A few months back, while playing a game at the lunch table, I discovered that a number of my children believed that butterflies were actually birds. I immediately began questioning this classification. “Birds can sing. Can butterflies?” Some children said yes without hesitation (one even sang like a butterfly). Others explained, “Birds don’t have to sing if they don’t want to.” I tried again, “Birds have feathers. Do butterflies have feathers?” Again, some children said yes. Others were quick to explain, “Not all birds have feathers. Lightning bugs don’t either, and they’re birds.” It was clear that I was fighting a losing battle.
My children were absorbed with the romance of spring: it had been months since they heard birds singing for them in the morning, and butterflies drinking from flowers. Birds and butterflies both appear to fly effortlessly. They did not care about the difference between scales and feathers, or metamorphosis. In order to help my children get to the truth about birds, I had to let go of a lot of my personal beliefs about truths. I worked hard for my A in high school Biology, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that butterflies were insects and not birds. But, the biological classification did not matter to them. They had a different understanding of the truth.
In order for my children to experience this truth, they needed to fully explore birds. They watched birds come to the feeder right outside our window. They listened for bird songs on hikes. They searched for nests. They sang like birds. They read books about birds, and told stories about birds. They made a nest, dressed up like birds, and escaped into their imaginative birdland.
Now, when I ask them if butterflies are birds, most of them say no. I claim no responsibility for this shift in understanding. Only through their play did they really understand what a bird is. Additionally, they now understand what it feels like to be a bird. (Something that I never learned in my biology class…)
Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Emergent Inquiry Approach from Reggio Emilia, Italy, wrote a powerful poem about the way children acquire knowledge. He recognizes that children are born into the world without established truths. In order to eventually develop truths about the world, children need to explore. They need to engage their senses, ask questions, and have time to pretend. By allowing them to keep their sense of wonder, we are not only encouraging them to arrive at truths about the world, we are empowering them to make up their own truths.
On Wednesday, one of our boys brought his chicken, Sunnyside, to our classroom. Our children were quite taken with her. They got to feed her dried mealworms and chase her around the playground. The next day, we had chicken for lunch. I asked about the connection between yesterday’s guest and today’s lunch. I watched the gears turn as one of my children explained, “You take off the feathers and put them in the oven. That’s what we eat.” The rest of our children were satisfied with this answer, but that boy kept thinking. Eventually, he realized that the bird might have to die in order for us to eat it. I asked him if that meant we had to eat Sunnyside. He thought for a long time. Then, he smiled and said, “Nah, I’m just kidding! We eat the feathers.”
The only way we can get to an understanding about the world is through developing a relationship with the things that confuse us. Sometimes, we just have to play with these ideas. We have to submerge ourselves in full-body explorations of concepts to find the truth. At other times, the truth can be too scary, and it’s OK to accept an alternate reality. The truth will emerge when we’re ready to realize it. The most important thing is that we take the time to wrestle, to explore, and to marvel. Truths only matter when we have a relationship with them
-“Before he is told he cannot invent the world, he will explain everything.” -Vivian Paley, Wally’s Stories