Random Acts of Experimentation

Recently when we were sitting at the table finishing lunch, my wife and I were relishing an extended conversation while our son, Eli, switched between spreading peanut butter on crackers and licking his fingers.

With lunch I had a glass of water and Eli had an apple juice box. As my wife and I continued talking, I saw something out of the corner of my eye: Eli’s hand reaching for my glass of water. I looked over and he smiled and said, “Can I have this?” “Sure,” I replied. Boy, was he excited. But why? Did he finish his juice box? Was he still thirsty?

Turns out he needed to experiment. He spread out a cloth napkin on the table, dunked his juice box upside down into my half-full glass of water, gave it a squeeze, set the box on the table and squeezed again. Much to his delight, watery apple juice squirted out! Over and over he did this until he was out of water.

Not wanting to miss this awesome moment I said, “Wow! How did you do that?”

He replied, “Like this,” dunking his juice box in the water glass again and squeezing it.

“Oh, you squeeze it and air bubbles come out. Where does the water go?” I asked.

“Yah, it goes here,” he said, giving the box a good squeeze, making the water spray onto the napkin.

“I like how you spread the napkin out. It seems to catch the water,” I said.

“We don’t want too messy. It would be a big mess!” he said. “This is just a little bit.”

Why didn’t my wife and I stop this? Water could go everywhere; he’s playing with a glass and making a mess! But we didn’t stop him. We never stepped in and re-directed him. Why not? What were we thinking?

We were thinking , “Why NOT let him experiment?” He was gaining so much from this harmless activity that to stop him would keep him from learning and making connections with other activities. It only lasted about eight minutes and he was thoroughly satisfied when finished.

Allowing young children the freedom to experiment with materials in their own way encourages them to be scientists, hypothesize about problems and discover for themselves how and why things work. They also are developing fine motor and persistence skills needed to navigate a complex world. When we take this window of opportunity to ask probing questions, add new vocabulary and allow for time to process we turn this impromptu moment into an intentional one.

After Eli had exhausted his supply of water he let out a very satisfying sigh looking at the now empty glass, the juice box and the soaked napkin. Then he looked at us, smiling, and said, “Want to go play trucks? You can have the concrete mixer, daddy, and mommy can use the water.”

4 thoughts on “Random Acts of Experimentation

  1. Elizabeth Sloan

    I don’t understand how it is acceptable to allow a child to completely disregard table manners. I’m all about children learning about science at a young age and messes aren’t a problem, but when you allow a child to play at the table like that you are taking away from their social development. If he wants to experiment with his juice box, fine, just separate that activity from the meal table.

    1. Josh Craig Post author

      The purpose of this post was to encourage adults to show awareness of a young child’s need to explore their world. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers are by nature sensory seeking. The need to squeeze something, to hear a delicate or loud sound, to apply knowledge of cause and effect are so strongly innate that to deny them may result in frustration, fatigue and shut-down.

      I agree that table manners are a worthwhile cause and contribute immensely to a civil society. However, each of us may have differing opinions about table etiquette. What is proper in your home may not be someone else’s.

      I also believe that he knows what is acceptable at one place may not be acceptable at another. For instance, what he does at our house may not be acceptable at his grandparents house; or he may not be able to do some things at school that he can do at home. To me that contributes to his social development in a positive way. I would also submit that without all the situational context of this one event one runs the risk of misinterpretation.

      To me, this was a successful adventure and immensely powerful in learning opportunities.

  2. Jamie

    I am not sure how this was a complete disregard of table manners. Eli had plenty of insight to spread out a napkin to catch most of his mess. A lot of times in an early childhood setting, we begin at an early age to teach when and where certain activities or expectations are acceptable. A child may be allowed to jump on the couch at home but at school it is not okay. At home it may be okay to experiment with liquids and containers at the table but at grandma’s house it isn’t okay. I believe this is important for a child’s social development.
    I think it is best to remember that what works in one household may not work in another and all cultures have differing ideas on table manners.

  3. Elizabeth Sloan

    While I do understand the need for young children to explore (I am a preschool teacher after all) I still have to stand my ground that there is a proper time and place for such events. Young children have a difficult time distinguishing rules from the different places they go to, though it’s not impossible as I have plenty of children that act different in my class than they do at home.

    The problem I have is that though children should explore and the activity he was doing was a good experiment it was still a bad place to do it. I understand some homes are okay with this, and that is the parents right. I personally would never let my future child play like that at the table. There are plenty of places in which a messy activity could be done without interrupting a meal time.

    I think that, as a society, we spend so much time letting children explore and express themselves that we forget to teach them how to be a functioning human. While children should be able to express themselves creatively as well as explore and experiment with their environment we also have a responsibility to teach them how to properly function in our society.

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