questions, inquisitive (and sometimes incredulous) facial expressions, or the way they sprint or lean in toward something like it’s the most singularly fascinating thing that has ever existed. They want to know why the paint is powder and how it turns into liquid paint. They want to know why the surfboard stays on top of the water. They want to find out how soft or prickly the fur is on that animal. They want to know why, when they throw a leaf or a rock into the water, one will float and the other will sink. They just want to know. It is an innately human quality that, when nurtured, catapults us through life with a beginner’s mind—open to a deep inquiry about the magic that is all around us.
Paying attention to their curiosities and interests is at the heart of the approach that my husband, Souleye, and I take as we teach and guide and support our son, Ever. Ours is a child-led and caregiver-supported approach to education that rests firmly on having faith and trust in children’s natural impulses to learn. By some, it has been labeled as an “unschooling” approach. I am fine with this, as long as the label doesn’t reduce or stymie the freedom and aliveness that this approach leaves room for, nor connote that there is a lack of containment, guidance, or limit-setting, for neither would be accurate.
Although the idea of child-led learning can be misinterpreted as being an approach that puts the child in charge of decisions that might be beyond their capacity, one that “parentifies” a child, the actual practice of it is deeply honoring of a child’s developmental capacities and boundaries. It invites parents, teachers, and caregivers to notice the magnetic pull of a child’s interests and provide gentle guidance, instruction, and affirmation in the direction of a child’s growth and learning. It honors their freedom, their wildness, their unique styles and paces of learning, as well as their temperament and their natural and unique gifts. It holds a safe space that offers appropriate limit-setting while honoring and trusting their natural impulses.
For guidance in educating Ever, we have gained a world of inspiration and support from Howard Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Dr Gardner is a Harvard professor and author of 30 books, including The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach. His research dismantles the idea that there is a single human intelligence that can be assessed with the right tests and measures. Originally identifying seven intelligences, his theory has evolved to include nine, each of which can be nurtured individually and in myriad combinations. Although logical intelligence (the standard, reigning definition of intelligence) is beautifully accounted for in Dr. Gardner’s model, so too are the visual, verbal, musical, physical, natural, spiritual, and relational intelligences—the relational intelligences being interpersonal (social, “with other”) and intrapersonal (internal and interior intelligences, as I call them; aka “within” or “with self”).
In addition to being gorgeous human aptitudes and gifts, the intelligences also represent nine styles of learning—each one allowing us to know the world more intimately. What follows is a snapshot of each of the nine, along with a few examples of how my husband and I utilize them as educational perspectives and references.
When I hear someone say, “That person is so smart,” I often ask, “Smart how?” There are so many types of smart! Since logical intelligence, which I sometimes refer to as intellectual intelligence, is the default definition, let’s start here.
Logical-mathematical intelligence includes aptitudes like counting the number of oranges in the bowl or counting to twenty-two when you’re playing hide-and-go-seek. It’s the ability to think and to reason. It has, as its basis, reason and rationality. It’s also the ability to see patterns and to recognize the relationship between people and things—including making the crucial cause-and-effect connection. Beyond the math, cause and effect speaks to the ability to “put two and two together.” If we put this string into this loop and attach it around this way, then it will stay sturdy. But if we don’t put it through the loophole, the whole structure will be too loose and may fall down.
