Tent Caterpillars Visit The School

One day last spring, near the middle of April, one of my students noticed a web of some kind high up in one of the trees on our playground. Soon, a group of children had gathered and they began to discuss what had caused the mysterious web.

I had a pretty good idea what it was, but I kept my thoughts to myself. It’s not all that common for children to come across such a unique and fascinating phenomenon. I wanted them to practice thinking of possible explanations. It’s hard, sometimes, to hold your tongue when you have the knowledge your students are seeking. But if you want them to learn not just the facts but also the processes that produce those facts, you have to allow for some struggle. Most students concluded that some kind of spider had made the web. One student thought that it could be part of the tree.


A few days later, I noticed that there were a few more webs in the same tree. One web was within my reach. I decided to break off its branch, so that we could observe it in the classroom.

Right away, the children saw that inside of the web was a group of caterpillars. At this point, I said, “Oh! I think these are called tent caterpillars.” We did a little bit of research and determined that there are two varieties of tent caterpillar that live here in DC. I printed pictures of those two varieties, which the children compared to our caterpillars. Everyone agreed that we had captured eastern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma americanum).


We kept the caterpillars for about two weeks. They spent most of their time hiding in the middle of their web, but they occasionally ventured out in groups, crawled around, expanded their web, and munched on leaves. We expected, based on our research, that they would consistently emerge at specific times of day. However, we were never able to identify a reliable pattern. They often came out shortly before lunch, but not every day.


As we continued to research eastern tent caterpillars, we read somewhere that they can live in various types of trees. I suggested that we could do an experiment to see if our caterpillars would eat different leaves. We started by adding a leafy branch from one new tree. The caterpillars didn’t take a single bite from it. One student observed that those leaves smelled “spicy,” and suggested that, “maybe they don’t like spicy leaves.” So we put in two other varieties of leaves, neither of which smelled spicy (according to our budding scientists). The caterpillars ignored those, too. We were skeptical, and rightfully so. I later learned that we had been misinformed in our research; it seems that eastern tent caterpillars only live on one family of trees.


The children also observed that there were little black balls in the caterpillars’ web. I was sure it was waste, but most of the children thought they were eggs. We took some out and put them in a small container, in order to test the egg hypothesis. Nothing happened, of course. A week later, we observed one of the caterpillars pooping. “I think it’s laying an egg,” one student proposed. I explained that it’s moths and butterflies that lay the eggs, not caterpillars. That convinced everyone that we were dealing with poop, not eggs.

Out on the playground, I combed over the caterpillars’ home tree and found something that looked more like tent caterpillar eggs: a bump on a branch that was likely caused by an insect of some kind. I broke it off and brought it back to the classroom. Alas, nothing ever came out of it; whatever was in there had probably already hatched, perhaps years ago.


The caterpillars’ waste had built up rapidly, and it had begun to stink, so we decided it was time to let them go. We released them one by one, carefully placing them back onto the tree where we had found them.

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We saved four caterpillars, in the hopes that they would form cocoons, and two of them did. A couple of weeks later, we had two healthy-looking lappet moths. They weren’t very exciting as pets. They changed positions at night, but nobody ever saw them move. We tried putting the cage in a dark closet, hoping that it would awaken their nocturnal instincts. Still, they stayed put. When we took them outside to release them, I was able to get them to crawl onto a slice of orange. The first rested there for about a minute and then took flight. It flew directly to the bark of a small tree. A group of children followed it and one of them exclaimed, “It’s camouflaged!”




I don’t know if this particular set of activities is replicable. But, I wanted to share it because it demonstrates the potential richness of learning experiences that incorporate nature. Plants and animals can stimulate children’s wonder and curiosity like nothing else. Whatever outdoor space you educators and parents have access to, I encourage you to make the most of it.

Grace for President: Thoughts on Gender and the Presidency

One day this past spring, as my pre-k students were ripping newspapers for a project involving paper maché, we came across a photograph from a republican primary debate. One student said, “Those people want to be president. I don’t like that one guy. Who’s that mean guy?” A spirited conversation ensued. (I could write more about “that mean guy” and his effect on my students, but that’s not my focus here.)

