Intelligence at Play

I’ve a young cousin called Isaac. He’s a special boy with special needs. It was clear from an early age that he was developing differently from other children, not talking by his first or second year. His speech arrived slowly, as did medical conclusions as to the nature of the delayed development.

But conclude they did, ‘scoring’ him a meagre 2 out of 40 points in their psychometric test. Sat opposite an unfamiliar person in a strange room, Isaac had failed to perform or respond correctly during the evaluation.

Isaac came to our house just afterward with his Mum and Granny, who were both understandably upset by the verdict.

Luckily, little Isaac was oblivious to the fantastical word and number games the adults were attempting to make him play as part of their tests, and were now discussing.

He was a little shy to perform or respond to me at first, but he quickly warmed up after I’d given him a couple of nudges and run off in the other direction, initiating a game better suited to a four year old boy with special needs, without the pressure and words and numbers.

I am applying some pressure, though, wrestling with Isaac, chasing and tackling him to the ground, then running off in the other direction. I run slowly, allowing him to catch up with me, which he does, taking me to the ground.

You learn a lot about people when you play with them. We all know someone who cannot suffer losing, who plays a little too hard; flipping the monopoly board or going in studs-up for a tackle. Bad losers are usually the bad winners, too. People get caught up in the words and numbers game: words complaining, blaming, bragging; focusing on the number of goals or points.

Words and numbers are great things, and we should all learn to use them to the best of our ability. But the most valuable experiences in life cannot be adequately experienced with words or numbers.

Isaac wrestles me to the ground, both of us giggling, his eyes laughing into mine. He punches with enough force for me to feel them, but pulls his punches enough so as not to hurt me. He’s careful not to catch my face. I throw him off of me, play-punching and trash-talking him, his laugh convulsive and catching.

Playfighting with kids this age and older, it’s not unusual to take a poke to the eye or kick to the crotch, either by accident or excitement. Playfighting’s complex, requiring intelligence. It is not a words and numbers game; that type of intelligence doesn’t figure. But without words and numbers Isaac was coordinated, unpredictable, aggressive, considerate, even caring—all at once, yet in just the right proportions. I’ve played with kids twice this age with impressive verbal intelligence, but they lack the intelligence to play properly.

Words and numbers, I said, we should all try to learn and use to the best of our ability; their effective use connects and empowers and enriches people and societies. Therefore they carry a social and educational premium, and justifiably so. This fact can mislead, making one think words and numbers are all-important or most important in life. Sure, word and number intelligence can and sometimes should be tested to determine whether someone needs special support. But what this tests is a certain band of intelligence useful for playing specific social games, and not necessarily the most important ones.

These social games Isaac won’t excel at. He’s not likely to chair board meetings or master calculus. The blessed boy won’t care. Let the adults worry about word and number games, Isaac will be playing other more important and interesting games, and by being caring and considerate he will play them better than many of us.

Yes, special needs, when playing certain games.

Truer just to say, Isaac is special.

I hope you enjoyed the first of many articles to come on this blog.

You may read the first of many interviews to come on this blog here.

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