I see cause and effect as such a neutral way to teach children about “morality,” especially as it relates to socialization. For example, I had a conversation with Ever where I said, “If I scowl or growl at and don’t use words with somebody, the effect might be that they might not want to be near me. That might cause them to sit at another table where the person sitting next to them might talk with them instead.” So it offers a neutral way to help a child make the connection between what they do and how another person reacts without shame or judgment. It also teaches them that things are not innately “right” or “wrong,” objectively—more that they work or don’t work in a given context, depending on the goal of a particular moment. I often explain context to Ever and his sweet friends in this way: On a football field, slapping your teammate’s behind after winning the Super Bowl would be considered appropriate. Even fun, or funny. Doing so while standing in a bank line with a stranger would be considered inappropriate and boundary-violating, and could create a great deal of consequence. The slapping is neutral; the context gives it its defined level of appropriateness: i.e., whether it “works” or “doesn’t work.” It takes the shame entirely out of the conversation and focuses entirely on whether the behavior or action works in a given context, not on the impulse (every impulse is natural) or the person’s core being itself. This separation of the person’s BEING and the person’s BEHAVIOR makes a world of difference in their self-perception and self-esteem levels, which affect every single aspect of their life.
One of the ways that looking through the lens of logic is helpful for me is to discern which mode my son and I are in together—whether we’re in teaching mode or storytelling mode, for example. Is our conversation fantastical and imagination-based right now, or is he really wanting to learn how something works and relying on my evidencing logic? Is he in a place where predictability or having something make sense will help to regulate him (soothe and calm him)? Or does he need me to ride the magic carpet with him? My goal is to be super-attuned to which mode we’re in, because sometimes Ever wants me to go with him into the realm of the fantastical, and sometimes he wants me to show him that, in fact, that IS pretend, and in so doing, it allows him to feel grounded, to feel secure that life can “make sense,” and that his perceptions are accurate. It is in those moments that he is indeed craving the predictability of my being logical. And in others, he is relying on my suspending logical disbelief and going with the flow. A matter of parental attunement and discernment is required in every moment! Phew! (It might be obvious, but we don’t always get this one “right.” 😉 Trial and error (where we quickly repair by apologizing) is our friend ☺.
Although logic has had to bear the pressure of being the one globally agreed upon and exalted intelligence, discovering it in relationship to all of the other intelligences will put it into a refreshing new perspective.
Intrapersonal intelligence lets a child know that there is such thing as interiority, that they have access to a colorful and informative inner world. While this is native ground for the highly-sensitive child, for those who are not quite as riveted by the inner life, nurturing a sense of self-inquiry out of the gate is still so important for them as they grow into adulthood. Within is where they will access their wisdom, their intuition, and their answers at the many junctures along life’s journey that they will find themselves at. Whether it’s how to resolve a conflict with a partner, which job to take, which lease to sign on the dotted line for, etc., this muscle of intrapersonal intelligence best not be reserved for the Thoreau’s-in-the-making—but for all of us, at large, who can benefit on a daily basis from being able to go within when that is the best place to find answers or move through feelings that are blocking us.
I’m a fan of almost rendering it commonplace to look within. One simple way to do this is to invite the child to tune in and sense what’s happening INSIDE with questions like: Where is there a sensation in your body? If you are feeling any given feeling, like anger, what does the anger FEEL like in your body? If you can, locate where it is in your body (“Is your throat tight?” or “Is it a burning in your stomach?” or “Does it feel hot or cold?” or “If it was a color, what color would it be?” etc.). What part of you is scared right now? Is there another part of you that is excited? This inquiry and defining-the-sensation allows for more agency and response-able-ility with their emotions and thoughts and sensations within. It’s also a chance to mark for the little ones that it is completely understandable that they may have multiple feelings and perspectives at the same time. They might be excited to go to the science museum, but they might also be a little tentative, thinking they’ll get bored. Or they might be scared to jump off that diving board, but they might also be quite thrilled at the thought. Honoring and nurturing and NAMING each feeling (a decidedly intrapersonal intelligence) can allow us some distance from the feeling, some objectivity, allowing us to move forward in life, even in the face of abject fear (unless that fear has a great message of “stopping” contained in it ☺).
I know that I’ve never had a day in my life where I felt one emotion and none other. Singular feelings are rare for me, although certainly they appear, like terror if I’m slamming on the breaks when a deer darts in front of the car. But usually there is a potpourri of feelings going on at any given time. So the care and feeding of intrapersonal intelligence nurtures the idea that there can be room made for these multiple feelings going on at the same time.
