One of my favorite quotes of all time by Mark Twain: “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Why is it one of my favorites? Honestly, does it get much more illustrative than this? Twain captured the spirit of constructivist educators worldwide: experience is critical for learning. Some might argue that experience is learning, and that the depth of learning hinges on opportunities for exploration.
[And for the record, I am not – in any way – actually suggesting you let children hold cats by their tails – I simply find Twain’s quote insightful for the early childhood setting which demands experience. Abundant Life Children does not condone animal cruelty. If you want some reading about helping children interact compassionately with nature, you can peek here or here. Carry on...]
In the course of the last few months, balloons have remained one of the most popular items in our repertoire. We have filled them with water, filled them with googley eyes (awesome, by the way), filled them and let them go without tying them first, filled them and let the air escape slowly and squeakily, carried them in pillowcases, and sat on them when they are slightly deflated and can accommodate more pressure without popping.
Most recently, Tekoa and Cadence figured out the motor management of filling them. (Out through the mouth, in through the nose, the first breath is the hardest…you know the routine.) A few days ago, I caught Tekoa with a balloon so big, I had to step out of her line of vision – my face betraying the result of a balloon too full of air. Amazingly, it didn’t pop while she was inflating it, and we got it tied long enough for it to float up and pop immediately upon landing. Because of this experience, she deduced that big balloons pop when they land on the ground – an accurate, albeit impartial conclusion. She managed to fill half a dozen to their brink, carrying them safely to a soft waiting spot. A week or so later, she finally formulated a more accurate understanding of the way balloons work: too full, and they will pop on contact, and too much air will cause them to pop during the filling process. Mark Twain’s “cat” actualized.
In the midst of this balloon extravaganza, Simone managed to toss a balloon up to the ceiling of our space and it stuck there. We stood, flummoxed by it’s adhesive-less adherence to the ceiling. What came next was a series of tests seeking answers to I wonder why… and I wonder if…. The crew and I tossed balloon after balloon up to the ceiling…none of them stuck. We pulled Simone’s balloon down and put it up again to find that it stuck. I introduced an idea — contact with the carpet. Sure enough. Rubbing the balloons on the carpet built up the static electricity that served to glue the balloons in place. Of course I knew this, but the crew did not. I always wonder at times like this if I am crossing the line. Did I give too much by suggesting that the crew connect the balloons and carpet? Jean Piaget said, “Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself.” Did my suggestions interfere with learning?
Another theorist, Lev Vygotsky, gives us the idea of The Zone of Proximal Development – provide enough support that children can be successful, but not too much support that the task loses its challenge. I think I succeeded with the balloon exploration, though even on reflection, it’s hard to know for sure. What I do know is that before long, the crew was at work testing. What if the balloons have googley eyes in them? Nope. Too heavy. What if we rub the balloons on the carpet, but stick a different part of the balloon to the ceiling? Nope. The spot of balloon that touched the carpet had to touch the ceiling. What if we stuck the balloons to the ceiling and then pushed them…would they travel on the ceiling? Sure enough!
An exploration of this length and depth suggests developmental appropriateness. Often, the only way to know for sure if we have done our job as educators to support at exactly the right level requires hindsight. Did the activity engage? Sustain? Challenge the crew to deeper thinking? Then you’ve probably done it.
*And you know, for safety’s sake…when using balloons in early childhood settings, watch out for small pieces of popped balloons and keep an eye out for latex allergies…and all that stuff. Happy ballooning!
On another note, I had a remarkable response to my earlier post about time-outs and spankings, and I have spent a good portion of the week reflecting with readers about your own difficult situations with young ones. It strikes me that an equally significant issue for early childhood professionals and families is knowing how to manage our own strong emotions in the midst of a barrage of emotional energy from our younger companions. I’m working on a post for next week about how we (as the adults in the situation) keep ourselves centered in order respond helpfully and thoughtfully to the needs of our young children. If you have ideas about how you stay centered, I’d love to hear them! Send me an email by filling out the form at the bottom of this page. Thanks!