It was a lovely November morning at the lake. Together with Vivi, my co-teacher and friend, we lead Cocoplum Nature Play, a program of nature exploration and play for young children.
This particular morning the children (4 and 5) found a dead animal by "the little beach" we visit almost every time at Lake Ida. "Oh, it stinks!" says a girl. "Yeah, that means it has been here for a while" says another. "Well, good thing I have my mask on and cannot really smell it...", "but you see the flies around it!" exclaimed another child.
The cascade of questions and hypotheses started and very soon it had become a flood of rich ideas. Everyone had something to share, and everyone listened to each other. Little by little, the children found out that the dead animal was an iguana, and the cause of death was still to be determined: "maybe it fell from the branch above!" "That can't be! Iguanas are great climbers!" "Well, they freeze and fall when it's super cold!" "Yeah but frozen things break and don't look like this..." "Mmmm.. maybe the osprey got it and changed its mind, because she rather eat fish." "Why is the skin kinda blue or gray if iguanas are green?" "Something was eating it and left the tail. Why?" "Why are the eyes gone?" "Why is this piece of skin ripped and this one flipped?"
Vivi and I looked at each other with delight. We live for the "why? why? why?" The children's ideas were bouncing back and forth, as were their neurons, I am sure, making connections like crazy! They see, smell, hear, project, imagine, compare, contrast, argue, deduce, talk, negotiate meaning, take turns, question, research, verify, analyze, ponder, and experience the immense joy of thinking. What a treat!
In the meantime, the "birds" are flying in circles right above our heads. Vivi suggests we move the (now we think we know it is an) iguana and see what happens. The children know these birds are scavengers. They ask to "check the app" and I use the Merlin app to show them what I see: very likely these are turkey vultures (thank you Cornell University for a phenomenal tool!). Another flood of ideas happened! "How can they see the iguana from up there?" "Can they smell it?" "Can you imagine if something dead was yummy and something yummy was yuck?" "When are they going to come down to finish it?" Vivi told them, to their disappointment, that the vultures might be waiting for us to leave in order for them to have a quiet meal. It was good timing because it was time for circle time, when we do our reflections.
We sit with parents and caregivers for reflection/closing circle time and I ring the mindfulness bell. We take a deep breath and center ourselves. I ask the children "who would like to share about today?" Using the talking stick, to the best of our abilities, we go around sharing what just happened. I summarized what we think we knew and what we were yet to discover, and asked them "what would you like to do for next class regarding this mystery?" And a little girl said "let's keep on thinking about it!" Everyone said "yeeaah!!"
The next class the children didn't see the dead iguana and did not really pay more attention after that. The mystery - the cause of death - was not solved. We might find bones or something that would remind them of this inquiry of theirs, or not. I still think about it; Vivi and I have our thoughts (yup, racoon). But this really does not matter (I am not suggesting we foster leaving things unfinished, of course). What matters was the profound child-led inquiry and genuine exploration incorporating biology, ornithology, life cycles, logic, imagination, and matter transformation.
Metacognition is truly a powerful tool for life. It allows us, at any age, to apply a quality control to our thinking and reasoning, developing and striving for higher order thinking skills. Thinking, reasoning, sharing with peers... all these are powerful tools for life long learning. Experiences like these give children the opportunity to work on the foundations of true learning, being curious, being in awe of life, intrinsically motivated to know and open to share and listen. They also give them the confidence to seek the knowledge they want and need. I am reminded of a quote attributed to Einstein: "imagination is more important than knowledge." I agree.
Can you imagine the amazing opportunity we would have missed if either adult would have said "kids, move away from that decomposing iguana! Yuck! Racoons must have gotten it and they are so dirty so let's just move back!" It takes practice and we are still working on it. It's easier when we become quiet researchers alongside the children.
Let the children lead. Let them think. Let them figure it out.... Surround them with the environment conducive to learning and enjoy!