Christmas is a time for families and for me that means my nine year old niece and six year old nephew. Once the flurry of wrapping paper has subsided and the boxes have been ripped open, once the new spaceship has been assembled and the fruitless search for batteries concluded, there comes a lull in activity that sometimes needs filling. And so we did Science.
The joy of being an uncle is that you can be recklessly irresponsible with licence. Much like James Bond, but with a slower car and merely a licence for storytelling. Your status and authority on nearly all matters is assured, but your responsibilities limited. It is the ultimate form of power with very little responsibility, so we set out to blow things up. Well, technically, there was no intention to blow things up, just a slight risk of it, but to an excitable Megan and apprehensive Daniel, the promise of it was enough. Indeed, Daniel had to be appointed fire officer in charge of the bucket of water.
The object of our attentions was a little ‘pop pop’ boat from the Christmas market. If you haven’t come across these, they are small tin boats, usually made out of recycled cans which contain a small copper topped boiler, the size of a large coin, a space for a candle underneath and two pipes leading from the boiler to the open water at the back. The theory is that you fill the boiler and light the candle: the ensuing steam is pushed out of one pipe, whilst the other pipe draws in fresh water, creating a continuous cycle that runs until the candle is extinguished or you melt the edge of the bath.
Now, i am generally unfamiliar with children: they are strange and complex with disconcerting stares should you demonstrate any lack of omnipotence. To deal with this, i generally like to make things up: for preference involving goblins, dragons, fairies or, in extremis, resorting to the truth. For Science however, we needed to stick to facts.
I guess that learning with children is much like any type of learning: you need a story, a narrative track to follow, and you need to reduce complexity to building blocks that can be explained, explored, tested and built upon. The mistakes are to either make these blocks too dauntingly big or to patronisingly tedious and small. Then you need to find a shared language.
Fortunately, the age of steam is alive and well with six year old boys, thanks to Thomas the Tank Engine, giving us our first shared story. Daniel knew that two people rode in the cab: one to drive, one the fireman, and it was a simple conversation to remember that the fireman loaded up the coal and water. Indeed, Daniel was familiar with the whole concept of how the fire heated the water, created the steam which drove the wheels.
Megan was comfortable with a more traditional scientific basis: she could explain how water, when heated turned to steam. She understood about volume and, after some extensive experimentation with a parsnip, some polystyrene and some coins, density. She had also been learning the basics of a scientific method: she earnestly told me that what we were doing was making a ‘prediction’ and then testing it.
For me, the excitement was seeing the emergence and application of these problem solving methodologies: i spend a lot of time working with different groups looking at various aspects of learning, but it’s rare to see the underlying processes so clearly demonstrated. These tricks and skills that we learn at a young age, the refinement of our problem solving methodologies and ability to apply them appropriately are key skills in life.
Daniel lit his first match (with many imprecations about how it must always be done with adults: there’s reckless and then there’s foolish…), ignited the candle and, as we watched, the boat departed for it’s voyage with surprising vigour and speed. There’s something exciting about such simple demonstrations of scientific principles: whilst it’s interesting to read about quarks and electrons, they are highly abstract. You know where you are with steam and a burnt finger from picking up a hot tin boat. Fire, water, metal, they are oddly visceral, immediate. It’s simple science that you can just about get your head around, at least with the right story and a little bit of creative licence.
So as the children grow, the stories we share become more about facts, less about fantasy. We become more grounded in ‘truth’, less dependent upon stories. There is a thrill in learning, in discovery, but it’s important to retain the wonder. We are poorer if we lose the ability to make things up, to be creative.
For me, it was important to think back to the principles of how we learn, but i was just as excited as the children when the boat set off, more excited to see their dawning understanding. I guess that as they grow our stories will change, but i hope we retain that excitement, the joy of discovering, of learning.