In the days that followed, students continued to discuss the election. The topic came up so much that I decided to delve a little deeper. I introduced the book Grace for President (by Kelly DiPucchio), which tells the story of an elementary student who declares that she hopes to become president someday.

When I pulled out the book and read the title, nobody seemed surprised. Our school has a fairly progressive (i.e., rational, reasonable, feminist) approach with respect to gender roles. Our students’ play is much less gender-stereotyped than what you’d see in most preschools. The girls play with racecars, and the boys bake strawberry pies. Recently, I had to deescalate a heated debate over who has the strongest mom. So, the idea that a girl could grow up and become president didn’t appear to rattle anyone’s foundational understanding of what boys and girls can do.

But, when I read the page on which the protagonist learns that we have never had a female president, the children looked dumbfounded—jaws dropped open, and brows furrowed. I asked, “Did you know that?” Most of the children shook their heads, and the room was quiet (a rarity), almost solemn.


I knew this would come as a surprise to some students, but I hadn’t anticipated what a big reaction it would cause. In that moment, I felt as though I had dropped a big dose of sexism into their lives. I felt that I should say more, but I wasn’t prepared. I said, “Isn’t that weird?” and then I finished the story.

From that point on, the class rallied behind Hillary Clinton. Our school is in a big city, so it’s no surprise that our families (and therefore the students) lean toward the Democratic Party. But Bernie Sanders was still contending at this point, and the children began flatly rejecting Sanders because he was “another man”—as though they were doing their part to correct a longstanding injustice.

Ever since, I have pondered how our conversations with children will change after we’ve elected a female president (as is likely to happen very soon). Sexism will still be a problem, of course, but I’ll be able to say, “It used to be we only had men as presidents.” When I say, “It’s not that way anymore,” I expect those brows will unfurrow, and those puzzled looks will change to satisfied expressions. Children will recognize that we’ve reached a better, more honorable resolution to the stories we tell about our presidents.

Planet Nine

My class is in the middle of an investigation of outer space right now. A pair of recent news stories has intensified their interest. This past weekend, a very bright meteor lit up the skies over D.C. One student was lucky enough to have seen it from his back yard. (Yes, I am jealous.) A couple of weeks before that, researchers from CalTech revealed evidence that there’s an undiscovered planet in our solar system, far beyond the orbits of the other eight planets. This new-to-us planet, dubbed “Planet Nine,” hasn’t been observed, but something big seems to affecting other bodies gravitationally.

There aren’t many clues as to what Planet Nine might be like. So I challenged my students to create their own renderings. Here’s what they came up with.

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“I think it might have a tail. I think it might be green.”

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“I think it has dots. And stripes.”

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“This is a double planet…”

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“I think it has fire balls…”

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“It has circles…”

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“I think it has my name…”

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“I think it’s rainbow colored.”

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“This is just a planet. It doesn’t have anything.”

Who knows; maybe one of them will be close. Of course, nature itself may very well reveal something even stranger.

Mealworms: A Life Cycle Worth Studying

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This past summer, I introduced my class to a series of science activities using mealworms. I had expected it would capture my students’ interests for just a few weeks, but it developed into a deep investigation, which captivated us for most of the summer. I’d like to describe some of what unfolded.

First, a few tips. Mealworms are easy to care for. You can buy them at most pet stores—they’re meant as food for pet reptiles, and they’re usually stored in a refrigerator until they’re sold. They can eat a variety of foods (including polystyrene, apparently), but I recommend oat bran, because it serves well as both bedding and food. The only other thing they need is water, which they can pull from fresh vegetables. I used baby carrots, because they’re cheap, easy, and long lasting.

An Introduction

Before introducing my mealworms to the class, I let them grow fairly large—about an inch long. I hoped students wouldn’t have to wait long before seeing changes.

