A great way of encouraging children to direct their own learning is the concept of ‘scattering’. Select a few new resources (or ones the child hasn’t seen for a while) and lay them in places they’ll be noticed.
For example yesterday, amongst other things scattered around the house, I laid a book called ‘Bug Zoo’ from the library on the kitchen table. Toby noticed it midmorning and we sat and looked through it together, with him pointing out the bits he wanted me to read, and me flicking to the right page to answer questions he had.
The book described a selection of common creepy crawlies that could be easily found and how to look after them. This fired Toby up to add a bug zoo to our already expanding collection of interesting tanks. I suggested various containers, he held them and tapped them and either accepted them or rejected them based on their merits.
When he rejected a large glass jar I offered he decided he could swap his fairy lights from his plastic fish bowl into the jar, as the plastic bowl would be ideal for snails. My role in these activities is to facilitate his ideas (with the odd suggestion thrown in). Children are naturally creative problem solvers when given the time and encouragement so my challenge is just not to take over and dictate what he uses or how he does things.
Happy with his container, out he went to the wintery garden to prepare his snail house and look for pets.
The result is a great chance for him to observe his snails and to develop his skills in caring for them. So far he has been trying out different foods for them, and carefully misting them with water.
While I was helping him to move pots to look for snails, we disturbed a moth caterpillar. After a quick hunt for a home for it Toby found a handy plastic tub which had previously held the unfortunate crawlies destined to be dinner for our Bearded Dragon.
After the caterpillar was installed into his new home and provided with some chard leaves growing near where we found him (and with tell tale nibble marks on them) we spent some time looking up what he could be – the most likely candidate being a Square-spot rustic from what we read, although I am no expert and happy to be corrected.
Toby is thrilled with his new role as zoo keeper, and since yesterday has frequently sat and studied the behaviour of his charges. We read that the rustic feeds at night, and I saw this to be true as it awoke later and munched happily on the chard leaves provided. When I told Toby about my night time observation it led to him pleading to stay up to watch tonight, but fortunately by bed time he had forgotten.
If you read an interview with any famous natural historian their story always starts with ‘when I was a child I used to keep bugs in jars’, With a supervisory eye to make sure the beasties are cared for properly and no protected species are ending up in a tub in the kitchen, this seems to be a natural way to foster a love of natural history. For a five year old snails and woodlice also make an ideal pet because they are easy to care for and when interest wanes (as it tends to after a week with any pet belonging to a small child) they can be released back to the garden a little fatter but no worse for wear for their adventure.
NB: usual safety precautions to be applied with regards only handling creatures you know to be non-venomous (less relevant here in the UK but more so to my US and Australian readers), also it’s always a good idea to wash hands after handling soil and creatures. The book we borrowed ‘Bug Zoo’ by Nick Baker was an excellent source of information.