Capturing Ladybug Moments: Inquiry in the Age of Google

“Capturing Ladybug Moments”
By Julie Smart, PhD

When my son was 3-years-old, he had one of his biggest temper tantrums ever in the parking lot of Krispy Kreme Donuts. It was one of those that draws a crowd…this was a toddler meltdown of epic proportions. It was only after I had managed to wrestle my son into his car seat, safely out of the crowded parking lot, that I finally realized what he was screaming. “Ladybug!!!! Ladybug, NOW!!!” As I stared down at my feet, still resting on the gritty asphalt below, I realized there was indeed a single ladybug crawling quietly across the pavement. All this ruckus for a ladybug?! You’ve got to be kidding me!

Ladybug!!! Ladybug, NOW!!!,” he continued to wail.

As my son continued to wail in the backseat, I decided I could deliver a ladybug if that’s what would quiet this chaos. I quickly unlocked my iPhone, quickly searched Google, and handed my son a screen filled with vivid images of ladybugs. Bam! Problem solved! Ladybugs for days. But, the wailing continued. And got even louder. “Ladybug!!! Ladybug, NOW!!!,” he continued to wail. Customers enjoying their “Hot N Now” donuts inside the restaurant stayed acutely tuned into the mini-drama unfolding outside as if to say, “What now momma? Next bright idea?” I decided the only logical thing to do was to give the kid what he wanted. I lowered by hand onto the ground and let the tiny bug crawl onto my finger, then lifted the red and black speckled peace offering to my son. His shrieks immediately turned to laugher as he reached for the ladybug and allowed it to walk around his little hands and arms before it flitted away out the window. His tear-stained face dissolved into a sweet smile as he nodded off from sheer exhaustion on the car ride home.

We try to offer them the most colorful images and videos to teach them about the world they live in, but it doesn’t satisfy like real, get-your-hands-dirty experiences.

This is such a poignant example of the world we live in today. We genuinely want our children to experience the world, but sometimes it’s just not safe enough. Not clean enough. Not enough time. We try to offer them the most colorful images and videos to teach them about the world they live in, but it doesn’t satisfy like real, get-your-hands-dirty experiences. As a mother, I am hypervigilant in protecting my children from every danger, both real and perceived, yet I am met with the challenge of allowing them to experience the world around them in an authentic way. Sometimes dangerous parking lots get in the way of ladybugs. What’s a parent to do?

Our brains are designed for discovery

Our brains are designed for discovery, for novel thought and for novel ideas. The human mind has been drawn to discovery since the beginning of time. The wheel. Fire. Electricity. Flight. All born out of not just necessity but out of curiosity, trial and error, successes and failures on the path to great innovations. The same curiosity that drove the discovery of the Americas, the Apollo missions, the discovery of the world through the generations, resides in the minds of our children. As an educator, I do a pretty good job of helping my students at school learn science in engaging ways and pour hours into developing lessons to help them experience the natural world in meaningful ways. But what about my own children? How often do I brush their questions aside and “Google” their curiosity away? We miss so many “ladybug moments” to the pace of our daily lives and schedules. The onus is on us to provide a space of discovery for our children. A space in their worlds where their questions are welcome and their curiosity nurtured.

We all know that children are great at asking questions . . . lots and lots of questions. When your child asks a question, sometimes the natural response is to provide the answer immediately. For some questions, this is the obvious and best choice. For example, a child asking “Is that a poisonous spider?” needs an immediate and decisive answer from a knowledgeable adult! However, when your child asks something such as, “Where did the rainbow come from?” consider one of the most effective tactics in getting a conversation started . . . answer a question with another question. Posing a question of your own to get a conversation going will help get your child talking about their ideas, which is one of the most critical steps in inquiry. A popular choice is simply, “What ideas do you have?” or “What do you think?”  Just listening to the ideas of children can be fascinating and provide great insight into how your children are thinking. We know that children come up with their own ideas about science as they experience the world. Sometimes those are accurate and sometimes they are very fantastical. When your child gives you a “far out” answer, you can follow up with a simple, “That’s an interesting idea! What makes you think that?” The first phase to exploring a new idea with your child is simply finding out what they already know and what ideas that have.

Latch onto your child’s natural curiosity about the world and to give them the space to explore their questions.

So, your child has asked a question about the world and you’ve had a short conversation about it. Now what? After your child expresses interest in a particular aspect of the world, they simply need a way to explore, a skill that comes quite naturally to children. The best part is that nothing fancy is required; it can be as easy as doing an activity at home (i.e. planting some seeds and watching them grow if your child asks where strawberries come from) or could involve a trip to a zoo, science center, or children’s museum. You don’t always have to have all the materials at home to help your children explore their questions about the world. The community around you is a resource brimming with possibilities. Latch onto your child’s natural curiosity about the world and to give them the space to explore their questions. They say that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but when we’re dealing with “ladybug moments,” looking a creepy-crawly critter in the eyes is priceless.*

*Hand sanitizer not included.

Julie Smart holds a PhD in curriculum and instruction and is currently a professor of math and science education at Clemson University. She is the author of Inspiring Young Minds: Scientific Inquiry in the Early Years (Redleaf Press). She is also a consultant in research methodology and program accreditation with a focus on inquiry-based instruction, teacher effectiveness, and classroom management.

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