I didn’t tell the children what was going to happen. In fact, I didn’t even use the word ‘mealworm’ at first. Instead, we began by discussing larvae. I asked what they knew about caterpillars and butterflies (which was plenty). I pointed out that a caterpillar is one kind of larva—that there are many other types of insects that begin as larvae before changing.

Then, I pulled out the mealworms (“larvae,” I called them) and we started observing. I scooped them out of the terrarium and onto plates for closer inspection.

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I asked children to speculate on what kinds of insects our larvae might turn into. Hypotheses included: butterflies, beetles, ants, bees, and flies. One student suggested that I get a lid for the terrarium, because he expected the larvae to change into flies.


Soon, we began to see changes. There was dead skin in the terrarium, evidence that larvae had been shedding their skin. We also noticed the appearance of small, half-curled little critters that moved very little, if at all. I suggested that some larva might have turned into pupae—the transitional stage between larva and adult insect. (A caterpillar’s chrysalis is a pupa, too, I pointed out.)

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About a week later, we saw our first beetles. The beetles were white at first, making them difficult to spot in with the oat bran, but they slowly changed to brown or black.

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Studying Individuals

At this point, the children were very excited. I wanted to find a way to extend our study. We hadn’t yet been able to study individual larvae, because they were unidentifiable and they moved around in the terrarium. So I decided to have each student care for a single larva, giving them a chance to observe their own mealworm’s development over time. I punched holes in the lids of small plastic containers. Children prepared their containers with oat bran and carrots, and then they each chose a larva from the terrarium. They named their new pet mealworms. (This was near the height of the Frozen craze; naturally, a full quarter of our mealworms were named Elsa.)

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For the following two weeks, children checked on their mealworms daily. They made (mostly rough) drawings of the mealworms each day.

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In that two-week period of time, most of the mealworms progressed from larva to pupa to beetle. When students asked to take their larvae, pupae, and beetles out of their containers, I tentatively consented, emphasizing the need for kindness and delicate care when handling live animals. There were some accidental drops, and children weren’t always gentle. (They discovered that they could get pupae to move by “tickling” them.) But the mealworms proved resilient. None of them escaped, all but one continued developing, and we had a lot of fun playing with them.

A New Generation

By this time, our original terrarium had produced twenty or thirty full-grown beetles. After each had emerged from its pupa, I had moved it into a second terrarium. Now, I presented children with a new possibility: perhaps the adult beetles (in the second terrarium) had laid eggs.

I scooped piles of oat bran from the second terrarium onto plates and the children set about looking for eggs. Although we never found anything that looked like an egg, our failure prompted a variety of thoughtful explanations from students: perhaps the beetles hadn’t yet laid eggs; perhaps the eggs were too small to see; perhaps the eggs were camouflaged. One student, drawing from prior lessons on mammals, suggested that beetles might not lay eggs. “Maybe they’re mammals,” she posited.

However, after more careful observation, we did find a fresh set of tiny mealworms! They weren’t easy to spot, but after patiently watching piles of oat bran, we often noticed very slight movements. With careful digging, we were able to locate and isolate these new larvae. My students were so enthralled with searching for these tiny critters that we continued hunting for nearly two weeks.

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If you’re looking for a science activity to try with young children, I recommend getting mealworms. They’re cheap, easy, and fun. And with the right guidance, they can present great opportunities to practice thoughtful, creative, early scientific thinking.

Comical Classroom Occurrences: 2014-2015

Much has changed since my last blog post. I moved away from Chicago and my friends at Creative Scholars, to Washington DC, where I now teach at another great little school: Takoma Children’s School. I’ll probably write about a few more things that I did with my students last year. And there will be plenty to write about the new school year, of course. But for now, I want to share my record of humorous happenings from the classroom last year. Enjoy!

September 2
Student 1: “Do you know who Michael Jordan is?”
Student 2: “No.”
Student 1: “He’s in Space Jam… It’s a movie.”

September 10
Me: “You’ve been alive for 4 years. That’s why we say that you’re 4.”
Student: “That’s weird.”

