How Nonsense Can Be a Learning Experience
“No,” I replied. “I've never seen a mango eating a peach, but it would probably be delicious.”
“Have you ever seen a... um... pear riding a tree?”
Kids say the craziest things. Teachers and parents sometimes just have to play along with the nonsense. As my son's wordplay continued, block after block, I was thinking it was just some chatter I had to tolerate while hanging out with a five-year-old.
Then it hit me: he was building sentences.
Turning a Game into a Lesson
My son is growing up bilingual and is an early reader, so I'm rarely surprised by what he says or how he thinks. But on that day, I could almost see the sentences being diagramed. Without thinking about it, he was changing the subject, object and verb. He was adjusting prepositions and pronouns when needed. He had created his own grammar exercise and was giggling about it.
I decided I had better harness this.
“Have you ever seen a fish flying a plane?”
“No,” I replied. “But I've seen a pilot flying a plane.”
I countered every bit of craziness with a sentence that made more sense. When he actually asked me a question that was possible and logical, I replied with a nonsensical combination of nouns and verbs. I received laughter in return.
“Have you ever seen a monkey eating a banana?”
“Yes, but I've never seen a monkey fishing with a banana.”
Taking this to the Classroom
The central point of this exercise is that it doesn't feel like studying, but it is. With kindergarten and early elementary students, this is goofy verbal play. Students will be laughing, using their imaginations and stretching their grammar muscles involuntarily.
You can start this game with one student posing a question to another. “Have you ever seen a _____ _____-ing a _____?” The sentence should be nonsensical and impossible. The wackiest choices should be rewarded.
The next student must keep two of the three major parts of the sentence (subject, object or verb) and add a new third piece. Add each question to the board. If your students are writing, they can put them up there themselves. Watch the silly string of sentences get further and further out there.
Un-goofying the Goofy
Level two of this game involves fixing the impossible. One student proposes a ludicrous situation. The next one modifies the sentence as little as possible to make it plausible.
“Have you ever seen a taxi call a person?”
“No, but I've seen a person call a taxi.”
The exercise could easily be done in reverse, with the first student making a logical statement and the second taking the same words to make something silly. The lesson for the students is that how you place words in a sentence is just as important as the words you choose.
Tiny but Powerful
Next, show your students how changing a little bitty preposition can make a huge difference.
“Have you ever seen a wolf howling at the moon?”
“Yes, but I've never seen a wolf howling on the moon.”
Let your students take logical sentences and flip them upside-down by changing prepositions. Take the opportunity to review above, behind, next to and all the rest with objects in the classroom.
Somehow, It Makes Sense
Now it is time to stretch your students' imaginations. Even the most far-out statement can be logical under the right circumstances.
Fill one hat with nouns and another with verbs. Have each student draw two nouns and one verb. Have them build an illogical sentence then find some way for it all to make sense.
“Have you ever seen a bear washing a flea?”
“Yes. Giant space fleas had just invaded the planet. When they arrived on Earth, they were covered with asteroid dust and comet goo. The bear decided he'd better be nice to the invaders, so he gave the giant space flea a bath.”
If your students are writing, have them compose a paragraph or a page. You could turn this into an art project and ask them to draw the explanation. One by one, they can present in front of the class.
Nothing is Ridiculous
We know a lot is going on inside those little brains. Even though it may not make adult logic, what they say and think has a purpose. By paying attention, we can turn every opportunity into a learning experience. Maybe they won't even realize they are being taught. If it is fun, education should be painless.