In Search of Echoes

child's feet standing on a drain

Henry (3yo): Calling into the drain, “MOMMY! DADDY! MA MA MA. DA DA DA. MOMMY! DADDY!” See, Miss Crystal?! MOMMY! DADDY! I hear it!

Me: I hear it! I hear an echo!

Henry: There’s an echo for me in there! It comes up from here. (pointing to the drain)

Me: The echo comes up from the drain?

Henry: Yes! Where are the other drains that have echoes?

Me: I wonder…I see a tube inside the drain that goes this way. (pointing towards the street) The tube goes under the ground. Let’s follow it! Let’s see where it takes us!

boy leaning over a drain and calling into it

“There it is! DADDY! This one has an echo too! Let’s see if we can find more echoes!”

boy leaning over a water access cover and calling out

“I see one over here! No. This one does not have any water. It doesn’t have echoes too.”

puddle with a reflection of a tree

“I see another one over there! No. That’s just a puddle.”

boy leaning over a drain similar to the first drain

“Here’s another one that’s like the other one (The first drain). It has an echo too!”

This is a sweet little story about finding wonder in the mundane, but there is also something else deeper. In rapid succession, my friend proposed a series of questions and wonderings. He tested them, and formed new theories based on his findings. Reflecting back on the experience, I can begin to piece together the spaces between Henry’s words and actions to see his theories.

boy kicking water into a drain

Echo theories according to Henry’s current research:

  • Echoes are a unique gift. There is an echo for me and there is an echo for you, but they are not the same echo.
  • The origin of an echo lies inside of a drain.
  • If you find one drain with an echo, there must be more drains with echoes nearby.
  • Echoes only come from drains if they have water in them.
  • If you find a drain that looks the same as another drain with an echo, it will also have an echo.
  • Echoes do not come from water that is not inside a drain.

boy shining a flashlight into a downspout

Henry’s theories of echoes are not all scientifically proven yet, but that is the nature of theory and inquiry. Theory is designed to be continually challenged. The goal of scientific inquiry is not to find the “right” answers, but to use answers as a springboard to the next set of questions.

“Is it possible to ‘see’ an echo?”

“Can an echo live outside of a drain?”

“Can an echo live in a tree? In the sky? In a cave with a bat?”

These are the questions that Henry is currently investigating.

2 boys leaning over a drain

His enthusiasm for echoes is contagious! Other friends have begun to join in the experiments adding their own unique points of view and questions to the mix.

boy and a girl shouting into a drain


One of the most beautiful qualities of inquiry-based learning, is that there is no end. One discovery, one question, one story leads to another and another. The depth and breadth of the exploration is entirely up to Henry and I’m excited to see where his echo theory takes us next!

The Jingle Bell Challenge

During preschool play group this week, two of my friends discovered a lone jingle bell resting on the stairs. The allure of an object just out of reach was enough to bring a lively game of balloon chase to a screeching halt. A and L immediately set to work, stacking up some nearby cushions and stretching their balloons to try and retrieve it, but the bell would not budge!

boy reaching for bell on the stairs with a balloon

L: Miss Crystal, can you get the bell for us, please?

Me: Oh! I see you found a jingle bell on the stairs. You are thinking about how you are going to get it out?

L: Yes

Me: And the balloon did not help you get it out?

L: No

Me: Hmmmm, I wonder what kind of tool you will try next?

boy reaching for bell on the stairs with a foam block

L: These black squares. I will stack them up here and stand on them to reach. (He stacks the squares.) But I still can’t reach!

Me: I see that your arm is not long enough to reach the bell. You are looking for something that is long to help your arm reach farther?

L: Yes! Oh! I can use this! (He reaches with a black piece of foam.) I still can’t reach

Me: You need something longer than that foam piece?

L: Yes!

Me: That’s good to know. I wonder what is longer than that piece of foam?

girl comparing the length of a brick to a foam block

L: A brick?

Me: Is the brick longer than the piece of foam?

A: Yes!

boy trying to fit brick between stair spokes

L: But the brick is too heavy and it won’t fit.

