Education happens naturally for curious students |

Education happens naturally for curious students

Marilee Swirczek

Special to the Appeal

Only the curious will learn. — Eugene S. Wilson

Recently, I had a refresher course in child’s-play that framers of the rigid No Child Left Behind Act might have forgotten.

My husband, Ron, our four granddaughters and I spent a week with my parents in California. We didn’t plan field trips, play dates or swim lessons. We just enjoyed an old-fashioned, do-what-you-please vacation.

Without schedules, expectations or adult interference, the girls spontaneously explored the environment, let their curiosity dictate their activities, collaborated on imaginative projects, and worked tirelessly at playing. I’m amazed at the learning that occurred while we adults simply acted as lab assistants, providing help only when asked.

We spent our first day at my parents’ home so the kids could enjoy the pool while the adults visited and supervised. I had board games and workbooks from the parent/teachers store in case the kids got tired of the water. But the dreaded “We’re bored!” was never uttered.

What became a weeklong science camp began when 11-year-old Mellisa discovered an obscure law of physics: If you submerge the 6-foot foam tube that is supposed to be a pool flotation device, aim one end at your grandfather and blow hard into the other, a water cannonball will burst out and drench him.

Through experimentation, encouraged by me and my mother laughing, Mellisa observed that the flotation-device-turned-water cannonball’s distance and velocity was influenced by its depth of submersion. Deep submersion coupled with a mighty exhalation equaled greater distance and force upon impact with the target (Grandpa Ron), but less accuracy than a shallow submersion. Through relentless trial and error, Mellisa perfected the protocol to deliver a watery ambush no matter where Grandpa retreated.

My stepfather (quintessential Cal Tech engineer) explained that Mellisa’s observations were the kind that excites scientists. Surprises, he told her, are doors to discovery. He suggested she pursue her study of water cannons by determining if her results were repeatable (to the target’s dismay).

Could she guess what might explain her results? Would manipulating the variables – amount of water in the tube, depth of submersion, force of exhalation – make a difference? Soon all four girls were experimenting with the flotation tube that, until Mellisa’s ingenious discovery, had bobbed unnoticed in the pool.

Later, 4-year-old Emma discovered mint in Mom’s garden. I crushed some for her to sniff. “Let’s make perfume!” 8-year-old Mikaela suggested. They set up shop in the gazebo, gathered supplies, discovered that spongy Melaleuca bark made a great sign (“Mint Perfume Store”), assigned tasks, and then mixed, sniffed, adjusted, and named their products.

Megan, 13, remembered that perfume counters had coffee beans to refresh customers’ noses, so they tried it – and it worked. They wondered why (we still don’t know the answer). They wondered why none of us liked the scent of mint with daisies, and why all of us liked mint with rose petals. They wondered why the same fragrance smelled differently on different people.

When they needed a word that described mint and lavender, I suggested “serendipitous,” and explained that it was an adjective. Later, they requested “an adjective” for mint and curry. I said “quixotic” and suggested they look up the meaning in a dictionary. My personal favorite was mint with stephanotis and lemon (my adjective was “marketable”). Like good scientists, they recorded, dated, and signed their formulas; even little Emma proudly printed her name.

The children carried their curiosity to the Balboa Peninsula, where we spent the rest of the week. From my parents’ electric boat, “Little Joule” (another new word), they identified harbor seal, ray, crab, clam, barnacle, egret, heron, brown pelican, sandpiper, cormorant, gull and tern.

They watched fishermen dig for bait crabs, observed the crabs’ tell-tale wakes and air bubbles in the sand, then dug furiously to catch and release them, wondering how the prehistoric inch-long creatures unerringly returned to the sea.

They pulled seaweed from the waves, examined the variety of leaves and stems amid the tangled branches and held slippery air bladders. They built a sand castle, and after the sea snicked it away, they constructed dikes and trenches instead of moving their building site. Although their engineering diverted the water for a while, the sea finally won.

They watched for dolphins and whales, noticed how the breakwater protected the harbor’s mouth, learned to tell a sloop from a schooner by the rigging. They harvested seashells after high tides and peered at the full moon’s huge eye as Great Grandpa explained her marriage with the sea. Spellbound, they crouched over tide pools as anemones opened and closed; they held a giant sea slug and caught empty urchin shells tumbling in the backwash.

I suspect our granddaughters will long remember what they learned during our week at the ocean. Is there a standard test to measure their “adequate progress,” considering all they discovered, observed, inferred, analyzed, deduced, questioned, imagined? Did they need predetermined objectives, politically correct pedagogy, or threats of noncompliance to learn? Of course not; they just needed open minds, curiosity and adults who were smart enough to let them be kids.

• Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City. She attributes her most important learning to her carefree childhood playing in the woods of northwestern Pennsylvania.