‘What’s that?’ a child says, pointing to a tiny snail that is hiding between some stones in your outdoor area. The snail has a stripy brown and white shell. As you both watch it, the snail pokes its head out of the shell, its tiny eyes on the end of its two tiny tentacles. ‘It’s a snail,’ you say. ‘Do you want to hold it?’ The child nods. Gently, ever so gently, you pick up the snail, and you place it on her palm. As the snail begins to move, the child laughs in delight at the tickling sensation. She holds the snail up to her face to study its stripy pattern in detail. ‘His name is Sid,’ she says.
One of the most magical things about working in the early years is those moments when you see a child experience something for the first time. The wide, staring eyes as the children see tadpoles wriggling in a jar of pond water, their tiny frog legs just starting to form. The surprised expressions as the children feel gloop in their hands, experiencing that strange texture that is somewhere between a liquid and a solid. Small children are endlessly curious about their world, especially if we tap into their sense of wonder by giving them access to lots of different experiences. It is our innate curiosity that is behind the human desire to learn. It is our instinct to explore, to experiment and to wonder that helped us put a man on the moon.
One time at Halloween, we gave our preschool children the chance to make lanterns out of some giant pumpkins that we had grown on our allotment. One little girl sat on the ground, a huge orange pumpkin in front of her, watching as I carved a hole to make a lid. When I helped her pull the lid off the pumpkin and she took her first look inside, her eyes opened wide. At first she was cautious, but soon she dug her hands into the pumpkin and felt around inside. For a very long time, she squished the seeds between her fingers, a series of sensations playing across her face. Eventually she grabbed some of the stringy flesh, and pulled it out. She lifted her fingers to her mouth and she licked it. She paused for a moment, considering her opinion on this strange new taste. And then a look of wonder lit up her face.