Last weekend, one of the families that I work with decided to take their young son to an area science museum. They had some relatives in town visiting and they were eager to see a special space exhibit there. They presumed that their seventeen-month-old son would be pretty excited by the exhibit as well, and they kind of built the experience up in their minds leading up to the day of the trip. I’m pretty sure that by the time their car was pulling into the parking lot of the museum, they had him hired on at NASA, donning his first spacesuit. The reality of the experience was grounding, to say the least. It turns out their toddler has a mind of his own and he chose to eschew the space exhibit in favor of the kelp forest full of fish. He could have spent hours there, his small face pressed to the glass, watching the fish swim back and forth and back and forth before his eyes, some of them larger than any fish he had ever seen before. Unfortunately for him, his family had an agenda for the day and the general consensus seems to have been that his interest in aquatic life was holding them back.
Come Monday morning, his dad couldn’t wait to report to us on this experience. “He had NO INTEREST in space,” he marveled, equal parts fascinated and disgusted. “We went ALL THE WAY there and he just wanted to see fish, like he can see every day here,” he gestured to our fish tank. “When we tried to get him away, he kept signing, ‘Fish! Fish!’ He started to cry when we tried to convince him to walk away.”
I felt the need to put on my Teacher Hat and turned to the toddler. “Oh my gosh, did you see so many fish?” I asked. He grinned and signed, ‘fish’. “You really like fish, don’t you? They’re so interesting to watch. I wonder what you see when you look at them. Did you notice that those fish were so much bigger than our small fish here? It’s interesting to see the differences, isn’t it?” I turned to his dad for a minute and observed, “It’s such a wonderful cognitive experience for him to see so many examples of something with the same classification. Now he understands that there are so many different sizes and colors and species, but maybe he is observing that all fish have certain things in common. He spent a long time thinking about that with birds, remember?”
“I thought he would be really excited about the space exhibit,” his dad grumbled.
“He might be a bit young,” I suggested gently, “‘Space‘ is a pretty abstract concept at his age, especially compared to real, live fish. If that is something that you are excited about though, I think he will probably be excited too in a few years — many children like to share in their parents’ interests. Some parents like to share in their child’s interests too. Who knows, maybe one day he will be a marine biologist and you will think, ‘It’s all because I took him to see the kelp forest!'”
His dad chuckled and went to work, while the toddler and I went over to feed our fish for the day. As one particularly speedy fish zoomed by, he gasped and pointed. I crouched beside him and tried to see what he saw. He looked at me and smiled, then looked back at the fish and pointed again at something happening inside the tank.
I know for a fact that no one reading this blog would ever take an experience like that for granted: having the opportunity to slow down and share in the wonder, awe, and excitement of a child seeing something through such fresh, new eyes. What a gift to spend time with people so new to the world, to the wonders of it all. What remarkable developmental milestones we can observe as a child communicates their amazement to us through signs, words, and gestures. Think of the neurons firing and strengthening as they assimilate so much information about a concept. And think of how this experience could be the foundation for future learning: about classification, about language, about diversity, about ecology, about community… The world is at your feet.
Once when my niece, who is now seven, was a toddler, I took her to a park with the intention of feeding the ducks. “It will be so much fun!” I imagined, “We’ll see the ducks! We’ll give them bread! She can see them running and waddling and swimming. She is going to be so excited.” In the real world, where toddlers live, we never spent much time at all with the ducks because my niece was REALLY interested in some sticks that she found on the ground. At first, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the sticks. I didn’t know — couldn’t see, couldn’t understand — the inherent magic in the sticks, through those toddler eyes. I tried to cajole her to come nearer the ducks. I talked about the bread and the swimming and I may have even sung a little bit about ducks. She humored me for about a minute and a half, but then it was back to the sticks. When she found some leaves, I started to tune in. I got down on her level and just watched. It was a slice of heaven, as soon as I was able to let go of my duck obsession.
In case you ever find yourself in this situation, I have a little bit of toddler-specific advice for your theoretical outing.
- Release your time-related expectations. Things that you think may engage for hours may, in reality, engage for seconds. Things that you think will take only minutes may take hours. Especially if water is involved (see above regarding fish). Be prepared to go with the flow (no pun intended). If you start to feel frustrated or disappointed, remind yourself to check in with your child — engage yourself in their engagement. Be still.
- Don’t talk it to death. We love to talk at toddlers, don’t we? We think we’re giving them words for everything, and we are, but we don’t need to flood them all the time. Some shared experiences are quiet ones. Watching fish swimming back and forth and quietly acknowledging to one another, “Fish,” is a powerful shared experience. When your toddler is still, take a breath. Be present.
- With toddlers, do not over-plan. Never, ever over-plan. For example, if you’re making a trip to a science museum, don’t go with your own agenda. Find out what excites them. It may be people-watching! It may be the ants on the sidewalk outside. It may be the food court. Rather than that being a letdown, try to enjoy it for what it is and make discoveries side by side. Be open!
- Pack snacks. And extra snacks. Whatever you think they may need? Throw in an extra, just-in-case. Be prepared.
- Consider your expectations in advance. If there is a possibility that you will resent going, “ALL THE WAY,” to a destination and not getting what you want from the experience, it may not be the right time to attempt to share that experience with your toddler. Toddlers live in the moment and they can’t really get excited in advance of an experience. Give it a few years. Be realistic.
Just when you think your toddler is going to be a toddler forever and you will never again be sane, they turn — seemingly overnight — into slightly more rational, slightly less enthusiastic, slightly bigger, more coordinated people who are a lot easier and more predictable to take out into the world. And then you desperately hunger for that wild, sticky, impetuous, tyrannical, sweet little bundle of energy who compelled you to stop and watch the fish swim for hours. Don’t let that wonder and uncommon wisdom pass by without acknowledging its beauty. I have a theory that infants and toddlers are much, much closer to truly understanding the meaning of life than any of us will be again in our lifetimes.