I get this question a lot. The answer is…complicated. In the most traditional sense, perhaps nothing. I am not sitting in front of the children giving them direct lessons about anything. They are not vessels waiting to be filled with my wisdom. Conversely, the children and I are learning side by side, every single moment we are with one another.
The children are learning how the world works, how to engage socially, how to move their own bodies, and the beauty of language both written and spoken.
I am learning what interests the children, what their natural problem solving techniques are, how to see with less biased eyes, how to slow down, what types of modeling are easy to comprehend, and what types are too muddled or diluted. I’m constantly amazed by the connections the children make, and how they view everything around them as being endlessly linked and woven together.
The other day I found myself changing diapers after nap time. The children are fascinated by bodies right now, which means they are also well acquainted with the designs on one another’s diapers. A simple observation quickly catapulted us into a conversation that I never could have predicted. Luckily, I had my voice recorder on. All of this happened in less than four minutes.
My thoughts/intentions/inner dialogue are in italics. Feel free to ignore them when you read through the conversation if you find them distracting. They are merely a window into how we try to guide learning and invite children to think more deeply about the topic at hand.
FD: *points to diaper* “What is that?”
Bee: That is a special type of person called an astronaut. They are wearing a suit that lets them go into space out by the stars. [I make a conscious effort not to gender the astronaut, I also instantly regret not labeling astronaut as a profession]
ZS: “GO INTO SPACE???”
Bee: “Yes, into space! This person is very high up. Their feet are off the ground. They are higher in the sky than airplanes are.” [Trying quickly to make the idea of space relatable as on the diaper it just appears as a person floating on a white background]
ZS: “Yeah!!! They go up to the stars, and to the moon. They go up to bring the moon down, and to get the star elevator.” *picks up pink colander and places it on his head* “I have a super big helmet, for when I go to space! For when I go to the moon. I have a special suit that covers me. A cupboard suit. A cupboard for the front and a cupboard for the back. And you can go with me!!! We are going straight up to the moon, to space, in a rocketship sooo fast. Ours goes not with the air…it is a WOODEN rocket hip. It goes zoom! ”
SM: *to FD* “Are you coming with us?”
ZS: “Yeah, shes coming!”
SM: “Bee! Fiona is coming with us!”
Bee: “Fiona is going to space too?! I can see you are really excited that she is joining you! That’s great! What do you think you guys will find on the moon?” [Calling out emotions I see and offering the vocabulary words to describe them. I am also inviting the children to think more about this. I can see they are all engaged and thinking critically. I don’t want the conversation to die away]
ZS: “A mouse. And a bunny called Coco. He’s going to hop into my arms, and we will go back down the chimney.”
Bee: “So you are going to find a mouse, and a bunny named Coco. Coco will hop into your arms, and you will bring him back down the chimney. Are you going to bring Coco and that mouse down the chimney back to Earth? Here? To Elm House? [I was mildly confused about the chimney, then remembered Christmas just happened. I reflect back what I heard to make sure I got it right, and again invite deeper reflection. Then I hit a wall. Do the children know we live on Earth? I substitute Elm House to try to make a large concept more concrete]
ZS: “No!!! I am bringing them to MY home.”
Bee: “Oh, I see. You are bringing them down the chimney to your home.”
SM: “Um, I am going to bring that mouse to my home.”
Bee: “It sounds like that mouse will go to ZS’s home and then it will visit SM’s home.” [Honoring that both of these things can be true, in an attempt to ward off a disagreement that might derail the imagining that is happening]
ZS: “Uh, no! You are going to my home when we go down the chimney.”
Bee: “It sounds like ZS is inviting everyone over to his house to welcome the mouse and Coco the Moon Bunny.”
ZS: “Yeah, and you can come too, Bee. To my house. And the moon.”
FD: “Yeah! It will be fun!”
SM: “And you can wear a pink hat like us!” [Here I begin to wonder how long children have been wearing colanders and pretending to be astronauts. Some things are timeless]
ZS: “And a suit too! With a cupboard in the front and in the back! And one on top and bottom too. You can get your own mouse and your bunny named Coco and bring them to my house in the chimney.” [I am curious about this cupboard suit, and what cupboard means to ZS as his father is a carpenter. I choose not to segue because the children are still so fascinated by space.]
Bee: “That sounds wonderful! Thank you for inviting me! I am wondering…will there be people on the moon? Like, Moon People???” [I model the joy that being included brings. Here I am feeling really excited. We are all in the thick of it together now. Imagining, wondering, learning…and so I offer another question to invite them deeper into the educational landscape we are constructing]
Bee: “Do you think they will be nice?” [I am giving the children an opportunity to share how they view the unknown. Is it welcoming and kind? Confusing and frightening? Exciting and surprising?]
SM: “What if I said mean things to them? And, and…they got mad??”
Bee: “What would happen if the Moon People got mad?” [I want the children to know anger is natural and we all feel it. I invite them to tell me more]
ZS: *whispers* “I don’t know.”
SM: “I don’t know how they would stop…how they would stop. How they would stop being mad.” [This feels like a question. I offer up a solution for what we can do when we upset others.]
Bee: “Do you think we could tell them we are sorry for saying mean things to them?”
Bee: “Perhaps we could ask if they wanted a hug. Do you think people on the moon like hugs?” [I’m wondering if love is a universal concept to the children]
ZS: “YEAH! They do. They REALLY do!”
Bee: “I think they probably do too!” [the universe is kind and loving. yes. yes. yes.] I think it would be nice of us to apologize for saying mean things, (“Okay” interjects SM) because it was nice of them to even let us be on the moon! It sounds like the moon is their home, and we went and visited to play with their Moon Bunny, Coco.” [I want the children to know that we should respect the stewards of whatever land we are on. That we have a responsibility to do right wherever we are, and whoever we are with]
ZS: “No, to my house.”
Bee: “Right, that is what I was trying to say, that we were just visiting the moon. Then we will go back to your house in the chimney.”
Bee: “Okay, now it is very clear!”
SM: “There is going to be a fire! And I will pop in there.”
Bee: *gasps* “There is going to be a fire? At ZS’s house!?”
SM: “Yeah! Outside!”
ZS: “No! Outside! And inside! And I am going to go in the hotub, and you, and you, and you too, because we are going to get all dirty”
Bee: “So, while your house is burning, inside and outside, we are all four going to go get in the hotub?” [Trying to clarify if the water is going to save us from burning, or if fire isn’t something we are afraid of.]
Bee: *laughing* “Wow! That sounds fancy.” [We are all laughing now and the children are wandering off, I can tell they are done with this thought experiment, and I love the idea of ending on a note where we are all relaxing in peace, neglecting the material in favor of one another]
Within four minutes we touched on astronauts, space, earth, animals, anger, what to do when we hurt someone else, how to be respectful when visiting, the kind of universe we live in, and what matters most in a fire.
This was just one of about 8,372 conversations that happen at Elm House every single day. This is why it can be difficult for us to articulate exactly “what we taught”. We aren’t sitting instructing, rather we are in a beautiful dance. We lead, and then allow the children to lead us, and when they lose the beat or their steps begin to falter, we are there to offer rhythm, harmony, and direction once again. Thank you for trusting the dance, and for holding space as it unfolds day by day. We couldn’t ask for more inspiring partners.
As always, feel free to leave any questions, comments, or wonderings in the space below.