The Village and the Child

Over the past year, my children have had some unusual interests.  In the summer, they were fascinated with slugs and snails.  The past few months, it has been garbage trucks and dinosaurs.  My children want to fully explore these ideas.  They enter the world of pretend: crawling around the floor like a slug, carrying garbage to the dump, protecting their nest of dinosaur eggs.  They play endlessly.  And, like the good scientists they are, there is a significant amount of inquiry in their imagination.  When my children are fully engaged, I am bombarded with questions.  I knew I was faced with someone beyond my abilities when one of my girls asked, “I know snails come from eggs, but what do they DO in the eggs?”

Here’s where I feel indebted to my community.  I contacted a biology professor from my Alma Mater to come in and field some of these questions.  He graciously agreed, and my children spent days preparing for the visit from the “Slug Scientist.”  He brought Petri dishes and magnifying glasses, so our children could see body parts of the slugs that I never knew existed.  He had the children lie on the floor and showed them how slugs move.  My children achieved a level of fascination I have never seen before.

I did similar things with garbage trucks and dinosaurs.  One of my good buddies is a garbage man.  I had him come in after work one day to speak to my children.  He answered their questions about safety, he told about going to the dump, he gave us a pair of unused gloves and an extra safety vest.  These toys became a hot commodity for our class, because they were the “real thing.” 

The moment I found out that another one of my buddies was an amateur paleontologist, I knew that he needed to pay a visit to preschool.  When my children started incorporating dinosaurs into their pretending, the door was open.  My friend came in with his backpack full of dinosaur bones, ready to face the queries of the three-year old brain.  He taught them the word “fragile,” which has since been one of their favorite new words.  He let them hold the bones, showing them what body part they were.  He patiently explained to them why dinosaurs died. 

First and foremost, I have to be one of the luckiest preschool teachers out there.  I have the coolest friends.  Recently, whenever I meet someone with a preschool-oriented skill, the skill becomes my reference point for them.  In addition to my “Garbage Man Friend” and “Paleontologist Friend,” I also have,  my “Tree-Cutter Friend,” my “Ice Cream Man Friend,” my “Artist Friend,” and numerous “Scientist Friends.”

I hope my friends understand that when I speak about them to my children, I do it because I deeply value their work.  I firmly adhere to the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  I know I am biased, but I believe that one of the biggest impacts someone can make is to use their strengths to build a relationship with a child. 

Inviting my friends into the classroom has great benefits from my children.  They get official answers to their deepest questions.  They also get validation for their interests.  They learn that there are experts in the world who devote their time and energy to their same interests.  With the expertise of a paleontologist, dinosaurs are no longer some abstract animal that smashes things.  They have heavy bones, they had giant teeth and footprints.  My children don’t have to rely on me to tell them why safety is important for a garbage collector.  They have a real garbage man in their classroom to tell them first-hand stories.  What’s more, they have a real garbage man who will sit next to them at the table and eat snack.  Now they, too, have a really cool friend!

Sometimes I wonder if it also takes a child to raise a village.  When I first met my friend who works in an ice cream store, he did not seem very proud of his work, even when I told him that he smelled like ice cream.   Ever since I gave him a story that one of my children had written about an ice cream man getting stuck in a tree, I’ve noticed that he has a bit more pride when I inquire about his work.  Maybe he’s realizing that even though he doesn’t get much enjoyment from his work, there are people out there who think he’s the coolest. 

I know that there is something in the way you live your life that will fascinate a child.  It might be that you have a silly cat, or that you once rebuilt a car engine.  Whatever it is, I challenge you to find it.  It will help enrich the life of a young child.  And, you just might find that the way the child hangs onto your every word is just the encouragement you need to continue doing your important work. 

Speaking of important work:  does anyone know an astronaut? 

– “Now the world becomes our classroom and the potential to teach and learn is found everywhere.” -Parker Palmer