September 11
Student: “Nineteen is one of the biggest numbers in the WHOLE WORLD!”

September 11
Student: “I like bacon. It’s so healthy.”

September 12
Today, one of my quieter students picked up a toy drill and politely asked, “Who wants a hole in their face?”

September 18
Student: “It’s called sloppy Joes because it comes from Trader Joe’s.”

September 23
Me: “When’s your birthday.”
Student: “I don’t know, but it’s when the ‘Gators play.”

September 25
Student: “Sour gum!? That’s grown up stuff. Kids canNOT try it!”

September 26
Today a student asked me to rip a page from a coloring book, then complimented me with “Gooood rippin’!”

October 1
Me: “Do you have a yard?”
Student: “Just a courtyard.”
Me: “Do you play in the courtyard?”
Student: “No, dogs pee in there.”

October 7
As I was jotting down notes today, a student looked over my shoulder and said, of my handwriting, “That doesn’t look like real words.”

October 8
Student: “You like pizza? That means you know about ninja turtles.”

October 23
Student: “I got to see Ariel on stage and I could smell her all the way from there and she smelled not-so-good.”

October 24
Student 1: “Do you know what I saw one night?”
Student 2: “What?”
Student 1: “Stars!”

October 29
Student: “You have to pay 28 dollars.”
Me: “If I give you 28 dollars, what will you give me?”
Student: “One dollar… or a meat cookie.”

October 29
Me: “I watched a very old movie last night.”
Student: “Was it Ghostbusters?”

November 2
Student holding a toy phone: “Guess what my phone can do. It can go on Facebook automatically.”

November 7
Student: “One time when my mom was getting bread she was like, ‘Look! Gluten free!’ and she was so happy.”

November 11
Student: “What song is that?”
Me: “I don’t know. I just made it up.”
Student: “Maybe you could name it, ‘Joe’s Awesome Oh Yeah’ song.”

November 11
Student 1: “What is a bully?”
Student 2: “A bully is a bull that doesn’t like the color red.”

November 11
In response to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

November 12
This morning, one of my students noticed a pregnant coworker’s large belly and asked, “What did you eat last night?”

November 19
Student “I like all the colors in the world except white. That’s why I color on white! Hahaha!”

November 20
“Do you like my sick dog, Joe? There’s vomit coming out of his mouth.”

December 3
Me: “I think babysitters should be called babywatchers.”
Student: “You can’t just make up new words! That’s against the law!”

December 10
Today, a student referred to my freckles as “weird mystery dots.”

December 17
Student: “Why do I keep getting gluten free snacks?”
Me: “That’s not gluten free.”
Student: “Well it tastes like it is.”

December 18
I started doodling the melody of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy on the guitar today, and a student said, “I have a game about that.” #tetris

January 9
Student: “Girls are like way way way calmer than boys. Boys are like, ‘OM OM OM OM!'”

February 3
Had my students list some emotions today. Their list included the emotion, “Have to go to the bathroom.”

February 5
Student: “I have different songs for different cheeses: a home cheese song and a school cheese song.”

February 6
Student: “You wanna watch me play soccer? I play some expensive soccer.”

February 9
Student: “IPads and Kindles are similar. They’re both like ‘tappy tappy tappy… tappy.'”

February 18
Student: “I can’t make a toaster strudel. But I can do cereal. I think I have to be 18 to do a toaster strudel.”

March 10
This morning, a two-year-old asked me, out of the blue, and quite sincerely, if she could tickle the fish in our fish tank.

March 12
Student, pointing to a globe: “I found Florida.”
Me: “That’s Madagascar.”
Student: “Oh… They have penguins there.”
Thank you, DreamWorks

March 23
Student: “I have a sweet tooth.”
Me: “Just one?”
Student: “Yeah… no, wait… I think all of my teeth are sweet.”

April 3
Me: “Have you seen any flowers yet?”
Student: “No, I just see glass on the ground.”

April 17
One of my students is excited because she has a “piano recycle” tomorrow. That does sound interesting.

