by Abby Power
I say yes! Children have an extraordinary capacity for critical thinking when given the opportunity to practice it.
I have found that there are three main areas that help in creating a space that invites difficult questions and conversations with our youth:
- the art of observation
- asking questions that lead to critical thinking
- creating a space for exploration through play
WATCHING AND WONDERING ABOUT MINNIE
For an assignment in my graduate program animal protection class, I took a trip to The Big E, a state fair here in Massachusetts. I decided to bring my son James along with me. I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to let him observe how animals who are used for entertainment are treated.
During the day we came across many animals; from cows, to pigs, to zebras, even bears. But it was when we met Minnie, a beautiful Asian elephant, that a conversation naturally opened up about the way animals are treated.
My son’s reaction to Minnie was much like many other child’s: he was in awe. When we were observing Minnie, James noticed that everyone was getting the opportunity to ride on her, so he wanted to do the same.
When we looked at Minnie, we could see she was exhausted.
Her skin was incredibly dry and cracked. Her mood seemed to be despondent as she walked around in circles, giving rides to fairgoers.
Those observations allowed me to start a discussion about why it’s not fair to Minnie if we rode her.
I began to ask James questions about how he thought Minnie was feeling.
Did she look happy? Did she look scared?
He replied that she looked sad.
We watched her for a while, and he could see how tired she appeared.
I posed questions like: “Where do you think her mommy is?” “Do you think she misses her family?” “Minnie is from Thailand; I wonder why she is at this fair?” “Why do you think she is here?”
And I shared observations, such as: “I know that if we were separated, I would miss you so much.” “I wonder why we do this to animals.”
These questions and observations made James really consider Minnie in a new way and as a being who has feelings, just like him.
I think if I were to have approached it differently and rushed past the exhibit, or if I simply told him that we don’t ride elephants because it’s cruel, I don’t think James would’ve had the same opportunity to connect with Minnie.
Instead, we cultivated a safe space for critical thinking. I was planting the seeds, but he was making them grow.
TEACHING THROUGH PLAY
We don’t always have to travel in order to have these important conversations. Teachable moments are everywhere, even among the toys in your children’s room.
One Saturday morning I was playing with James, and he decided that he wanted to play “cops and robbers.”
I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but that very same week I had been watching films for my human rights class about the systemic root causes of male violence, bullying, discrimination, oppression, and sexism.
I learned that it all stemmed from learned behavior. And I thought to myself, is this how it all starts, through games of “cops and robbers”?
So what could I do?
How is a mom supposed to let her son play and use his imagination, but weave these very important messages (that often counteract societal norms) into his life?
It dawned on me. I could do this through play. Instead of saying to my son that we couldn’t play “cops and robbers,” I simply turned play into a teachable moment.
I wanted to break the idea that there are good guys and that there are bad guys. I wanted to bring awareness to the “us vs. them” mentality that my five-year-old had already developed.
Through role playing, I was able to have a dialogue about what it means to be good or bad. Is there even such a thing? My goal was to turn the situation on its head; stop “fighting” crime and instead, start teaching kindness.
These are just a couple of examples of ways that I have tried to open up important conversations with my son, but what else can we do?
LEARNING THROUGH FIELD TRIPS
How about taking your child to the grocery store as a way to teach them about the world?
You could use this trip like an expedition, seeing what your child can find.
You could start in the produce section and show them the bright beautiful vegetables and talk to them about how food affects our body, and then stop over at the bananas and talk about what fair trade means and why we should care about what produce we buy.
Next you could visit the meat and fish counter and think deeply about the ways we use animals.
You could also talk about environmental impacts that our food has on our planet, highlighting what’s happening in our oceans or the amount of deforestation that is happening because of the animal agriculture industry.
Going down the packaged food aisles, you could talk to your child about the amount of resources that go into making a product.
For little ones, it would be fun to practice their numbers by having them count how much packaging they can find that is made from plastic. Make the experience fun, ask questions, and learn together.
Have them go explore and see what they can find. Can they find fair trade chocolate or plant-based milk?
Before leaving the store, allow your child to pick out a new fruit or vegetable that they would like to try. Then come home, put on some music, and create a meal together as a family with that new fruit or vegetable.
A simple field trip to the store can help empower them to be conscious consumers.
BRINGING COMPASSION AND CRITICAL THINKING TO THE CLASSROOM
There are also many things teachers can do to open up dialogue about what is happening in our world.
One activity that may appeal to different age groups could be to look at their favorite animal-related nursery rhymes, or a phrase such as ‘Kill two birds with one stone.”
Students could have a discussion about these phrases. Where did they come from? What is their impact? Can students create some alternative phrases that are more inclusive and animal-friendly, such as “Feed two birds with one scone”? Make it fun!
You could also share stories of young people who are changing the world.
Pose questions to your class, asking them things such as: What is their story? What are they advocating for? What would you advocate for?
Instead of having a debate club, introduce a changemaking challenge at your school or in your classroom. Students could select a topic that they want to highlight and come up with ideas for how to help solve the problem. (See IHE’s Solutionary Program.)
Who knows, maybe it would lead to the creation of a solutionary club, where students would want to come together and collaborate, share solutions, and help each other create change.
Let’s bring our children and students into the conversation and invite them to be part of the solution!
Humane educator and public speaker Abby Power uses her solutionary vision to spark change wherever she goes. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Humane Education through the Institute for Humane Education. She currently lives in Ashland, Massachusetts, with her husband, five-year-old son, and canine companion. In her spare time, you may find Abby dancing down the street, encouraging the people that pass her to also live a life that’s filled with joy and passion.
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