On this morning, we start with a simple balsa wood glider with a propeller powered by a rubberband. Two dollars at the grocery store and my five year old is dabbling in physics. We don't use that term while we play with the small plane, but the idea is planted and the experience is just one of many brief encounters with a subject that could be an invitation to deeper exploration in the future.
Then we load up in the car for a trip to a local natural history museum. We want to sit in on a nature drawing activity and look at the exhibits, but before we can even get more than a few streets from our house I see learning at work again. We pull up to a stop sign behind a truck, and from the backseat I hear, "Why does that truck say fox?" Surprised to realize he is reading a word off the back of this truck, I ask how he knows that. I'm sure he is rolling his eyes when he says, "Because it says F-O-X. Remember that time I wrote that and you said it said fox?"
Ah, yes, I do remember that! We were at the library months and months ago and he was writing random letters on the wall and asking me to read them. I garbled my way through words that were mostly strings of consonants, which made him laugh, and it surprised us both when he wrote one short word and I was able to read it back to him easily--fox. It is funny how something that happened so long ago sticks around in his brain long after I've forgotten about it. As I read the rest of the writing on the back of the truck to him (the name of a construction company), I tell myself to remember it this time. He is tucking away bits of information and gathering reading knowledge to himself, and one day he will put all of the pieces together. I am just here answering questions, listening, watching, and enjoying the journey.
We are on our way again, but it isn't long before we find ourselves discussing science. You see, the fog is thick this morning. We pass an airfield with a small plane parked near the road (echoing our own experiments with flight earlier that morning), but all we can see is fog. "Why is it so smokey out?" he asks. I explain that it isn't smoke at all, but fog. I ask if he knows what fog is, and when he says no I explain that it is like a cloud on the ground and it is really just a lot of water stuck in the air.
He doesn't believe me, which reminds me of the conversation we had the night before. I was at the sink filling ice cube trays with water. He has watched me do this countless times, but for some reason this time he seemed to put things together and asked me, with surprise, "Ice cubes are made from water?" I told him they aren't exactly made from water--they are water. We talked about this for a few minutes, and he seemed to understand that water turns into a solid ice cube when it gets very very cold, though at first he thought it was a joke on my part. So this morning in the car, when he doesn't believe me about the fog, I remind him about the ice cubes from the night before. Then I mention the teapot that blows out steam when the water is really hot. "That steam is water too," I say, and before you know it we have discussed water as a solid, liquid, and gas. We move onto other things, but a few minutes later I realize I have another question for myself--where exactly does fog fit into the solid/liquid/gas equation? It's not a gas like steam, but it doesn't seem to be solely solid or liquid either. Liquid suspended in air? A cross between liquid and gas? It turns out I am unschooling myself right along with my children (and it also turns out fog is actually a colloid, in particular liquid particles dispersed in a gas).
Yes, learning is everywhere even (maybe especially) when we don't plan for it. It is there in the every day conversations. It is there when we fill an ice cube tray and when we heat up a pot of water. It is there when we buy a toy at the grocery store and later when we play with it together. Learning happens when we are writing nonsensical words and laughing as we try to pronounce them. Learning happens when we are driving in the car, when siblings are fighting and when they are sharing. Learning happens on accident and when we appear to be doing nothing. Learning will happen, if we will just get out of the way (okay, and it still happens even when we are squarely and stubbornly in the way). And when we do plan for it, well there are aquariums to be explored...
...and jellyfish to be watched in wonder.