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Breaking Sticks: Life Lessons From A 2 Year Old

Posted by on in Movement and Play
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Adam’s little feet were scampering on the sidewalk as only a two-year-old’s feet can as I quickly followed to keep pace with him. As soon as he saw his first stick that day he stopped, picked it up, looked at me excitedly and shouted: “Mam patyk tata!” (I have a stick daddy!). He’s my kind of dude. Adores being outside. Loves playing with sticks. Picks them up whenever he can. Carries them around. Hits objects, sometimes people, with them. Brings them home where he usually forgets about them. But today was different. For both of us.

It’s April and the maple trees are budding in Minnesota. It was a warm enough day that I didn’t mind him sitting on the pavement and exploring. He sat down and started using his newfound tool to pluck the maple buds that fell off the branches above out of the cracks in the sidewalk. While doing this, the stick broke. He looked at me and said: “Zepsułem,” which means "I broke it" in Polish. He continued digging the buds out and the thin dried up stick broke once more, at which point Adam seemed to lose interest in the buds and decided to focus on sticks.

He noticed a big tree with a goldmine of broken twigs lying around it down the block and darted toward it, me in tow. While in the past he’d pick one or two up, now he was picking them up in bunches as if he were gathering kindling for a fire. This was quite interesting, because I know that he has no idea about this sort of use for fallen sticks. Of course this wasn’t why he was picking so many of them up, but I immediately got an idea that he will now be able to, and absolutely love helping me gather wood for the fire when we start going camping in a couple of months. We’ll brave the mosquitoes and poison ivy together….

He carried the sticks onto the sidewalk, threw what had to be a dozen of them down, and immediately proceeded to breaking them into smaller pieces. He did not just break each stick into two. He kept breaking each until it got so small his little hands could no longer apply enough force to fragment it. I was so fascinated with all I was observing and learning that I don’t recall what exact phrases he was using to talk about what he’s doing, but I know he was making associations between “big” and “small” and the fact that bigger sticks are more difficult to break.


At some point he picked up the biggest bark-stripped “white stick” as he called it and decided to keep it as he could not snap it. Did he know that this is the best tool? Yes! Maybe not consciously, but I believe on some primal instinctual level he knew that this is the best stick to have. Not that he will have to ward off sabertooths or hunt mammoth with it, but still….

Kasia was finishing cooking dinner and told us before we left she’d come out to walk with us, which Adam must have just remembered as he said “mama na spacerek” (“mommy for a walk”) and started running back toward our home. He tested his stick against the concrete of the building and used it to bang on the metal ventilation shafts sticking out of the outer wall. What are you doing? “Stukam.” He was learning what sounds were given off by hitting different materials. He knows how and the purpose of knocking on the door now, but he figured out he can amplify his knocking by drumming the stick on the glass storm door, which I promptly removed from his path. He proceeded to use his stick to knock on the wooden door behind, and was elated to see mama open it and come join us in the fun.

This was the absolute best most awesome walk I’ve ever had with my son. It covered maybe 50 yards, lasted about an hour, and taught me things I’d never be able to learn by taking a formal course. I’ve been on many walks with my son and wife before, but somehow, on this one walk, I was more present, more aware, more ready to learn. This one walk, I truly believe with all my heart, changed me forever. It gave me the opportunity to see how I can change the approach with my son and students and brought about the true understanding of why and how unstructured play can be incorporated into learning. Now, it’s up to me to apply the information I’ve learned and improve my craft.

So what have I learned?

A lot! However, 2 things stick out (-:

Let The Kids Play! Because if we just let them, and don’t adulterate their play with our influence, hinder it with our often baseless fears, or spoil it with our “knowing better,” they will learn a lot more and, because it was acquired by self through experimentation and immediate application in several activities, the learning will be of the lasting variety.          

Our Kids (Our Own and Our Students) Are Our Teachers as Much as We Are Theirs. Adam learned a ton of things on our walk together, and I only described the first part of it before my wife joined us. But I myself learned things that I could not have imagined before, by simply being there with him and watching him play. These are things I intend to use consistently on my life-long learning journey that leads to becoming a better father, educator, and human being.

The follow up post to this one will be about the Importance of Unstructured Play, Students as Teachers (or maybe Teachers as Students?), and the Beastie Boys. The Beastie Boys? Yes! It might be early (or late) but you read that right: The Beastie Boys. And THIS SONG will be featured! How can you pass that up? Please give me a like or comment if you found this post useful to what you do. SIGN UP for my NEWSLETTER if you would like to receive tips on how to help your students become better learners and how to increase your impact as an educator.

And Above All Remember: You have the power to change the world. Use it often.

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Oskar is a Science, Engineering, and Learning How to Learn teacher and an author of the Crush School Book Series.

His professional interests are brain-based teaching and learning, flexible seating (#StarbucksMyRoom founder), social-emotional learning, social justice, and using technology to enhance learning.

He is also a fan of the Jedi order (and uses DA FORCE frequently), ninjas, and the superhero in all of us. He is on a Quest to Change the World because he can. We all can.

  • Gail Multop @gailmult
    Gail Multop @gailmult Thursday, 14 June 2018

    Oskar, I love this post. The experimental nature of your son's work with sticks shows how intentional toddlers are. Using a stick to test the different sounds it makes on different materials is enchanting. Thanks.

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