The Surprising Power of Learning

This is a story from our June Camp program where we were implementing emergent curriculum.  This concept, in a nutshell, means that you present children with the raw materials of learning and encourage them to experiment in a hands-on way and to implement their own ideas.    I have always been intrigued by this manner of teaching and seen its great value, but have had a hard time letting go of how I think each day, each project, should go.  Teaching in this way means trusting that children are capable learners, and that things will not get out of hand if they go a different way than I think they should go.  It means having confidence and trust in children.

We have several gutters, one about 10 feet long, a couple of shorter PVC pipes and an 8 foot downspout.  It’s summer so everyone is dressed in a bathing suit, ready for hands-on water activities.  A teacher pulls the group together and presents to them the ingredients for our water experiments – in addition to the above, we have a couple of preschool size chairs, a big tub, and, of course a hose. 

Immediately when offered these materials one child says, “I know, let’s send the water down the gutter into the tub!”  Everyone is galvanized into action, and the set-up takes shape. “What should we do with these chairs?” I ask.  Another child instructs me to put them under the gutter, one facing each way.  I comply.

We turn the water on and soon there is an assembly line of children with buckets, collecting the water that spills out of the gutter into our big tub.  Children are milling around, using water to make moats, to paint the side of the building, to cook in our outdoor “kitchen.”  The excitement is palpable. 

I catch myself telling a child who is holding the hose that she should put it down.  But then I notice that she is carefully holding it over the gutter, causing the water to flow just as designed.  There is power in holding that hose and she is using it wisely.  So I reverse my instruction, instead saying she will know when it’s time to give another child a turn.  This little girl does so in about a minute.

I leave the area for a while and return to find that now there is a downspout in the gutter, and the hose has been threaded through it.   This same little girl says “Can I do the sprinkler?”  We are not using our sprinkler today so I am not sure what she means.  She demonstrates by putting her index finger into the end of the hose, causing water to spray everywhere.  Once again I clamp on my urge to rein it in, and the joy and delight and laughter erupt from the surrounding group of children and the nearby teacher, caught in the spray. 

As I go home from work that day I am amazed at how energized I feel – I too have been learning today and it is powerful and life-giving.  And joyful.