I love having this be an ordinary conversation, knowing that Ever learns from seeing what I do with the mix of emotions that move through me at any given time. Recently, Souleye and I were sitting next to Ever on the couch. I was on my laptop and they were both on their iPads—an adorable and horrifyingly modern sight, snuggled up together on their electronic devices ☺ (yes, we limit screen time, don’t worry). At one point, I was trying to get on the Internet and my computer was malfunctioning. I felt one of those little inner tremors of frustration bordering on anger. Rather than sublimating my anger, I wanted to show Ever that frustration is perfectly human. Clenching my fists and my jaw, I closed my eyes and then kind of shook. I said, “Mommy is feeling anger right now, haha. Look at how I let this anger move through my body, sweet boy.” As he looked at me, I made this little squealy-angry noise that I knew wouldn’t be scary to him, and he giggled.
As a child walks through the tasks of the different stages of development, encouraging the relationship with their interior life never stops being of paramount importance. It’s the wellspring of their intuition, self-knowledge-ergo-confidence, wisdom, empowerment, and more.
Interpersonal intelligence guides our relationship with others. It’s about skillfulness around empathy, understanding, and connection. And ultimately, it is also about etiquette and well-placed grace, as in: straight up manners. In raising our children, it is sharing the idea of win-win or no deal. If Ever is upset, for example, I attempt to support him to express his feelings without throwing a toy at someone’s face.
“Honey, I know throwing a bat feels so good and even fun and relieving to do! When you throw the bat in someone’s direction, though, you’re sending the message that you don’t like them; that you are ok with being divided or disconnected or that you are ok hurting them. Is that the message you want to send, sweet boy?”
“No, Mommy, it isn’t,” he said.
“If you’re feeling angry, you can let them and me know you’re feeling angry, and I can help you express a “no” or “stop” in a way that will make sense to them, and you can even let that powerful energy course through your sweet body, but without throwing something at another person or hitting them. There are plenty of pillows here to throw around, and I can throw some with you if the energy gets too much in your body. Sound good?”
Sometimes this works, and of course, sometimes it just doesn’t. But in general, I see his sweet self calm from feeling understood by me—aka validated and empathized with—while also giving him guidance about how to create harmony with two very different perspectives going on at once. It also shows him that his behavior affects people around him (which in our narcissistically wounded society is so often overlooked). I wish I had been taught this one early on, it might have saved me from many dysfunctional relating moments in my adult life!
Another aspect of fostering interpersonal intelligence has to do with social grace in written communication. Ever and I were about to write a message to a friend who was picking things up for us on the way over to our house. He was dictating the email and started off with: “Get me the Angry Bird…” And so I said, “When we reach out to people, it’s always nice to connect first, no matter what—whether it’s in writing or in person. Like if you need help from someone at the airport or you’re talking with a maitre d’ at a restaurant—or anytime you see anyone—it’s always nice to connect first and then everything else is second.”
His sweet little face lit up with understanding, and we continued our note: “Hi there Stephan, I hope you had a lovely night. How are you doing? I am wondering if you could purchase some tiny Angry Birds on your way over…”
Verbal-linguistic intelligence is centered on using words effectively. In spoken and written form, we use our words to express, convey, and connect. I also see words as something to honor, to play with, and to sometimes use for the pushing of linguistic boundaries themselves.
Whether employed consciously or unconsciously, I have a great love of malapropisms and using words that don’t necessarily exist yet. I enjoy using words like paint—to articulate something that might be mysterious or hard to define, or just for the fun of it, without being precious. Although we have relied on the poets, songwriters, and authors of fiction and nonfiction to distill, concretize, and breathe life into words, we can all do it. The next email or text you send, the next voice message you leave, are all opportunities to nurture this intelligence.