April 28
Student: “Where did you get this dirt?”
Me: “I bought it at the store.”
Student: “You go to the store, too?!”

April 30
Me: “Do you know what bread is made from?”
Student: “Ducks?”

May 4
Student: “My ear feels like pizza… but it doesn’t smell like pizza.”

May 12
Student: “Do pine cones have seeds?”
Me: “That’s a tricky question.”
Student: “Look it up on your phone.”

May 18
Student: “When I grow up, I want to be a fire hydrant.”
Me: “You mean a fire fighter?”
Student: “Yeah… [giggles]”

May 19
Student: “I made this because I really like it, and I really like it because I really made it.”
Wrap your head around that one.

May 22
Student: “The mosquito won’t suck my blood. My blood is disgusting.”

May 22
Student: “It smells like dinosaurs.”
Me: “What do dinosaurs smell like?”
Student: “Elbows. They smell like elbows.”

June 4
Student: “Are you a millionaire?”
Me: “What do you think?”
Student: “No.”
Me: “Are you?”
Student: “I’m a 8 dollars and 24 cents-onaire”

June 10
A student’s vacation summary: “I saw a manatee and a dolphin… and there was a rat in the pool.”

July 13
Student 1: “Why are there four ninja turtles?”
Me: “How many do you think there should be?”
Student 2: “Zero.”

July 27
Taught my students to draw stars. Now they’re signing their names like Krusty the Clown.

Milk Shop

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One day this spring, my students took it upon themselves to organize an especially elaborate play scenario. It began when a student brought me a cup of (imaginary) milk. I playfully asked, “What is this? A milk shop?” to which she replied, “Yes, it is!” Soon, most of the class was participating. This sort of thing happens all of the time, of course. But this particular episode was remarkable for its complexity and for the extent to which students organically incorporated lessons from throughout the school year.

For one thing, everyone behaved with outstanding kindness. The usual leaders emerged, as expected, but they were welcoming of their peers’ ideas. I didn’t hear anyone reject anyone else’s suggestions. At one point, I heard a student ask, “Do you want to make a sign?” Often, children are inclined to make more commanding statements like, “You make the sign.” But our students are gradually learning to use more considerate language. In another instance, a student realized that one of her friends is allergic to dairy and therefore decided that she should sell almond milk, too.

But I was most surprised by the ways that students skillfully incorporated academics, often without any encouragement. For example, students naturally took to negotiating the price of milk (something that we practice regularly). They also began counting coins and plastic chips while making their purchases.

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Then one student decided that the shop needed a sign. A few others agreed and they headed off to grab some art supplies. If this had happened back in the fall, each of these students would have asked me how to spell ‘milk’ and ‘shop.’ But this group has become so much more independent and confident since then that they made their signs without any support.

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When the children decided to close the milk shop for a short while, another group of signs told customers that the doors would reopen at 4.

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As promised, when the (toy) clock struck 4, the doors opened once again.

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I have been feeling quite nostalgic recently, as I’ve recently announced that I am relocating to Washington, DC. I am going to miss my students, their families, and my coworkers quite a lot. This is but one example of the many memorable days I’ve had. I wish I had time to write them all down.

Spinning Tops: Integrating Math and Science

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Early this year, my students implemented an experiment to test how long various tops would spin. I wanted to devise an activity that would give children a chance to measure time in a meaningful way. Designing such an activity was a bit of a challenge. I needed a reproducible event that would vary in time length, but it couldn’t last too long. Thirty or forty seconds felt like a good maximum; students would likely lose interest in anything that took longer than that. It also needed to be captivating—something that was fun to carry out and that would address a question of interest to students.

Eventually, I settled on an experiment aimed at answering the question, “Which spinning top will spin for the most seconds?” I purchased a variety of plastic tops and tried manipulating them in various ways before deciding to build something from Legos instead. The four tops I built were much easier for children to spin than any of the toy tops I had purchased.

