Learning curves with Nancy Whelan

Whelan tells a story about Wickaninnish Beach — a safe beach, a restless sea, and a child's natural wonder

Joy, abandon, wonder, learning!

I’m sure all of these, whether recognized or not, must have been pulsing through that young boy’s body and mind as he and a sturdy length of bull kelp performed their gleeful ballet on a windswept patch of Wickaninnish Beach.

We were enjoying a light salad lunch at a corner window of the park’s interpretive centre dining room when the young lad and his father came strolling along the beach. Dad watched as son picked up the kelp and dragged it along, sometimes dashing toward the water line and back again. There was but a gentle, foam-edged swell on the shallow water, and the boy was left to his own enjoyment of the beach while the parents sat on the nearby rocks.

The view from my window let me watch through the whole of my lunchtime the unfettered experimenting of a boy and a piece of kelp. He likely didn’t know, or care, that the bull kelp is the largest of our seaweeds, can grow up to a couple of feet per day, is attached to the rocks of the sea floor by a root called a hold-fast, and sends its bulging bulb to the surface to support the attached fronds to absorb the sunlight.

Right now, this eight to 10-year-old was fascinated by what he and the kelp could do. His boundless energy was something to behold.

With the bulb held tightly in his hand, he ran toward the foam wavelets creeping up the sand; brandishing the stem over his head he whipped it into the waves, then quickly backed away up the beach. In shorts and bare feet, he enacted the possibilities of his Superman t-shirt, repeatedly thrashing the waves as if to subdue them.

While the sea continued in its unchangeable path, he experimented with centrifugal force by whirling the kelp stem in continuous circles over his head, perhaps thinking that he would, nevertheless, teach the waves a lesson.

Maybe the arm tired of this motion, or he thought of another way to amuse himself. Bending a little he started to turn in circles, swishing the kelp’s whip in the shallow water, drawing circles around his dancing body.

Again he attacked the little waves, again they ignored his sallies, but nothing daunted his perpetual movements. This time he stood a little back from the water’s edge, and dropping the  whip to the sand, with an up-and-down motion, sent his own string of kelp waves to meet  the incoming water. He appeared rather taken with the way the kelp wave generated by his movement travelled from his hand down the length of kelp to its tip. It must have intrigued him, because he repeated this effect over and over again.

Did this little Superman think about what he was learning? I doubt it, but learning he was. I think my fascination with his creative play ran a close second to his own. It reinforced the possibilities for children’s learning and understanding when left safely alone to explore and experiment with how things work … or don’t.

All it takes is a piece of kelp, a safe beach, a restless sea, and a child’s natural wonder.

— Nancy Whelan’s column appears every second Thursday. E-mail: njwhelan@telus.net.

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