In Praise of Tadpoles

April 25, 2011

When my mother found the tadpole eggs floating in the kitchen sink, she drew the line. Loudly. My older brother and I scrambled to scoop them out, complaining all the time, “We just wanted to watch them hatch!” My mother was not moved. And, following the relocation of the potential frogs to a bucket on the porch, we were given SOS pads and were set to scrubbing anything the jellied mass might have touched. Given my mother’s nature, she handled it pretty well — at least better than she did the day my little brother’s king snake escaped from the box under his bed and met her on the staircase as she was coming up with a stack of laundry. I remember that incident being much louder.  And messier.  I think I owe my mother something really special for Mother’s Day.

But this isn’t about deserving motherhood. It’s about the wonderful opportunity my brothers and I had to explore the world around us and to discover its mysteries. As we wandered the universe of our back yard or the neighborhood, we had authentic experiences with our environment that piqued our curiosity. (How does a mass of eggs turn into frogs? Can I catch that snake before it gets away?)  We dropped rocks into puddles and built walls out of mud to create dams. We made “honey” from flower blossoms and water. (Okay, and I tried to get the little kid next door to eat it, but that’s another story!) We played freely and learned experientially.

There’s something about free play that fuels creativity and exploration. Unconsciously we begin to ask important questions like “What if?” and ”Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”  And we’re off learning and growing. Free play brings the gift of innovation and creativity.  After all, we don’t know how high we can build or how deep we can dig or, even, how fast that garden newt can run, until we play and see.  Free play offers the opportunity for discovery.

When my training partner, Ellen, and I work together we always like to allow some time for free play with the materials we provide. This is harder for some adults than you would think. By adulthood we are vested in expected outcomes. Sometimes it takes a while before our workshop participants allow themselves to explore materials openly and discover what they can do or be. It’s exciting when they let themselves go and become like children.

So – how can we provide opportunities for free play with the little people we care for from day to day?  Amidst the structure of curriculum and busy schedules, can we provide the time and space to allow them to discover the environment around them, whether that be a back yard, a classroom, or a learning center?  What would happen if you left a bowl of pasta noodles by the paint easel? What if toys from the water table were discovered in the playground? I’d love to hear about free play experiences that you might have.  And if they involve tadpoles – well, all the better!

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