- Ages: 4+
- Materials: mirror; string; scissors
- Time: About an hour
- # of kids: 1 or more
- Season: Mid April-Early July
Children—well, all people really—are naturally drawn to animals. Naturalist John Muir said it beautifully:
"Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way."If you guide your kids to do nothing more than notice, watch, or casually study animals in your area, they will be fascinated and you will have an opening to inspire in them a lifelong curiosity. Then, go one step further by introducing a genuine problem to solve within the captivating context of observing animals. When you combine such an engaging situation with genuine, self-directed problem-solving, you get all parts of kids’ brains firing, and you create the potential for lasting, deep learning. Now, that is mind-making.
What’s one way to do this? Hunt for and find a robin’s nest. Talk with kids about the nest, what they notice and what they think might be inside. Then, challenge them to use a few simple materials (mirrors, string and scissors) and anything around them to make a tool to spy inside the nest without disturbing the nest or its tenants in any way.
Watch as they imagine, design, build, test and adjust their tool. Support them as they execute their vision. Then, stand with them and watch their faces light up as you use their tool to peek into the life of a robin. Cheer with them as you see the bright blue eggs or, if you are lucky, baby robins. In the days that follow, come back to watch the nest and keep track of the robins...and be prepared to build further versions of the tool to reach other nests, high and low.
You’ll know in your gut that this is an incredibly valuable use of your time together, but it never hurts to hear some research to support that feeling:
- It’s brain science—Priscilla Vail, prominent national educator and speaker, in her article, “The Role of Emotions in Learning,” writes,
“Emotion is an on/off switch for learning…the 'emotional brain,' the limbic system, has the power to open or close access to learning, memory, and the ability to make connections.”It turns out, emotions originate in the brain’s limbic system which is located between the brain stem (the most primitive part that first receives information from the senses) and the cortex (where higher level thinking, creativity, and most of the learning is done). If the limbic system interprets incoming sensory information as negative, then its access into the cortex is denied, and, as a result, thinking and learning are inhibited. However, if the sensory information is interpreted as positive, then its access to the cortex is granted, and the brain directs behavior in such a way that thinking and learning are enhanced.
So, if the learning situation evokes a joyful emotional response, the brain will be even better able to operate and learn. And, few experiences are more joyful than peeking into a robin’s nest to see bright blue eggs and even fledglings (baby birds)—wonders to behold.
- Creativity—The complicated and ever changing world into which our kids will grow demands that they be more creative and innovative than generations before. By creative, we mean able to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and do what needs to be done to make them happen. By challenging kids to purpose-build a tool and then enabling them to use it to solve a problem, you give them the chance to practice both the imagining and the doing and, more importantly, to develop their creativity.
- Executive Function Skills—Children (and adults) need strong executive function skills, such as focus, working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self control, in order to learn. When you help your kids develop these skills, they actually learn how to learn. And, research continues to point to these skills as critical indicators of kids’ success in school and even of college completion. By choosing such an engaging context and letting kids work out their own solution, you give kids the ideal practice at staying focused and on task.
- Find a robin’s nest.—You definitely do not have to be an animal expert to find a robin’s nest. You need to find the edge of a wooded area, preferably where you see robins in nearby open spaces. Then, look closely for nests in the lower halves of trees, built on one or more horizontal branches (aka in a “nook” in the tree). A birder friend of mine once told me that robins nest where kids would put the nests in trees. Use a mirror or hold up a camera to peek in the nest yourself first, if you want to make sure that there is, indeed, something in the nest.
- Chat before you start—To engage kids’ curiosity, talk with them about what they know and think about the nest before you start developing tools or trying to look inside. Ask questions like:
- Why do birds build nests?
- How do you think the robin made this nest? (what materials, what process, how long did it take? etc)
- What do you think will be in the nest? (Get kids to be as detailed as you can. For example, if they say “eggs,” ask "How many?" or “What do you think the eggs will look like?” and “Why do you think so?”)
- How do you think the mother robin would feel about us getting close to the nest?
- How do you think we should move/act if we got close to the nest? (Practice how to move and act before you approach the nest).
- Set up the challenge—Ask: “Would you like to see what is inside of the nest?” Then, provide the mission: Build a tool from scratch that will help you see what is inside the nest without touching or bothering the birds or the nest. Then, show them the materials with which they have to work.
- Materials—We provided a plastic, curved mirror, string and scissors. Then, kids could add anything they could find outside (sticks, branches, other trees, rocks, etc.). [Note: You can use any small, portable mirror you’ve got. We cut out the baby mirror we had in the car (gives a great view).]
- Support kids as they imagine, design and build—This can be the tricky part. Depending on their ages, kids will be more or less able to do this on their own. The key is to let them drive as much of the process as they can. For example, if you have a 5 year old, you want to let him come up with as many ideas as he can. Accept all of them, even ones that you know will not work.
For example, kids in our class imagined a range of solutions including: giant stilts made out of sticks; pulley systems to raise the mirror up; using mirrors together as in a periscope; and tying a mirror to a long branch.
You can help move the process along by summarizing the ideas for kids and helping them to pick one to start with. Help gather materials that are too heavy or challenging for them to gather. Cut string and tie knots if need be, but make sure you are cutting and tying where the kids wants the string to be cut or tied. If a design fails, remind them that that is part of the process and is good, as long as they learn how to improve the design.
If you have more than one child, encourage them to work as a team and support them in the same way—by asking questions and offering to help execute their vision.
- What if I have little ones?—If you have really young kids (under 4), they will not be able to envision or build a tool. However, they can learn by listening to you as you model and talk through the process of wondering how to use the materials, testing out designs and building the tool. Then, they will certainly enjoy and benefit from using the tool to see into the nest.