My boys are now 23 and almost 20, so I am at that point in my life where I have limited opportunities to be around little children. While I admit I enjoy the freedom that comes with having young adult sons, I sometimes miss the wonder of their imaginations when they were small. So, when my friend Karen invited me to attend one of her Scientist in School workshops with a local junior/senior kindergarten class, I jumped at the chance.
Walking into the classroom, I was struck by how small everything was – the chairs, the tables, the kids! As part of the program, there were several areas that the children would travel around to over the hour including a chemistry, astronomy, paleontology, and weather centre. There were two parents who were volunteering for the morning. The young woman sitting closest to me tentatively asked if I had a child in the class; with a chuckle, I explained to her that my kids were grown, that I was a friend of Karen’s.
My wonderful friend, Scientist Karen, gave me the best centre to oversee: the marine biologist station. I quickly read my instructions for my role as Scientist Sue. There was a table covered with shells and what I came to know were sea stars (not star fish as I would have called them since they don’t have bones like fish – my learning continues) as well as magnifying glasses. Another station had rubber fish that the children would roll paint onto and then cover with paper to form a fish fossil. Finally, the pièce de résistance, three real (dead) octopi that could be touched, held, and explored.
Karen is a retired elementary school teacher and as she sat with the class at the beginning of the workshop explaining the morning ahead, I understood why she is so warmly greeted by former students every time we are out together. She is an exceptional teacher! Karen managed to connect with the kids immediately. She asked questions of the tiny soon-to-be scientists, ensured that both the eager sharers and the more reticent children all had opportunities to contribute, and genuinely praised their ideas and suggestions.
Each student was then assigned to groups of 3 or 4 and directed to their first station. Four little people (two boys and two girls) joined me at the observation table and sat with me on the ridiculously small chairs (to be fair, the chairs were perfectly sized for everyone but me). While two students inspected the shells and plastic marine animals with magnifying glasses, the other two moved to the painting table where they made their fish fossils. They then switched places so everyone had a turn at both centres.
In the last few minutes, the four excitedly stood close to me as I opened the container holding the octopi and held one in my hand. There were gasps and giggles as they tentatively touched the octopus (in truth, many of the giggles were mine); a few even held it in outstretched hands. They looked at the tentacles, commented on how it felt (slimy, cold, bumpy), and smelled (yucky).
When we heard the sound of the gong that signaled the end of their time in the first area, the kids followed instructions to push in their chairs, and repeated with Scientist Karen: “stand up and breath, it’s time to leave.” They took two deep breaths (as modeled by Karen, in through the nose and out through the mouth) in order to prepare their “scientist brains”, then, after pointing in the direction they would be going, walked quietly to the next station. I was again impressed by how effortlessly Karen incorporated mindful breathing into the activity, and how quickly the children adopted the techniques.
I had five sets of kids over the course of the morning. Even though it had been a while since I had spent the morning with 4 and 5 year olds, after I had finished one round, I got into the groove and was able to simply enjoy the moments. I laughed at the different reactions each child had to the octopus, marveled at the little blonde girl who complimented her classmate on his “really good fish picture,” and enjoyed engaging with both the outgoing and more reserved children.
The end of the workshop saw the little scientists sitting on the carpet with Karen leading them through questions about what they had learned. Just as she had incorporated breathing techniques into the station transitions, Karen used the science to introduce a bit of yoga, having the children stretch out their arms like sea stars. While I realize that these kids were particularly well behaved, I also know that Karen’s calm approach and mindful tools supported their self-regulation during the morning’s activities.
Later that day I showed my younger son the picture of me holding the octopus for the children to see. He said I looked like the most excited kid there. He wasn’t wrong. However, even though I had an enormous amount of fun, being with small children took significant energy and I confess to being pretty exhausted for the rest of the day. I gained a newfound respect for teachers who do this job all day, every day and a great appreciation for teachers like Scientist Karen who support and encourage every child’s growth and development.
Next up: The week is up for grabs – anyone want to suggest a feat?