How Lightning Taught Me to Love Science: Adults and Children Must Learn Together

When I was little, I was afraid of thunder and lightning, and you can be sure there was plenty of that in Northern Ohio, where I grew up. Lake effect storms were common, coming down as rain or snow. As I cowered from a storm, my father bid me come to the screen door to watch. He explained how the lightning always preceded the thunder, and that it demonstrated that the speed of light was so much faster than the speed of sound. Because I felt safe with him holding my hand, I gave in to my curiosity, which was, after all, behind my fear. I absorbed the sense of wonder in his voice. I fell in love with thunderstorms.

I’m not going to say I ended up as a meteorologist, as he’d wished he’d been (the Navy made him an engineer). But I still feel that grown-ups who model their love and wonder of natural phenomena must always be part of the young child’s learning. If a child becomes enamored of worms, find your inner worm-lover and join in!

On our playground during the spring, a few younger children found two enormous worms. Because I was near, they pulled me into the excitement. “They are so big!” “Giant worms!” “Ugh, I am not touching them!” I picked one up. Without thinking about how I should approach this learning opportunity, I said, “Looks like night crawlers”. I could have said something more adroit, questioning them about their interest, but I guess I was channeling my Dad. They asked, “What’s a night crawler?” so I looked them up on my phone. I showed them the pictures, which got them even more excited because the worms looked exactly like what we were seeing (and some were holding)! Jumping up, one girl went to get her teacher. “We found a night crawler!”, and showed her teacher the worm. “It’s another worm”, the teacher said, as if that was all that mattered. It was kind of deflating (in fairness, we were seeing every worm every child had found during a forty-five minute time period outside).

These children were seeking a meaningful connection with teachers, something crucial to real learning. Young children learn more, absorb more, if teachers fully connect with them in their interests. If teachers join in the excitement, giving opportunities to expand on the learning, they will provide the necessary container for the children’s exploration. Teachers’ willingness to put aside their own agendas will be rewarded by their students’ increased interest in learning.

Fast forward to “real school”! Will children need teachers who are excited about their students’ interests? Yes! Teachers do well to create well-planned, active learning environments for young (and dare I say all?) students. In this article from Beyond the Journal, I see that what works in the micro-world of a preschool playground works for the school-age child as well. Teachers must “promote excitement through discovery”, and “expose children to new information”. Just what my Dad did with me, looking at lightning through the screen door.

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