With our children, making up stories together, reading, playing word games are some of the activities that can cultivate linguistic intelligence. In our home, music and poetry are highly featured. Souleye and Ever rap together sometimes, and I occasionally jump in, like a stream-of-consciousness tag team. Ever will write three verses, and then Souleye goes into it, and then I go into it. We take turns being writer, rapper, and listener. It’s a huge amount of fun for us.
Being aware of one’s environment is a defining characteristic of visual-spatial intelligence. Architects, engineers, interior designers, graphic designers, photographers, and even race car drivers are examples of people who usually have a highly developed aptitude in this way. From doctors to dentists to gardeners, there are so many different environments that require this intelligence. Many of the arts demand spatial intelligence, from ink drawing to dance. A gorgeous modern dance performance requires a sense of where you are in space. So, too, with sports. If you’re a basketball player, there is a thousand percent guarantee that you have the spatial intelligence to track that ball, the others players, and yourself around the court. And in the everyday, there are many opportunities to flex this muscle, from parallel parking to figuring out the best spot for the new bookshelf you just bought.
With my son, drawing, painting, building worlds with his toys, playing a video game—all of these support his relationship to space and environment in different ways. I also love for him to have space to simply daydream, which is another aspect of visual intelligence—having room to visually roam and let our imagination come alive in pictures and images and colors.
Musical intelligence is, perhaps not surprisingly, one of my faves. I think that often, but not always, musical intelligence can be found in the body, where you have a musical sensibility in your bones. When musical intelligence is prominent for someone, there is often a sensitivity to sounds, rhythms, and harmonics, and not just as they relate to music. For example, a person can be sensitive to loud or cacophonous sounds or to situations that feel energetically disharmonious.
Fostering musical intelligence in children can be incredibly fun, both one-on-one and with groups. From listening to or making your own, music is unrivaled for evoking and expressing emotion and connecting people to themselves and others and to spirit. Like the write-on-the-spot stream-of-consciousness sessions my family and I conjure together, one of the best ways to nurture this relationship with sound and rhythm is to create music together. So, even if the only instruments you have access to in a moment are your voices and the clap of hands, or a spoon from your kitchen, you have everything you need.
I usually refer to bodily-kinesthetic intelligence as physical intelligence. Having a heightened awareness of the physical body is the gift of this intelligence. We see it in dancers, athletes, yoga teachers, massage therapists, sometimes (not always) in the medical community, and even potters who throw clay on a wheel. These are a few examples of people who communicate through and with the body. There is a deep relationship to touch and feel, and an innate tuning in to the body. Do I feel strong? Depleted? Focused and awake? At-the-ready? How attuned am I to my rhythms and changes in my body as I grow and age? Our physical intelligence lets us know. In general, ways to support the growth of physical intelligence are hands-on learning and physical activities of all kinds.
At the most fundamental level, physical intelligence is about having an understanding of the body. It’s knowing where your liver and gall-bladder are located. It’s knowing where your heart valves are; where your uterus and ovaries are. At home, we have anatomy cards that show every muscle, every tendon, every organ and organ system. There are cards for the endocrine system, the digestive system, the reproductive system—all of it.
As best as we can, when we’re playing with these cards with Ever, we approach the different parts of the body in a neutral way so that none are perceived as being more or less important—although some body parts are explained as sacred and worthy of guarding with a shame-free privacy. Guiding a child through the stages of development with openness and freedom and a sense of sanctity regarding their own bodies is a beautiful and intricate journey. And I learn along with him, because I was under-educated in the physical realms as a kid, and it is illuminating to learn at the same time as he does 🙂.
