A child prodigy brings to mind a child with an
extraordinary ability that is not usually found in a
young child. Encarta identified those historical
figures that as children were so described. The
abilities these individuals had ranged from being able
to read at an early age, having exceptional ability in
music, art, mathematics, languages and a specific
sporting ability. Many of the personalities in the
Encarta listings were described as precocious
Long Term Impact
There have been factual as well as fictional
stories and films about such children and the way
adults treated them. In fictional accounts the child
prodigy's talents are such that parents encourage them
to perform in public. Oddly, the story develops into a
scenario in which the child prodigy has to sacrifice
childish activities in the pursuit of musical
excellence. A question I often ask is that if these
children are so ahead why must there be so much
practice. I'm no musician and I can't even whistle in
tune. If this did not happen then there would be no
story. The plot thickens.
Over practicing at the expense of social interaction
makes a very good film with the audience wanting to
knock some sense into the parents who are being nasty
to a vulnerable gifted child. Fortunately as the story progresses the child rebels and the final outcome is that the child is allowed to relax and do activities associated with his age and physical and emotional development.
These are historical and story book child prodigies.
Having taught several highly gifted children, the
first thing I can say is that they bear little
resemblance to some of the historical prodigies and
the characters that inhabit story books. My first
lesson was to learn that these were kids with extraordinary abilities. They had lots of childish needs
which were not always academic ones but needed to be
developed as well as needs as gifted children.
The lesson was learnt at a summer camp. The camp
program had visiting experts who came to talk to the
kids about their sphere of expert knowledge. These
were great lectures but one day I was with a group of
kids walking to a candy store. We passed some
blackberry bushes growing wild. The kids wanted to
know what they were. I said that the fruit could be
eaten. I ate one to prove the point. Then I told them
about blackberry collecting and making a pie with them afterwards. Suddenly eyes shone with wonderment. After lunch the camp director came to me and explained that the children wanted to go on a blackberry hunt and I was in charge. We had a wonderful afternoon collecting the berries. We ate as many as we collected, arrived back in camp, and we made the blackberry pies for dinner that night.
None of my students wore glasses. They all had A1 vision.
Not all of them read books all the time. They gathered information from a variety of sources. This includes books, newspapers, radio, TV, films and from listening to others with more knowledge than they had.
All of them had at least one passion that they
followed. If it was sports they sought every
opportunity to play the game. They had a vast general
knowledge of the game and if it was football, they
would have a particular specialized knowledge of the
team they followed.
I have always found it very rewarding to have an
artist prodigy in the classroom. Every day is a
surprise because the chalkboard is likely to contain interesting sketches. It might be 'horses' one day and 'racing cars' the next. When the relationship is well established there can be a cartoon sketch of oneself. This I found amusing. On another occasion a pupil brought me a sketch she had drawn of me while I was teaching. Then was another guy who drew and painted the face of a Tiger. He left the area and brought a farewell gift: a framed miniature impressionist painting of his garden. This is on my library wall and is a reminder of a great kid all these years later. The sad thing about the chalkboard drawings was that they lasted a moment before they were removed so the day's lessons could begin. If only I'd have thought to take a photograph!
At the moment I'm working in a school that teaches
languages. I was surprised to discover that two of my
pupils are prodigies. Not only can they speak their
mother tongue but they can also speak one other
language fluently. They are learning English. One
pupil has also volunteered to learn French as well.
Another 8 year old is, in his spare time at home,
teaching himself German. Ten months ago the pupils
could hardly speak English. Now they can read, speak
and write it. They have made phenomenal progress far
beyond what I would have expected based on past
experience. One can also play the piano to an
It seems that almost what ever these children do is
successful. A new piece of work will be looked at
carefully before they proceed. They will ask questions
and immediately call for clarification if something
has not been fully understood. I once felt very
uncomfortable when I said to one of my prodigies to
explain the lesson to the class. He did and I was
taken aback with the ease in which he accepted the
challenge. The kids enjoyed the change of teacher
though and they volunteered to tell the class about
Some of the children are gifted musicians and this is
the case for one boy I teach. He can play the piano at
an exceptional level. What he does not like is to play
in front of an audience. However, I respect his
decision and have not talked him into doing this.
He sits back and lets kids with less talent play. He
said that “Music is my hobby and I'm not sure I want
to show off to people." He does not mind being in a
choir so long as he is not the focus of attention.
One guy I taught was great with computers. He was
amused at my ability and listened to what I had to
explain and then showed me other ways to do the same
thing. Oh well you live and learn!
I have found in sports that they have excellent hand
and eye coordination. They enjoy many different
games too. They play to a high standard and have a
natural understanding of the game and tactics that
others have to spend long hours of training to
These kids have singleness of purpose. They get an
idea and they pursue it to the end. One kid wanted to
make a talking book. He realized that the tape player
could also record as well as play. He came to me and
asked could he take the machine out of the library
into a quiet room. I did not fully understand why, but
could see that there was something he wanted to do. I
got the librarian's permission. It was then that the
pupil took out of his bag a blank tape and proceeded
to make the talking book. The fact that he had the
tape already with him was evidence that he had been
planning to do this for a day or so.
Clothes these kids wear is fashionable. They have the
latest fashions just like their peers and get just as
scruffy in their play. Some have a sense of the
occasion and wear the right clothes for the activity
they are doing, others are too interested in the
activity to bother about what they are wearing and
appear to have little dress sense.
Literature would have us believe that a prodigy's
skills and high achievement set them apart from their
peers. Yes it does. I have read the book Able Misfits
and the problems of mixing in with their peers is an
important theme throughout the case studies. It is not
my experience and in my teaching I have encountered
few prodigies with this problem. It has been my
experience that these kids know how to interact with
their peers. They have a best friend and lots of other
friends that they get along well with. It is not always
love and friendship. There are occasions when they
fight. This is usually when an argument has got out of
hand or the rules of the game have been violated. What
ever the cause the end result is a fist fight and while
not condoning a fight it is clear these pupils are no
“softies” and have given a good account of themselves.
After the battle camaraderie returns and they go off into
the sunset best buddies with the guy who they were
knocking the stuffing out of or who moments before,
was doing the same to them. At other times they have a
coolness that allows them to fend off an argument
before it becomes conflict. I once saw this happen and
all it took was a few calm words from the prodigy to
his friend, who's intense emotion of the moment was
dissipated, and his raging anger was calmed as if it
was the easiest thing in the world.
I have encountered those with dyslexia. This
linguistic difficulty was the cause of their
frustration and held their development back until
special teaching methods aided their progress.
To summarize my experience of child prodigies it would
seem that they come in all shapes and sizes. They have
been girls and boys. None wore glasses. Neither have
they been the social outcasts that books suggest.
Rather they have an ability to fit in with wider ages
than just their peer group. Like us all they need the opportunity to be with their own age group. They also need to be with children like themselves as well as having a need to interact with older children and adults. Some have unexpected learning difficulties despite extraordinary skill in one area. They also have many interests and pursue them to a deeper level of understanding. Einstein was the worst student in his math class and was unable to remember his multiplication tables to the frustration of his teachers. My kids do not fail here but understanding fractions can be troublesome. Thank goodness!
Permission to reprint this article was granted by the author, William Fergusson.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.