Some days, our kids start up fast. They’re ready to go at 8AM – or before – and Kathy and I find them hard at work before we’re through the first cup of coffee of the day. (Don’t start throwing things; these are pretty rare moments.)

Other days, most days, they start up slow – but eventually, they do start. We can recognize these mornings fairly quickly by now. They usually follow, sleepy-eyed and yawning, on the heels of a late night with a good book. I’ve learned not to approve any Kindle Store book-buying requests by E or H after 6PM. I’m just asking for it the next morning.

But other mornings, they don’t start up at all. Their ‘loading’ progress bar on the morning boot seems stuck at around 19%, and I’m wishing at those moments that I really could just unplug them and plug them back in. There’s no coaxing, no wheedling, no threatening. It’s just not happening. We’ve searched forever for the sure-fire, guaranteed way to get them moving on mornings like these. We tried it all. And then we ran across this.

(Quick detour: I’m stupid in love with data compression. I’m something of an Edward Tufte groupie. I love stuff like this, and this, and this. It pokes one of those shivery, whoo-hoo intensity areas I’ve got. Over the course of the last few months, I’ve been delighted to learn that my kids share that area, too.)

So we adopted ‘Lego Riddles’ as our hard-boot activity. We’ve got pretty minimal rules (in the spirit of the exercise). No more than a handful of blocks. Color and size of block should be significant (i.e. no saying ‘this should be blue’ – go find a blue block!) Everyone else gets told the broad category the riddle belongs to – song, movie, myth, etc.  Imagination starts firing from the moment the Legos get dragged out into our homeschooling area. The process gets them sensorily engaged, too, as they rummage through the ever-expanding tubs of Legos for just the right addition to their creations.

They started out pretty simply – A did the scene from Cars where Lightning McQueen goes skidding off the road into the cacti using nothing but red, blue and green bricks. H had two small bricks, one taller, one smaller, staring at a blue wall surface with a white, jagged line running through it. That took a minute before E started snapping her fingers and pointing at it and saying, “wait – wait – got it!” 1 E contributed a Zen masterpiece – a larger stack of grey blocks, next to a much shorter white-and-tan stack, and before them a brown brick stack with eight tiny brown bricks before it 2.

Then they were off and running. In the past month, they’ve done Orpheus and Eurydice, Iron Man, the Grinch, Indiana Jones, Medusa, Jack and the Beanstalk, Young Frankenstein, Perseus and the Sphinx, the Ring Fellowship, the fable of the crow and the water jug, Mr. Popper’s Penguins (amazing how much data can be packed into a black-orange-white sequence of bricks), and Rory guarding the Pandorica. It’s a seemingly never-ending fountain of creativity for them, and it draws on wildly distant and unrelated areas of the brain. I can see the neurons firing as they wander around each other’s creations, brows furrowing, and after minutes go by, the inevitable raised finger accompanied by “I know what it is. Just give me a minute.”

It was that cognitive wheel-whirling that utterly fascinated me. This is an exercise that brings a lot of processing power to its knees in our house, and there’s a lot of that brow-furrowing that goes on before the wheels glide to a stop and eyes open anime-wide with delight – “I’ve got it!” So, of course, my anthropological side, and my evolutionary neurology side in particular, just has to know what that’s all about. So off I went to look, in the nooks and crannies of evo-neuro lit.

Guess who I found hiding out there? Edward Tufte himself, who’s got a theory he calls “The Thinking Eye.” In short, it’s the idea that seeing an object triggers a whole set of ingrained scripts and evolutionary code in our brains, and sometimes, it’s beneficial to force ourselves out of those scripts and code libraries and just bring the great processing power of our minds to bear on the raw data of what we’re seeing, in real time. What Lego Riddles do is impart onto our optic nerves a highly condensed patterned image that is, at the same time, familiar and unfamiliar. We know it, but we don’t, because the scene before our “thinking eyes” has been stripped of all the cultural cues that ease our processing of it. It’s been reduced to an extreme minimalist version of itself. So, when I look at this scene – from the original Lego riddles – my “thinking eye” knows only of a larger white thing, apparently leading one-two-three-four-five-six-seven…oh, wait. Got it.  Even stripped of all but the most basic information, my “thinking eye” still saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But then there’s this one, which took me longer. 3 And this one, that – I’ll be honest – stumped me outright. 4

The longer I’ve worked with them on these stalled-boot mornings, the better their “thinking eyes” have become. (Mine, too.) But, more importantly, the more we’ve worked on these riddles, the quicker we’ve gotten into the positive, Flow-like working state I like to see them in for homeschooling. I’m starting to think that it’s not just an exercise for stalled-boot mornings, but rather the way we should all perhaps start the day  – “thinking eyes” opening slowly and gently, just as our waking eyes did just an hour or so before.


1 Amy and Doctor Who examining the crack in Amy’s wall

2 Gandalf and Bilbo encountering Radagast and his rabbits

3 Four Weddings and a Funeral

4 Reservoir Dogs


Dave Mayer posts regularly with his wife, Kathy, on Chasing Hollyfeld.


2 thoughts on “The Morning Boot, Brick by Brick

  1. How did I miss this with all the Doctor Who references?? Clearly, you are doing your job as parents! 😀 My daughter goes to public school and apparently, only two other kids in her 6th grade class know about The Doctor. All the rest of the parents are slackers. 😉

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