Children have no shortage of imagination. Whether it’s exploring the many ways to use a cardboard box or translating a few scribbles on a page into a fascinating story of space cowboys, we can count on little ones to stretch the possibilities of reality.
As a mother, I spend a good amount of time thinking about how I foster my children’s imagination and creativity. Usually, this comes in the form of having conversations about potential activities they want to try or researching resources we can purchase for exploration at home. Still, it is a daunting task to plan ahead for every possible thing our children might want to do. While I’ve written about spontaneity before, this is less about surprise learning and more about my decision to let go.
I don’t mean I’ve stopped caring about their experiences—those will always be extremely important to me. I mean that I’ve decided to let go of acting on an impulse that admonishes me to constantly shape their opportunities. Instead, I want my children’s exposure to new ideas, environments, and concepts to be more organic and naturally occurring, which is also far less stressful for me. I believe in strategic experiences that can open doors to more, yet I am keenly aware that many things can—and should—happen without my involvement.
My worry grows from several places within me, and when I’m not careful, it generates fear that tells me I’m not doing enough to expose my children to the world around them. It’s silly when I think about it. Both of my children have lived and attended schools on multiple continents, traveled to countless places, and met and interacted with people from a wide array of cultures. Despite this reality, I still catch myself stressing over whether I’m meeting the standard.
Enough is enough, and I finally came to that realization one morning after dropping off my daughter at school. She goes to the Will Smith Zoo School, a nature-based preschool that encourages outdoor learning and play. We’d decided to enroll her this school year when we got the call because I wanted her to grow up without an aversion to nature. At the time, she was our “kill it with fire” child, and she seemingly had no interest in animals or nature. Our hope was that the Zoo School would change that.
I recall my four-year-old and I walking quickly to her classroom on one brisk morning. We were just about to turn the corner when she stopped, stooped down, and scooped up a little roly-poly. I wasn’t quite sure what she planned to do because I’d never seen my “humans only, please” child engage with nature in such a way.
She walked toward the classroom door with her two little hands pushed together, palms up, holding the crawling bug. I watched as she studied its movements, tilting her hands ever so slightly to keep it from falling over the edge. As I opened the door, astonished, she sped to her teacher to show what she’d found. Her teacher gasped and smiled as the little bug slipped through my daughter’s fingers and onto the floor.
“Uh oh!” her teacher mused. “That’s OK. It’s lucky to have that exoskeleton as protection, huh?”
My daughter bent down to collect her new friend, nestled it gently in her hand, and headed back toward the door. “I’ll be right back,” she announced.
I asked her what she was planning to do, and she said very matter-of-factly, “I’m going to find him a new home.”
She stepped outside and looked around. It was clear that she didn’t want to return the roly-poly to the main walkway because she was worried he might get trampled. Another teacher told her, “You can put him in the dirt by the fountain if you’re worried about his safety.”
She nodded in agreement and walked over to the fence. I observed as she placed her hand between the fence railings and released the roly-poly into his new home. Satisfied with her accomplishment, she turned around, kissed me goodbye, and ran into the room to wash her hands.
As I walked back to the car, I smiled. I’d just witnessed a transformation that didn’t require me to create it. By merely placing her in the right situation, she was able to evolve on her own and learn so much in the process. I breathed a bit easier that day. We’d done a good thing, made the right choice. There is no need for me to fear that our children are missing out. The answers are always right in front of me; I just need to take a moment to witness them.