Skip to content

The Earnheardts | Learn by doing

There is a certain subset of the population that has to “do” things. I never thought much about this until the pandemic forced me to live in a house with a 7-year-old who can’t stop moving through the house, touching everything that crosses his path. Oz is a doer. 
The Earnheardts: Clockwise from top: Mary Beth, Katie, Sadie, Adam, Ozzie, and Ella.

There is a certain subset of the population that has to “do” things. Doers are busy bodies, in a constant state of motion, with seemingly boundless energy. 

Doers are frustrated when their options are limited. I never thought much about this (I’m only about 30 percent doer) until the pandemic forced me to live in a house with a 7-year-old (i.e., our son, Oz) who can’t stop moving through the house, touching everything that crosses his path. 

Oz is a doer. 

One day, as I was making coffee, he insisted on putting creamer into the cup and stirring it. This is not unusual kitchen behavior. He often begs for things to cut up with a butter knife (with dreams of an upgrade to the meat cleaver), ingredients to mix, sauces and soups to stir. As the main cook in the family, these are routine and boring jobs to me. But to Oz, each task is a mini adventure and a chance to make mild mischief.

He’s also afflicted with, what we call in the biz, sad listening ears. He often leaps into an activity and, when told to stop, won’t do so until physically forced or bribed with sweets. At times, it’s something as simple as sliding across newly mopped floors in slippery socks. At other times, it’s a bit more destructive, like picking up a power drill and applying a drillbit to the nearest surface. 

After all, making holes is fun. Drilling holes with a power tool is exhilarating.

All of this “doing” can be annoying. Oz hasn’t quite learned how his actions can cause the rest of us grief and expense. He doesn’t see the consequences of the potential danger he runs toward. He can’t see them because he’s not a bit risk-averse. This is bad during normal times. It’s worse during a pandemic.

Truth be told, I don’t want him to worry about his safety all of the time. I want him to be daring and to take chances. His constant motion and endless curiosity are endearing. Taking care of him causes me to see the world through his eyes, and his world contains a lot more magic than mine. I want the life he lives to feel complete, but exploring the world in books and other media, while good for some people, just won’t cut it for Oz.

I’ve seen a lot of social media posts that acknowledge the pandemic is good for introverts and bad for extroverts. This distinction is clear to pretty much everyone for obvious reasons (e.g., social distancing, working alone, writing instead of talking). But I don’t see much research on how frustrating these times must be for those who learn by doing (and the people who love them). It’s likely that those with an insatiable need to engage their minds through physical activity are struggling right now. 

Philosopher John Dewey explored this concept and said, "I believe that the school must represent present life — life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood or on the playground." 

For a school to be all things to all kids was hard before the pandemic. Moving to blended learning with a large online component has made it even harder. It seems unrealistic for us to expect schools to provide “real and vital” representations of present life when kids are trying to navigate Google classrooms and Zoom meetings. It’s not that Google and Zoom aren’t real and vital, it’s that there’s a lot more to life and, well, these environments are stagnate spaces for doers.

During the early days of the pandemic, Adam, the girls and I all fought against Oz’s nature (except for our 10-year-old Sadie; she’s got the patience of a saint when it comes to the antics of her younger brother). But, as the pandemic wears on, we’ve begun to stop fighting our little doer. 

I know some strict disciplinarians could probably handle him better than we do. My Dad would have certainly ‘tanned his hide.’ But this is not our style, even when he’s destructive. Instead, we try to explain why we’re upset and teach him to do better. We’ve put down the remotes and devices and started to meet him where he is. 

Turns out, it’s kind of fun.

Adam has given us all the gift of taking the doer out of the house for day-long fishing trips. Adam and Oz return home with stories of their adventures, of the fish they caught, and of the nature they observe. Most days are catch-and-release. The fish may not be keepers, but the stories and experiences are big enough to last a lifetime. The stories are made possible by being outside, by exploring things that you can’t do with a smartphone. 

After a solid day of adventuring with Dad, Oz is content to relax for a bit.

I’ve accepted that I now have a tiny sous chef who is prone to throwing mini-tantrums (from what I’ve seen on Top Chef, seems about right) when he misses a chance to flip a pancake or turn down the gas on the stovetop. Sure, he may not be Gordon Ramsay yet, but he’s got the language down pat.

These real and vital experiences seem to be filling Oz’s need for adventure. Last week I took Sadie and Oz with me when I joined fellow YSU faculty on the picket line. Turns out the picket line is a good place for a doer. He asked a million questions. He twirled a sign, ate free pizza and yelled “Thank you!” to passing cars who honked in support of our strike. 

For him, all of these experiences make the pandemic lockdown bearable. For us, the experiences keep us from sitting around, gathering dust and weight. 

Like the rest of us, our little doer is finding his way through the pandemic, exploring and inventing with each new day, with as many tactile experiences his brain (and our wallets and sanity) can handle. 

Also, like the rest of us, he’ll come out a little stronger and smarter for it, with an endless library of stories to tell his friends and future Earnheardts.

Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor in the Anderson Program in Journalism at Youngstown State University where she advises student media. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.