Students worked in pairs, over the course of about a week—one student spinning tops while the other ran the timer. (We had previously run a simpler experiment to get acquainted with the timer.) After each trial, students wrote the number of seconds they measured onto a post-it note and then stuck it onto a clipboard with a picture of the top. Most children drew comparisons without a prompt, but I occasionally ask questions such as, “Which top spun for more seconds?”

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I want to pause here to make an important point: post-it notes are fun. It didn’t occur to me until the experimenting began, but kids love sticky things. My students very much enjoyed writing down numbers and sticking them onto the clipboards. I had only hoped to mix things up a bit, but I discovered a great way to record data.

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There were a few goals I had in mind with this activity. One was to give children a little better understanding of time.  We often talk about time with children, but they rarely have a chance to measure and compare it.

Another goal was to give students a chance to use numbers in a new way. Time is an abstract concept for young children. But watching numbers change on a timer—each successive number appearing after another second passes—gives children a pretty clear idea of how numbers relate to each other. They can experience the difference between four seconds and fifteen seconds, which feels much larger than the difference between four seconds and five seconds.

A third goal was to demonstrate the use repeated trials in scientific experimentation. As is the case with many phenomena, our data varied between runs. Children spun the tops at different speeds and angles. A single trial could paint an inaccurate picture, so we collaboratively tested each spinning top many times—approximating what scientists often do.

Compiling Data

Making sense of our data presented a challenge. We had many numbers to look at, and at first there didn’t seem to be any clear trends. We certainly weren’t going to delve into statistics, but I wanted to create a visual representation of the numbers we had recorded.

I made four large number lines—one for each spinning top—and the children took turns going through each group of post-it notes, adding a small sticker on the number line next to each recorded number. Some numbers were difficult to decipher; beautiful handwriting shouldn’t be a prerequisite for learning to record data.  We threw that ambiguous data out—another aspect of research familiar to many scientists, as I pointed out.

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When all of the data were in place, we essentially had four histograms. It wasn’t immediately obvious to the children, but after a couple of guiding questions (e.g., “Which tops have more big number and which have more small numbers?”), most could recognize that two of the tops usually took more seconds than the other two.

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Expanding my science lessons this year has shed light on the value of integrating early math and early science education. Imagine this activity as a science experiment without numbers, or as a math activity removed from the experimentation; either way it would fall flat.  But by combining both aspects, I facilitated an experience that was engaging and highly meaningful. When it comes to math and science, it seems clear that the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

The Five Senses: A Writing Activity

Early this year, we spent some time learning about the human body. For one activity, I asked students to write and then draw things that they like to see, listen to, touch, taste, and smell. They enjoyed it, and it provided a nice opportunity to practice phonics skills. What they came up with made me laugh, so I thought I’d share it. Can you guess what each one says?

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Golden Rule Misgivings

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“Treat others as you want to be treated.”

Teachers often employ some variation of that maxim in their classrooms—sometimes as an explicit lesson, sometimes in response to a conflict. (E.g., “Would you like it if someone did that to you?”) It’s a useful tool in many situations. But the golden rule, as it’s known, leads to a few notable problems. Consider the following examples:

Brian is using wooden blocks to build a house. Lucy asks if she can help, and Brian agrees. Lucy then adds a ramp on one side, but Brian responds by declaring that there’s only entrance, on the opposite side.

Meanwhile, Shauna and Mario have decided to be members of an imaginary family. Shauna wants to be the mother, she wants Mario to be the big brother, and she wants to pretend they are going to a movie theater. Mario, however, wants to be the dad, and he wants go to a restaurant.

Let’s say that I want to help Brian be a bit more inclusive of others’ ideas. I can ask him to imagine that he’s in Lucy’s place, but if he’s honest (i.e., if he’s not simply saying what he thinks I want to hear), he will likely still prefer that there be only one entrance. That is how he thinks the house should be, regardless of his role in the social interaction.

Similarly, Shauna and Mario have differing ideas about how their scenario should play out. Ask Shauna to exercise the golden rule and she might conclude, “If I were Mario, I would want to be the brother and I would go see a movie.” To her, that sounds like the most fun.

