Hook ‘em While They’re Young

I need to hang around more young children. Most non-geologically inclined adults look upon my hand samples as a personal quirk, one of those odd things about Dana that’s of a piece with her LOTR decor in the bedroom, and not quite as interesting as that. They like the pretty samples with the nice crystals and a lot of sparkles, but they lose interest by the time I whip out the mudstone.

But kids, now, they’re a different matter entirely.

Old friends of mine have just moved to the Northwest, and they came by for a visit with their grandkids in tow. Once the two boys had finished exhausting themselves on the playground outside, they came in and started staring at the rocks. They said what all the adults do: “Wow, you’ve got a lot of rocks.” That’s true. I have so many rocks now it turns me pale when I contemplate moving.

I thought I shouldn’t bore them, but I whipped out a few samples anyway, and started talking about how they were formed. I didn’t shy away from words like “subduction zone” and “metamorphose.” I gave them the hand lens and set them loose. And we ended up going through very nearly every rock in the house, even the little brown boring ones.

By the end of it, I’d enlisted the elder brother to pack samples out of the field, and he was talking about the need to start a collection of his own. The youngest begged two pieces of magnetized hematite off me. Then, when I walked them to the car, the elder picked up a pebble, asked me if it was granite (it was) and pocketed it with evident delight.

I’ve never had a more rapt audience, with more questions and understanding. They didn’t blink at the hard words (probably helped that I’d throw in a simple definition whenever those words came up). They soaked the knowledge in without glazing over after ten minutes. And it was one of the greatest times I’ve ever had. There’s nothing quite like giving kids the tools to understand a little more of the world around them.

It’s a good thing their grandparents love this stuff, too, and won’t mind that their charges are now going to be a bit rock-obsessed on hikes. Extra bonus: they’ll tire themselves out more hauling all those extra pounds. This is not a small consideration when you’ve got two energetic kids to contend with. Anything that works off that energy is a boon for adults.

So, we’ve got a pair of kids who will now be able to identify granite, gneiss and schist in the field, who’ll have a good chance at spotting turbidites, and know something of how a subduction zone works. They’re already good with their volcanics and limestones, having been exposed to quite a lot of those before they moved up here. They make me wish I knew more, because it doesn’t seem like there’s any end to their curiosity.

That’s the beautiful thing about kids. They’re starving. They want to know everything, they’re curious and adventurous, and all it takes is putting examples in their hands and talking to them about science to make them excited about it. Also, having grandparents with a “Got Science?” bumpersticker helps. We’re hooking them on science young, and even if they don’t go on to become scientists, they’ll have an appreciation for it that follows them throughout their lives. They’ll understand their world to a degree that many people never do.

Dumbing down science, or keeping it away from kids for religious reasons, is a travesty. So is the way we so often teach it, out of a book, with too little opportunity to get their hands on it. And don’t get me started on “chemical-free” chemistry sets.

So here’s what I’ve learned from that brief foray into informal teaching: kids are interested in the dull-looking stuff just as much as shiny, because they haven’t told themselves there’s nothing interesting about the dull-looking stuff. You can lob big words and concepts at them, and they’ll catch them well enough, probably better than many adults. Then you turn them loose to use what they’ve just learned. Well, that and leave them to watch X-Men while the adults finally have that conversation they haven’t been able to enjoy IRL for far too many years.

And I love this stuff. I’ve never wanted kids of my own, and still don’t, but I’m going to have to borrow some more friends’ kids more often. Showing them things about the world they’ve never seen is great good fun, and will hopefully help them get through the endless dull school days wherein it seems the only point is to quench the thirst for knowledge.