Learning can happen anywhere

June 12, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

Learning opportunities can pop up at almost any time.

That was the case one recent weekend, when my son asked if we could build a campfire. Earlier in the day, his tae kwon do teacher had offered us a box of remnants from board-breaking classes to use as kindling for our fire pit. A campfire had seemed such a good idea at the time, but when he reminded me about it that evening, my first thought was the Saturday to-do list that was not nearly complete.

His sisters were both at sleepovers; his dad had gone out to hear a musician friend perform. It was just the two of us, and one look at his face told me I couldn’t bail on our evening plan.

“We’ll make a small fire,” I said, and he beamed.

He headed off to the garage to get camp chairs while I gathered fire-starting paraphernalia and s’mores-making ingredients.

I arranged the kindling and paper in the fire pit while my son helped himself to a can of lemonade. I heard him open the can then watched as he placed it in the chair’s cupholder and plopped into the seat.

A funny look crossed his face. “Oh-oh,” he said. He stood up from the chair, lemonade dripping down his legs. “I’m going to change my shorts.” I watched with a smile as he waddled toward the house.

A few minutes later, he was back, and he sat down more gingerly this time, eyeing the can of lemonade as he did.

The kindling boards had caught fire, along with a small log, and I sat down in the chair next to him.

“Mom, can we do that story thing?” he asked.

He was remembering last summer’s campfires, when we sat around telling stories, with each person adding a few sentences. The stories could get quite silly and humorous, particularly when his sisters and cousins were involved.

“You start,” he said.

I looked around for inspiration. “There once was a squirrel who found a can of lemonade,” I said.

We each took a few turns adding details to the adventure, then paused to make our s’mores. We talked about how difficult it can be to toast a marshmallow “just right,” and I watched as he patiently held his roasting stick in the heat above the flames.

We discussed the animals the squirrel met on his journey – the bird, the bear, the lion, the frog and the wildebeest – and figured out which would be the fastest. We talked about when the butterflies in his 3rd grade classroom might come out from their cocoons. He told me about the caterpillar and the chrysalis, and what the butterfly would look like when it emerged.

Then, satisfied with marshmallows and story, he was ready to go inside.

Taking a break from the to-do list had been a learning experience for both of us – and created a precious, treasured memory. Here’s what we learned:

    Learning opportunities can come at the most unexpected times -particularly when we slow down and talk to each other. Learning happens in many different ways. Talking about butterflies was an opportunity to review what he had learned at school -something he needed to do for a test the following week. This method didn’t feel like studying, though. We learn by telling stories -it’s how we process information and make sense of the world around us. The more we tell stories, the better we get at communicating ideas. To-do lists can wait; memory making may not. When life gives you a can of lemonade, sit carefully.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is mom to two teen-age daughters and an 8-year-old son who is looking forward to many campfires and much storytelling this summer.