When I was a kid, I kept a mental list of things I would never say to a child when I grew up. Towards the top of the list was a phrase I don’t think I ever heard at home but unfortunately heard far too often at school. It was an answer to the question, “why should I?” As in, “why should I eat that lunch if I don’t want to?” The answer, “because I told you to.” I hated that answer. Still do. When a child asks a why question they are opening their minds to us. The answer, “because I told you to” slams that door shut.

Once a seven year-old student of mine and I were working together shoveling up decaying organic matter out of the bottom of the community swimming hole that had been drained for the winter and was about to be refilled. He asked me why we were doing what we were doing. We ended up talking for about twenty minutes about materials cycles as a natural process of endless iterations of synthesis and decomposition with the same basic elements being reused over and over in different assemblies of atoms and molecules. His questions while we were talking left me confident that this attentive young person was understanding the big ideas we were talking about. His last question proved it. He asked me why, if this endless cycling of organic matter was natural and essential, were we shoveling organic matter out of the bottom of the swimming hole, opening yet another door to learning and deep understanding.

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