Encouraging naturalist intelligence in children is infinitely fun and rewarding. Since day one, Souleye has been incredible with Ever when it comes to nurturing his connection with the earth. Together they plant things in our garden and watch them grow. Not long ago, we got these magical seeds from a friend that you throw into the air and when they land, they grow into little snap pea-shaped pods that attract butterflies. Now we can’t wait for the butterflies to come! Also, making things from natural elements, whether it’s making a meal together from the garden or creating an art piece out of twigs and rocks, is a way to support the merging of the physical and natural intelligences. Another way would be through exposure to natural healing modalities, like Chinese medicine and Ayurveda and shamanism (which blend naturalist intelligence with spiritual intelligence).
For us as a family, it’s really important to get outside a lot. To go barefoot as often as possible. To feel the grass, dirt, mud, and sand under our feet. To see the cycles of life as they are happening. To talk about what happens to the leaves on the trees in winter, why the tides raise and lower, and how clouds are formed.
Without vilifying anyone, we foster the sweet little environmental activist in our son, talking about what warrants being guarded—the places, the plants, the animals, the ocean, and our connection with all of those things. We talk about what it means to recycle and compost and why we do it; why we care about a water shortage; why we buy things from countries where there is fair trade; what the effect of using clean products is, etc. While we are far from perfect in this regard, the conversation about such topics evolves for all of us in real time.
I love that Dr. Gardner added spiritual intelligence to the palette. It’s foundational in our home. Every morning and night, at least, I sit at my altar for a while, as does Souleye. Ever often joins us. He’ll sit on my lap and together we’ll light candles and pray. He sends loving messages out to his best friends, to his grandmas and grandpas, and to his cousins; to “people around the whole planet and galaxy,” as he often likes to say.
Life and nature offer so many opportunities for introducing ritual and marking rights of passage. Like when the moon is full, Ever and I sit together were we can see it, and we talk about how grateful we are, sending messages out to the planet. Acknowledging the solstices, season changes, day-into-night transitions—it’s all a gentle watering of the seed of awareness in him that although our lifestyles can often keep us a little too far from the redwood trees, and although we are all very different and unique, we are also inextricably and profoundly connected with each other and the planet.
Blending the intelligences
As you’ve read through this overview of the nine intelligences, you may have identified with many of the overt and subtle aspects of them. And there is almost always an overlapping and convergence of complementary intelligences. For example, the landscaper is blending her naturalist intelligence and visual-spatial intelligence with her bodily (physical) intelligence. The father conjuring a bedtime story for his child that features a purple elephant having a conversation with a tiny frog is blending visual-spatial intelligence with interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. When I’m writing a song, often I sense it being channeled through me, coming from spirit. In that way, I can see that I’m tapping into at least five of the intelligences: musical, verbal, intrapersonal, and spiritual—and then relying on mathematical-logical to actually get the song produced and done. If you’re nurturing the growth and learning of a child, having this integrative perspective can greatly enrich your experience together.
Multiplicity invites wholeness
Nurturing the multiple intelligences in us very naturally nurtures the masculine and feminine qualities of life. Holding all of the intelligences in high regard shifts the focus from being heavily weighted on the side of industriousness and productivity (certainly important within a larger context) to welcoming and embracing the emotional, the spiritual, the ephemeral. In this way, nurturing each intelligence honors both the masculine and feminine. This excites me because I so believe that the feminine qualities, being upheld and supported by the powerful masculine, have the ability to heal the wounds and plights of the world.
In a world that suffers horribly from the impact of patriarchal thinking (which is often perpetuated by women, too), I always want to err on the side of gender balancing and egalitarianism. So my husband and I attempt to lead by example by having a roughly 50/50 gender split in how we speak about people and things. Talking about a tree, we’ll say, “Look at how beautiful she is.” Pointing out a seal in the ocean, we might say, “He’s adorable!” We attempt to make sure that whether we’re talking about roles or activities or energies, we balance it out as we’re educating and guiding Ever in the natural course of any given day. Certainly there are some elements of gender identification that are important for his personal development, and they get nurtured as well, but in general I will always lean toward feminine-upheld-by-the-masculine egalitarianism, and wholeness—where everyone and everything HOLISTICALLY wins.