When Children Ask “Why” Part 1

If you’ve read my blog before you’ll know that I have two major sources of inspiration: Ann Pelo and Margie Carter’s From Teaching to Thinking, and my outdoor education experience in high school with the late Mike Elrick. I’ve been returning to their wisdom in the past few months with a refreshed lens, and I am taking away new insights.

I often think about the way Ann describes her experiences outdoors with children, in-particular the stories of the skunk and the trees in Chapters 1 and 2 of FTtT. While I read some of her writing this morning, I was prompted to think about how I could bring these attitudes into the workshops I’ll be facilitating over the next few months. How can I translate some of this inspiration into digestible prompts for diverse groups of educators?

While reading Ann’s story, I imagined myself in her position. What would I do in response to children asking ‘why do the leaves change colour?’. What have I done in the past? I can’t quite remember. I thought about how some educators would say that they would reflect the question back to the child “I don’t know…why do you think they might change colour?”. Another might say that they would discuss the changing seasons or the amount light during fall. Another might say they don’t know, so they would engage in research to bring books into the classroom to answer the question. Another might say that, since there are filling many other roles while outdoors, such as counting children, putting on mittens, and watching for parents, they are unlikely to feel like they have time to appropriately answer this question and do it justice. Someone might say that in their culture changing colours of leaves holds particular significance. There are so many beautiful ways to respond to this question as well as systemic factors to consider.

I contrast these answers to what Ann did in her experience, which I elude to below. And then I re-thought what I would do again: what would I do if I had enough time, space, and resources to respond in a way that aligns with my pedagogical commitments?

When young children ask “why”, as in, “why do the leaves change colour”, I doubt they are searching for an answer.

I honestly believe, instead, they are reaching for guidance on how to think about this perplexing concept. They might be looking for how to build their skills to follow their curiosities. They might be asking “how do I respond to this inquiry?” or “what should I do when I feel this sense of wonder” or even “this feeling of reverence is powerful! Am I okay?”.

Our job as ECEs is not to be a first responder in these moments. It’s not to react with answers, wisdom, or solutions. I believe, instead, that our job is to take our training and use it to linger in these moments of questioning. Rather than answering in-the-moment, how might we slow down time for children and think though these dilemmas with them. If our job/training/philosophy is to scaffold children’s schemas in meaningful ways, then it’s clear that providing quick answers does a disservice to children’s learning. Instead, I wonder, how might we answer this question slowly, over time? How might we collaborate to think about our own answers to this question? Is a scientific fact really what is being asked for here? Or is it a larger life question about birth, death, and transformation as Ann suggests. Thinking in this way, my role as a co-learner might not even be to think in scientific terms about this. Nor is it to bring in books about trees and seasons. Perhaps, instead it is simply to commit to watching the trees more, learning from our senses, and creating our own language to articulate what we experience here. What do we call it when we feel the exhilaration of noticing a leaf fall, twirling from branch to ground?

Ultimately, I am currently thinking about how children are seeking guidance on their own learning, rather than factual answers, when they ask why. Providing provocations through engaging environmental set up, the use of open-ended play/learning materials, and the intentional use of questions can extend these curiosities through scaffolded guidance, support, and co-learning.

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