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A Preschool Epiphany

A few weeks ago I experienced an epiphany, the kind that lingers in your mind in the days that follow it...

I had just dropped my four-year-old granddaughter off in her classroom at a daycare center in Arlington, Massachusetts. Children there were eagerly tackling such morning activities as painting, assembling building materials, and creating special projects. She had time for a quick hug good-by before dashing into the thick of things.

I could still hear the enthusiastic purposefulness as I walked downstairs to leave. At the bottom of the staircase I started to turn right to the door outside. But something caught my eye. I came to a full stop before a closed preschool classroom door in order to read a poster on it. “Things We Want to Learn” was the title. Below it was each student’s name and the specific subject he or she wanted to learn about. I was curious to see what young children considered worthy of learning.

“Sea creatures” was notably popular. I imagined it had been the recent focus of the teacher’s efforts. I pictured small hands waving wildly as children shouted out other topics, such as “Pirates,” “Kitty Kats,” and “Pets.” Some showed a natural science bent with their interest in learning about “The rain forest” and “Giraffes.” One child wanted to learn about “Numbers.”

Ah, indeed. I remembered approaching my mother after I had gotten a solid grip on addition, subtraction and multiplication. I had heard intriguing rumors of something else you could do with numbers, and demanded, as if she had been keeping a secret from me, “There is another thing, isn’t there?” I pestered her until she explained division to me.

“Blueberries and strawberries” was another choice. I pictured a small child looking at a bowl of these lovely fruits and wondering why one is red and tapered and the other blue and round. Children consider these things when we give them time, while we adults are more likely to focus on eating them and the calorie count.

But my favorite subject that one child wanted to learn about was “Clouds.” Can’t you see this child playing outside, maybe on a swing or at the very top of some piece of climbing equipment. Looking up, he or she may have observed clouds passing overhead, and idly wondered, “Why do they move like that? What are they made of? Where are they going?” Answers aside, when was the last time you or I asked such good questions?

As I stood in the hallway studying this fine documentation of preschool educational aspiration, I so appreciated the thrill of learning that children bring into the jaded, answer-burdened world we adults have designed. Children aren’t ashamed to ask questions, and they want clear, simple, useful answers. (Admittedly I wouldn’t be helpful in explaining the life cycle of a cloud.) Children respect learning for learning’s sake. They trust knowledge will become useful sooner or later, so the more they can accumulate, the better. Plus, it just feels good to know things. It feels good to know that 3 + 2 = 5 or 9 X 2 = 18, especially when others don’t. I particularly enjoy knowing, for example, that the Erie Canal was completed in 1825.

For those like me fortunate enough to have children in their lives, it’s our job to satisfy the childhood craving for knowledge with patience for one more question, one more childish observation. Our patience is important because, for one thing, the information we provide might actually turn out to be useful, and for another, the craving will pass as children become teenagers who know everything.

To a great extent my respect for naturalist and children’s author Thornton Burgess, the subject of my biography Nature’s Ambassador, is based to his superb grasp of a child’s love of learning. One fourth grade boy was asked by Anne Carroll Moore, the legendary New York Public Library librarian, to explain his delight in Thornton Burgess books. “He sees what I see and I understand his language,” the boy responded.

Burgess never considered children an inferior audience, never wrote down to them, and never used his children’s books as a launch pad for adult books. He shared a child’s abiding interest in learning about the natural world. Nature, Burgess maintained, was endlessly attractive to children, and therefore was the perfect tool for learning. His 1924 article in Nature magazine stated the belief that environmental education should be taught in every curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade.

As I walked back to my car, I thought about that preschool poster covered with intellectual ambition. Then a new question popped into my mind: “What do I - as a Nana-aged person – want to learn?” Not what do I want to do or be or have in my linen closet, but what do I want to learn about? What do I want to understand? What an exciting question! So far I have decided on: shipwrecks, roses/peonies/morning glories/trees, care and feeding of the soul, glorious writing, Saint Margaret and King Malcolm of Scotland, and where the shut-off values for water are in my house.

And Nature, of course. And clouds and numbers, definitely!

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