My not yet five-year old had to write an e-mail to his friend on Pluto telling him all about plants. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to tell him what to write or to ask him to do so himself, but he seemed to know exactly what had to go into that e-mail. Since he had already written two pages of three-letter words, I asked him to dictate the letter to me.
‘Plants can breathe’, he began. ‘Sure, plants can breathe’, I thought to myself while writing that down, ‘but would someone on Pluto know what the act of breathing involves. Should we not go into much greater detail on how plants breathe, and what happens when they do?’
‘Plants are green in colour’, he continued. ‘Most plants are green in colour’, I corrected mentally. At least this was a descriptive sentence someone in Pluto could understand.
‘Plants have leaves’, he said. ‘Sure they do’, I thought to myself, ‘but anyone who knows what leaves are would not need to be told about plants.’ This assignment seemed to be getting nowhere, or maybe I was just taking it too literally. Maybe the point of the assignment was not about educating a mythical friend on Pluto – maybe all they were testing was my son’s ability to dictate an essay to his mother.
‘Plants….’ began my son, when I indicated I was done, but he was cut short by a disemboweled voice from under the table. ‘Plants give us oxygen’, intoned the voice that I now recognized as belonging to my two and a half year old son.
To say that I was struck dumb would be a slight bit of an understatement. My mind was in limbo for a couple of minutes, before I recovered enough to even react to that statement.
I had thought the teachers were being over-optimistic when they sent my older son a flash card saying ‘Plants give us oxygen’ – would a five year old even be able to pronounce the word, much less remember it or understand what it means? What was the point of teaching him such complicated stuff when he might be better off learning something like ‘Cats eat fish and milk’?
But to hear his younger brother repeat the phase made me realise that the barriers we place on the knowledge our kids acquire are barriers of our own creation.
I am sure neither of my kids has any idea what oxygen is, or how plants give them oxygen, but I am not sure how many of their parents would know that either. But what they do seem to be able to do is retain a random statement, and pull it out in the correct context.
Is that not the first step to acquiring knowledge?
While I would definitely like them to know a little more than just the bland statement that ‘plants give us oxygen’, I am pleased that they do know that.
‘Leaves have chlorophyll’ says another of my son’s flash cards. That is the easy one – I just need to tell the kids that chlorophyll is the kitchen where plants cook their food when they are not ordering takeaway.
But I still wish he had been asked to write an essay instead of an e-mail to a friend on Pluto.