Identifying Early Learning in the Daily Lives of Children: Airport Observations

shoeshine-72477_1920By Diane Spahn, Kodo Education Specialist

If, in the theater, “all the world’s a stage…”, then it stands to reason that in education, “all the world’s a classroom.” For me this rings true as I travel about the country training and consulting with early childhood educators, but for less obvious reasons than one might think. I have found myself, of late, in many, many airports, having spent these last weeks hopping from city to city. There I have encountered the typical assortment of polite businesspersons, suntanned tourists, and chatty first time fliers. Then there are the children, wee tots transported via strollers, slung into backpack-style carriers, and others unleashed long enough to run exuberantly down long stretches of carpet and crawl over jungle gyms of chairs.

Recently, in the Denver International Airport, I was struck by an ordinary moment. A young girl happily hummed a little tune while skipping through the concourse, one hand firmly entwined in her mother’s. She appeared to be no more than four or five years old and was lugging a bedazzled roller bag when suddenly she halted, let go of the bag, and squealed, ‘Momma, stop!”

“Look, look!” She tugged on her mother’s sweater.  Her mother stopped mid stride, sighed, and crouched down to see what was the matter. With her free hand, the child pointed to a shoe shine station. Her eyes grew wide as she witnessed the captivating sight before her. A young man, dressed in western attire, was having his boots shined. He glanced up from his cell phone and winked at the girl.

She didn’t notice the man’s acknowledgment but was transfixed on the array of tools set out at his feet.  “Look at all those brushes,” she gasped, barely containing her excitement, “there’s big ones and little ones and all that other stuff! I never saw those before, did you? What is this place?” She rattled off question after question, not waiting to hear the answers.

The mother, having been caught a little off-guard, paused and then answered. I could see the woman take a moment or two before she spoke, perhaps to choose her words carefully, or, one could assume, was just surprised to see how her daughter reacted to such an, in her view, insignificant happening. To the child this event was new, exciting, and so unique it left her awestruck. It was certainly worthy of her study and her mother’s, too. To her credit, the mother followed her child’s initiative and took a few minutes to watch. The girl stood frozen and caught the attention of the attendant who smiled and held out a large brush for an extra second before expertly finishing his buff and polish. I imagine the child would have stayed for much longer if not for her mother’s prompting. “Momma, did you ever see anything like that before, that man used that big brush to make a dirty old boot look like a new one,’” said the girl, looking over her shoulder as she and her mother moved on, “that was so cool!”

The educator in me instinctively kicked in and I imagined what I might do if this happened during a classroom field trip or had been excitedly recounted one morning by one of my preschoolers. In fact, I reached for a notepad, so as not to lose my initial observations of all of the concepts that were in play. I felt a little like a fish out of water, but to me all the world is a classroom so I jotted down a few notes as any teacher/researcher would. For me this experience was a vivid reminder of how quickly technology has been redefined in classrooms today, leaving little room for its true definition as the everyday tools people use to solve problems and accomplish tasks. I was happy to have been in the right place at the right time, to have had the opportunity to view the world through a child’s eyes. Funny how moments like this impact me. Indeed, it was ‘so cool’; the event itself, the compelling environment, the respect and attention paid to the child by her parent and the adults around her, and the opportunity to witness extraordinary early learning unfold during an ordinary experience.

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