What Other People Want

Different people want different things, which is what the golden rule often fails to address. A more complicated version of the rule might ask children to imagine not just that they are in a different position, but that they also have different thoughts and feelings. However, that’s a difficult task for a young child, especially in the midst of fast-paced social interactions.

I suggest skipping that convoluted process. Don’t ask Shauna to imagine that she is Mario and then imagine what she would want, given his situation, his thoughts, and his feelings. Instead, just ask her to figure out what Mario wants. In my experience, this approach opens a dialogue that quickly reveals children’s preferences, thus clarifying what they must do to make each other happy.

The Golden Rule in a Diverse World

From a much broader view, I wonder if an overreliance on the golden rule has left us ill equipped in our modern struggle to accommodate diverse cultures. It might lead us to believe that other people are more like us than they truly are. And when that disposition is ubiquitous, people in the majority culture will probably be less likely to integrate those in the minority, and those in the minority will be pressured to assimilate.

Although that speculative assertion lacks any evidence that I’m aware of, I believe there’s some truth behind it. If, to some small extent, I can remove the default thought, “Other people want the same thing I want,” and replace it with “Other people want to be happy just like me, but they might want different things,” then I believe my students will be better prepared to navigate the complex social and cultural environments they will encounter throughout their lives.

Measuring Time With Young Children


My class recently ran a peculiar experiment, centered on the following question: “Which type of ball will roll for the longest time after it’s dropped into a bowl?” My goal was to set up a simple, engaging activity that would give my students an opportunity to practice measuring time.

The Setup

For materials, I used a metal bowl and an assortment of spherical objects. I tried to gather objects of different sizes and materials, although I didn’t expect we would ultimately be able to make any convincing conclusions regarding what makes a ball roll longest.

Teaching my students to use a timer was somewhat challenging. We used a timer that shows whole seconds, without decimal points. However, it was still hard to read. The screen has extra zeros (e.g., 5 seconds looks like 0005), which often confused students. Also, the numbers are digital block numbers, which my students are largely unfamiliar with. The digital fives and twos were particularly difficult to distinguish, as they mirror each other—such reversals are very typical for young children.

Nevertheless, after a brief tutorial, all of my students were able to use the timer independently. They occasionally forgot what each button does, or misread “0003” as thirty, but they needed only brief assistance to get back on track.

Math Concepts

I introduced our timer by explaining that it measures seconds. When we press the start button, it starts counting upwards—one more number every time another second passes. A ball that rolls for just three seconds stops pretty quickly. But when a ball rolls for forty seconds, it takes a lot of time for that many seconds to pass.

Working with numbers in this way, albeit somewhat abstract, has some advantages. For one thing, it’s less passive than presenting a group of objects or some physical characteristics as associated with a particular number. With the timer, the numbers change, which is engaging and has new meaning.

Another advantage is that the progression of time naturally gives children a new way to conceptualize the relationship between numbers. As the timer counts up, they see increasingly larger umbers. They can watch as eight follows seven—it took longer to get to eight, so eight is clearly more seconds. I can’t say with any certainty that familiarity with such a context helps children compare numbers, but my hunch is that it does.

The Response

I was unsure how captivating this experiment would be. The question we were trying to answer wasn’t particularly exciting. If disinterest had settled in after a couple of days, I would have moved on, satisfied that we had learned how to use a timer (which has benefited us in subsequent experiments).

But to my delight, everyone loved it. The science center was constantly occupied, and children worked very cooperatively—usually, one student operated the timer while another released the balls. I took the opportunity to extend the lesson by introducing a chart for recording observations.


Photo Feb 12, 10 32 11 AM

When I committed to expanding my science center this year, I knew that it would be difficult to consistently prepare experiments that students are capable of carrying out independently. Some of my efforts have misfired, while others have been successful. When it works, it’s often because children have plenty to do and plenty of options. Measuring time seems to meet those requirements. It’s an enthralling way to enhance early science and mathematics concepts.