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Think fast, these kids are smart!

Children notice everything, even the things we try to hide or skim over. Have you ever tried to outsmart a child or pretend to know something (after all aren’t adults “supposed” to know it all), and ended up in a tight corner? We might use distraction tactics: “Look! A butterfly!” or worse, resort to punishment when we feel like our authority is challenged. As a teacher, I learnt that going into class unprepared was a recipe for disaster. That said, being prepared doesn’t mean the unexpected won’t occur. Books titled, “Questions Children Ask,” and other related literature can be helpful, but nothing really fully prepares teachers, parents or anyone who works with children for the surprises they hurl at us. So what are adults to do? Think fast, think on your feet, and make it good! I want to share two instances where I had to think fast to avoid a failed lesson and an impending tantrum.

Late last year, I started an educational initiative called WonderspacED. We create uniquely designed lesson plans that let children explore and discover their environment. Children explore themes over an 8-week period, and this particular lesson I will expand on was part of our Birds in Ghana series. The lesson was focused on the weaver bird. Weaver birds build intricate and interesting-looking nests, so as one of the main activities, I planned to have the children make their own hanging nests. I asked a skilled cane weaver to create basic structures (frames) of the nests to ensure that the children achieved a measurable level of success. The children had to figure out how to use raffia strips to create a functional nest. I was expecting the cane weaver to make 10 little frames as 9 children had signed up for the Saturday session, but unfortunately, he was only able to make 4 frames. What do I do with 4 frames and 9 children? Group work seemed like the obvious answer, but randomly grouped children working on an activity that required attention and teamwork didn’t seem like a solution.

I had to come up with something convincing! As I looked through the sign-up sheet, I realised that although there were 9 children, there were 4 families. Things were looking promising, but how were we going to avoid any sibling wars? As I read a little more, I learnt that weaver birds tend to nest in large groups and are referred to as a colony species, living and interacting closely with each other. AHA! That was it — use the social behaviour of weaver birds to justify the need for children to work in family groups. The children were absolutely convinced by this reasoning. There was no whining at all. There was healthy competition between the family groups and different teams actually helped each other. Within teams, siblings assigned different roles to each other and took turns without a fuss. A lesson that had the potential to be slightly chaotic (maybe more than slightly), ended up running smoothly. The children learnt a new behavioural trait of the weaver bird, acknowledged it as a good reason to work in teams and applied this knowledge in their interactions with their own siblings. Success!

As an adult, teacher, leader or parent in a situation, it’s easy to use phrases like: “…because I said so” or another hilarious one from parents, “…because I brought you into this world.” I agree that children need occasional reminders about who is in charge, but I also believe that there are several opportunities to use their persistent whys, hesitations and even pending tantrums to teach something profound, provide a new perspective or simply deactivate a ticking time bomb. It’s easier said than done.

In the second “think fast” instance, I was grading papers in class as another teacher led an art activity with the Year 1 group. The teacher was fully prepared for the activity and the children were excited about creating ‘frog and butterfly’ craft using old tissue paper/ cling film roll, googly eyes and cardstock. Everything was running smoothly until a child who had been out of class for sometime walked back in. Oops! There weren’t enough paper rolls! Attempts were made to comfort this child and suggestions for a different activity were offered. He wouldn’t budge. He wanted to use the same materials his classmates were using. I realised I needed to step in and help (although it was my only free period…sigh).

The search for tissue paper/cling film roll was harder than I anticipated. After looking in both the expected and unlikely places, I finally found something that could potentially work but there was one problem — the roll was significantly thinner than the rolls the other children had. The class would notice the difference and snicker or tease the already sulking boy. As predicted, as soon as I walked in with the paper roll, some of the children started giggling. There was no way we could let this boy make the exact same item, which was either a frog or butterfly. I whispered to the teacher, “Can you make a snake with him?” She agreed. We explained to the class that he needed to make a special snake, so his paper roll had to be much thinner than all the others. The children nodded and chimed in, “Ohhh! Yes! It has to be much smaller if it is a snake. These big ones won’t work.” The class was convinced and the boy was thrilled. Crisis averted.

Depending on the age group you are dealing with, it may be more challenging to come up with something good and convincing but it is not impossible. There is an interesting verse in Isaiah that says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD.” I read that and think, if the God of the universe can make time to reason with me, then surely, I can make time to reason with a child, no matter how young. All children are very bright and can figure things out quicker than we usually give them credit for. They can spot the difference between a bad excuse and a solid reason. I would love to hear from you (yes, you the reader) about an instance when you came up with something convincing, something good, something that maintained the peace in a classroom, home, playground, store or any space. We can all share and learn from each other, lest we end up being that adult stuttering and fumbling around for a means of escape.

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