Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Teaching Ourselves About Yellow Jackets

Last summer we had a problem with yellow jackets on the playground with several children falling victim to these striped tough guys. In doing our research about the best way to control them, we learned that yellow jackets are among the most aggressive types of wasps, capable of both biting and stinging repeatedly, and that they are mean enough to fight you for your food or, apparently, just attack you because they don't like your look.

When we caught sight of our first yellow jacket this summer last week, we went into action hanging our traps. The first thing I did was read the instructions to the kids, and in particular the line, "Keep out of reach of children," which we discussed. Since the traps aren't toxic, we surmised that the manufacturers were mostly interested in keep kids away from yellow jackets. It was step-by-step process one that might have gone more smoothly had I done it by myself, but when we have "real work" to do around the school (like repairing the cast iron pump or transplanting in the garden) I like to do it with the children. The trick to these traps is a pheromone that attracts the pests who climb in through holes in the bottom only to find that they can't climb back out. 

Within seconds of hanging our first trap, it attracted a curious yellow jacket, and within minutes we had trapped our first one. Children of all ages gathered around, asking questions, speculating, and making predictions.

"How do they get in?"

"Why don't they tell their friends it's a trap?"

"Maybe they like it in there."

"It looks like some of them are fighting."

"I bet that one flew away to tell the other yellow jackets!"

Checking on the traps quickly became a regular activity, with children swarming to the scene each time someone announced, "We caught more yellow jackets!" or "I see one trying to get in right now!" I suppose that some people reading this might think we're foolish to let the kids hang out around the trap if these insects are so notoriously aggressive, but it was clear that they were far more interested in the pheromones than us.

Yellow jacket "nest"

In between moments of checking on our "pet" yellow jackets, a group of the older children began to play a game of yellow jackets, building a nest in the lilacs not far from where we had installed the traps. It was more or less like any other "family" game with the addition of periodic buzzing flights around the playground, as well as pretend biting and stinging. At one point they all flew over to the art table where they drew their own yellow jackets with oil pastels based upon what they had observed. We noticed the differences between the yellow jackets and the similarly stripped, yet harmless, hover flies that were hanging out around the garden. The children, as they are prone to do when left to think, together, for themselves, created a perfect, age-appropriate curriculum around yellow jackets.

As the children went deeper and deeper into their yellow jacket play, flitting between what they observed happening in their physical world and the the world they created through their thoughts, questions, and insights, I found myself both excited for them as well as melancholy for how rare moments like these are outside of our little bubble of play-based learning. How many adults would have succumbed to their catastrophic imaginations and not included the children at all? But perhaps even worse, how many well-intended adults would have felt compelled to "scaffold" the children's learning by injecting themselves with yellow jacket songs or art projects or library books? How many of us would have felt compelled to take over their self-directed learning by guiding, directing, or leading, rather than standing back and allowing it to emerge from the children themselves? How many of us would have rushed into this "learning moment" with our adult agenda, robbing the children yet again of their most fundamental right: the freedom to think for themselves?

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