Thursday, March 31, 2011

Let Them Teach Themselves

I've always known that children like mixing things up, of course, they do it any chance they get. I was forever coming up with ways to involve kids in mixing up paints or play dough or volcanic eruptions, but it wasn't until I met Jenny of Let The Children Play fame that it occurred to me that there didn't need to be a goal to their mixing . . . Or at least I didn't have to have a goal.

They have just as much fun, they learn just as much if not more, and I don't have to hang over them bossing them around about measurements, proportions, spillage or waste. In fact, nothing is wasted in free-form potion making.

We just put out, for instance, bowls of flour, Ivory Snow, corn starch, powdered tempera, salt, and sand, along with some cans of shaving gel (they've been on my shelves for at least 5 years, sitting there since a parent bought it instead of the shaving cream I'd asked for), and pitchers of water and vinegar. I've sometimes used vegetable oil and corn syrup as well. And anything else we might have lying about. Add some empty containers for mixing and let 'em go.

We don't start by telling the kids what they were mixing, but rather let them discover it on their own. It's always a surprise when the first child combines the baking soda and vinegar, but when the reaction happens, the ones who already know tell the ones who don't about what's happening, explaining it in terms they will understand.

Then, naturally, they all want to do it. After awhile (and they need at least 45 minutes to really engage in potion making) as the bowls need refilling, they start to ask for ingredients by name ("I need more baking soda," or "I want the shaving cream when you're done.") or ask questions ("What is this stuff?") or try to figure things out for themselves by sniffing ("This is the vinegar!") or touching or looking carefully, as they try to create or re-create results. That, my friends, is science: not following a recipe, but rather inventing or discovering one. I love more than anything else when they don't even bother to turn to an adult with their questions, but instead ask a friend, "How did you do that?" That, my friends, is how community is built and products improved; not by hoarding information to later sell in the supposed "free market."

It's so tempting as a big, all-knowing adult to want to intervene, to show or tell them what we know rather than let them discover it on their own. We worry about clothing, messes, and waste. We see them heading down the tunnel without any cheese and want to take them by the shoulders and turn them around. And, I suppose, there is a time and a place for that, but I nearly always find it's better to just turn learning over to the kids and let them teach themselves.

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Woodside School & Community Center said...

This is such an inspiring post. As an early childhood educator I am always striving to create opportunities for problem solving, community building and authentic learning in the classroom. I love the idea of providing ingredients and stepping back as the potion making begins. Thanks for sharing.

Olivia Bush said...

Hi! It is Olivia Bush again from the University of South Alabama in EDM 310. I will be writing a blog summary of the last three blogs that I have commented on from your page. You can read it at

I have so enjoyed reading your blog page that I have added it as a link on my page. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas and what goes on in your classroom. “Let Them Teach Themselves” I think is by far my favorite. I remember being a little kid and loving to mix things together. I liked to mix bath products, like shampoo and powder. My poor Mother, I am sure I drove her crazy! My children now are always wanting to help stir things together that I am cooking. I have never really thought about sitting back and just letting them do it on their own with any type of ingredient. What a great idea and great way to get them thinking on their own.

I love how in your blog you discuss them working together and depending on one another for answers and ideas. You nailed in when you said, “that is how community is built.” That is so true and they need to learn that at a young age and hopefully it will carry on in their generation and they can work together to make this world a better place.

Thank you so much for sharing your ideas, your pictures and your creativeness with us in a blog! You are such an inspiration to so many teachers. I wish you the best in your classroom and your future!

Olivia Bush

fellow "cluttered mind" Barbara Zaborowski said...

I am (as pretty much always) in complete agreement. I would love to see a blog on convincing other people (parents, fellow teachers, state licensing)of the wisdom of this approach.

Anonymous said...

i'm doing this tomorrow with my class!! what a great science activity!!

rachelle | tinkerlab said...

halleluja! this reminds me so much of what good art inquiry looks like. when looking at art with children the best thing you could ask is "what's going on in this picture?" in order to illicit responses that are totally child-centered. our experience as all-knowing adults might tempt us to tell children what they're looking at or experiencing, but we need to back up and take a seat!, the experience actually means something to the children when they take a moment to reflect on their own ideas and interpretations. there's so much poetry in your words, tom. i'm reposting this on my site next week!

jenny said...

Thanks for the mention Tom :) I still have to stop myself from thinking that experiences like these need an outcome. We are so big on "process over product" when it comes to art experiences but I think sometimes we need reminding that this is true of all play. I loved this post of course - right up my alley!

Darcey said...

Thanks for writing this post, Tom! I love the idea of giving the kids ingredients and letting them experiment with making their own potion. What a great way for them to learn about the properties of the materials and more importantly the social skills that comes along with this activity. Sometimes it's best for us adults to step back and see what the children can learn and do on their own. I've linked up to your post on my weekly favorites here: