- Author: Marianne Bird
It was dinnertime and Claudia, my colleague and friend, was seated at a table talking with the kids at 4-H On the Wild Side camp. Sitting next to Claudia, an African American girl in the fifth grade chatted away between bites of spaghetti.
“You're from Mexico, aren't you?” the girl asked Claudia.
“Well, yes I am,” Claudia responded.
The girl returned to her plate of pasta and conversation with her friends. A minute later, she again looked to Claudia, both surprised and a bit confused.
“You're from Mexico, but you speak English. How come you speak English if you're from Mexico?”
“I learned English in school when I was growing up,” Claudia replied.
“There's a girl in my class from Mexico, but she doesn't understand English at all,” the child reported. “She has a hard time in school.” And with that, the girl again directed her attention to her dinner and friends.
I share this story only because it was a poignant reminder for me of my child development classes and the theories of Jean Piaget.[i] Piaget spoke of schema, or the understanding that children create as they experience the world, both physically and socially. Children build a framework—a perception of reality—upon which they hang information. When a new experience happens, it either fits into their understanding of how the world works, or they have to modify their mindset to accommodate the information.
For the young girl at camp, there was a disconnect between her understanding—based on her past experience—of what someone from Mexico was like (non-English speaking) and her conversation with her dinner companion. The child now had new information to reframe her thinking. Her understanding of the world is deepened.
Of course our role as 4-H leaders involves helping kids to learn: about horses, or what constitutes a healthy meal, or how to lead a meeting. Young people learn social skills, decision-making skills, indeed a variety of life skills to help them navigate their future. Yet I would argue that perhaps our greatest opportunity is not teaching kids how to do things, but providing opportunities for them to expand their understanding of this very complex world in which we live.
Our organization offers windows to new experiences. New experiences challenge and excite us. Sometimes they elicit trepidation or fear as we pilot unfamiliar territory. We may worry of being seen as incompetent as we take the risk to explore ideas and expand our thinking. The same emotions hold true for the children we work with. A skilled leader is aware of this, and they acknowledge feelings and are gentle and patient in their guidance as youth build a more complete picture of their world.
What a wonderful opportunity we've been granted. In big ways and small, we help children construct understanding in their lives: understanding of people, of their world, of themselves. Thank you for all you do to nurture this growth in our kids.
[i] Piaget, J. (1953). The origin of intelligence in the child. New Fetter Lane, New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.