I apologize outright if you are from a drought-striken region desperately searching the electronic ether for a glimmer of hope, only to have arrived at this post courtesy of the title. There are no deluge-inducing instructions here. No chants. Barely a plea. But questions? Yes. This post is about questions.
While sitting on the deck taking in a beautiful early evening outside, I began my traverse of the daylight/dusk/night barrier when my five year old daughter approached me at the table on the deck, and asked to climb into my lap. While shimmying in for kitten-like comfort, she kicked up a seemingly simple conversation…
Neve: “What are you reading?”
Me: “Oh… just about about ways of thinking. Just something to help me be smart about the work I do.”
Neve: “So, can you read a book to get smarter about anything?”
Me: “Almost. Yep… If you think about something you want to learn about, or know how to do… you can probably find a book to help you. You can pretty much learn about anything you want to today.
So, yeah… if you want to learn something, we’ll find books and things to help you.”
Neve: “Can you get a book if you want to learn how to make it rain?
Me: “(pause) Well… actually yes. Probably. There are people who have been trying to make it rain for a very long time. And sometimes they’re getting pretty OK at it in small spaces. Sort of.”
The conversation from there got a little too lengthy and geeky to relay here, but you get the idea. Learning at age five has so…… so much potential. Infinite, really.
I’m really not entirely certain what the segue might have been between these two events, but, fast-forward twenty minutes to when I posted this*:
“Holy cow…… the girls asked what a cardinal sounds like. I pulled up a video from the Cornell Ornithology Lab on my iPhone, and seriously, our backyard is now a cacophony of cardinal music.
Why have I not done this until now?”
The comment stream below the post was rich as well, with several connections from those who had done similar things, as well as some fantastic suggestions for taking this to the next level. I get smarter, kids get smarter, rinse, repeat.
Once the girls heard the cardinals come to life around us, once they saw two land on the fence directly in front of us, they were in. “What does a goldfinch sound like?” “What about an oriole?” “Does a hummingbird make a sound?” While we Googled every last question in the fading light, I tried to interject a thing of two about the limits of their quick little tests. “Maybe those other species weren’t close by.” “Perhaps this was the wrong time of day for them to respond in that way.” Maybe this, perhaps that… but at this point they had already crossed over into trying to mimic backyard birdsongs themselves to even hear my prompts. At this point, science was bridging a wee bit into art and I knew this wouldn’t be the last time we attempt such an exploration.
Here is my question for you: do you realize how close real, honest-to-goodness, publishable scientific inquiry is from this very point? Once you’ve asked a fascinating question (often by accident) and taken the time to muck about and explore the elements of the investigation, you are so close to real sophistication. The sophistication of the process. It is at this point you begin to take those “what ifs” and figure out the scope of what you might be able to find out next. You’re digging into what others have already discovered. You are figuring out feasibility. You are formalizing. Little kids don’t need names for these things to inquire, they just need a guide. A guide who will stay out of the way. A guide willing to intervene minimally and only when needed, but a guide that is curious and kind enough to keep pushing. Gently pushing. Ask questions to get questions. Fewer answers. More possibilities.
Science education begins quite young if you let it. Ask the questions. Keep asking them. Once you get more in return than you give… you’re winning. Go ahead, make it rain.
*”Family Tree of Droplets” by HUSO on Flickr via CC. *”Neve and The Inchworm” by me. *”Today Weather” by kristina Alexanderson on Flickr via CC.