I Wonder?

Friday morning Miss Kerry divided the children into four problem-solving groups. Each team stood before a pile of supplies: wood Popsicle sticks, aluminum foil, paper, paper clips, Scotch tape, plastic drinking straws, glue and one of those flimsy Styrofoam trays that comes under the ground beef from the grocery store.  The directions were quite simple. Kerry asked: “I wonder if you can build a container with these supplies which will hold three apples securely while one of you walks ten yards holding it by a handle?  You have fifteen minutes.”

With glee and vigor the fledgling inventors broke into intense talking and wild gestures. The classroom turned workshop and the children mechanical engineers.  The room buzzed and I don’t think our visiting child psychology intern was picking up any signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; she saw heads down, tools up and children at thought and action.

When the bell rang, three very different– but what looked like serviceable– apple haulers sat on the finish table along with one very mangled and forlorn Styrofoam tray which suggested it may have been run over by a rototiller.

With all the school staff and our guest in the audience, each group displayed and explained the process of producing their entry into the “Apple Dash”.  Group One held up the disabled tray which had a few paper clips clinging to the edges.  They described each doomed attempt.  Kerry commiserated with them and observed that most new ideas and inventions fail.  They had no reason to feel shame. She then asked them what they learned from the failures.  They spelled out the problems with trying to build on a platform without a strong foundation. We listened spellbound to their reflections.  These two neophyte inventors are both in first grade.

Each of the next three groups built a successful apple cart.  One was a massive basket with a proper handle made of twisted paper.  Two others used the flat wooden sticks as joists to stiffen the flabby foam pad and then they erected serviceable sides and handles.  Every construction firm had a chance to display their product and answer questions from classmates and audience.  No prizes were offered other than applause. The reward was the lesson. And the apple crisp which they all made from the demonstration apples.

This kind of exploratory learning happens all the time around here.  Our teachers begin with the open-door question: “I wonder . . .?” and then the young learners, like hounds onto the scent, leap at the challenge to chase down possibilities and tree solutions.


Sam Alvord may be reached by email