Me: I see. So now you are looking for a tool that is longer than the foam, and can squeeze through the bars, but is also not too heavy.

L: Yes!

girl trying to grab bell with bubble wrap
A: I’m going to try this bubble wrap

Me: Is the bubble wrap longer than the foam?

A: Hmmmm, maybe?

boy trying to reach bell with a longer piece of bubble wrap

L: I found a LONG one! See this one is LONG! I’m going to try this one! (He reaches with the bubble wrap.) It still won’t reach! It’s falling down!

Me: I see! It IS falling down. The bubble wrap is long enough to reach, but it is not strong enough to grab the bell. So now you are looking for a tool that is both long enough to reach the bell AND strong enough to grab it.

boy trying to grab bell on the stairs with an egg carton
L: This! (He brings an egg carton.)

Me: Ooh! I see! That looks long enough to reach the bell and it feels stronger than the bubble wrap. It is not falling down. Was the egg carton able to grab onto the bell?

L: No

Me: So you found a tool that is long enough and strong enough. Now maybe you are looking for a tool that can grab or pinch the bell too?

L: Maybe, hmmmm.

L: I know! A net! I grabbed the worms on the slide with a net. (He points outside.) Do we have a net?

Me: We do have a net outside; the net that you used to grab the worms. Would you like me to bring it in?

L: Yes, please!

boy trying to grab bell on the stairs with a net

L: The net is grabbing it!!!

L: Oops! It fell down! It’s in a tiny space now! (He tries to use the net in the tiny space.) The net can’t get it out of the tiny space!

boy using a net to try to reach bell in a small crevice on the stairs

Me: The net is a good tool for scooping up, but you are right. It is having a hard time scooping it up in such a tiny space. Pinching tools can sometimes reach in tiny places. Where could we find a tool that can grab or pinch?

A: This pinches! (She brings a clothes pin out of the atelier.)

Me: I see. It is pinching.

A: But it’s too short. It can’t reach it.

L: I found something that pinches in here! (He pulls tongs out of the oven in the play kitchen.)

L: I got it! I got the bell out!

boy carrying kitchen tongs

happy boy holding jingle bells
I recently had a dear friend tell me that these conversations sound so natural, but she feels like she could never replicate them for herself with her own kids. “I wouldn’t even think about it,” she said. “I would just get the bell for them.” Without a doubt, this kind of conversation and deep learning takes practice and presence from both the children and adults involved. However, there is a surprisingly simple conversational cycle visible in this exchange. This cycle does not require a specialized knowledge of child development — just an intentional choice to step back, trust, and encourage the inherent curiosity and resilience of children. It goes like this:

flow chart beginning with observe and listen, then say what I see, then wonder aloud, then wait, returning back to observe and listen

“The goal of any good parent or teacher is to eventually work themselves out of a job.” I’ve heard that quote many times, and I try my best to own it. With every strategy I use, I ask myself, “Is this going to result in my children being more dependent or less dependent on me the next time they encounter a similar challenge?” Quick responses and answers can yield short term gains in time and energy, but these often cost much more in the long run, especially if children begin to see me as the only solution.

This strategy is not quick, but it is extremely effective. It shows children how to look at problems in general, instead of giving them the solution to a specific problem. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it makes a huge difference in real world application. While it does take practice and presence in the short term, I know that my friends will feel a little better equipped and a little more confident in their own abilities the next time they encounter a similar challenge.

Loose Parts In a Nutshell

“This walnut is tricky.”

“First I get it stuck. Then it breaks.”

“I did it! Look! I see the seed!?!”

Cracking nuts is tricky business, especially when you’re only 2 years old, but it’s a challenge my friends embraced with joy. Of course, they still found plenty of other work when their hands needed a rest from the nutcracker.

They shared stories:

“I’m cooking the nuts. Mix. Mix. Mix.”

“This one looks looks a turtle. This one is too! They are swimming together.”

“This one is a crocodile…or maybe a frog RIBBIT! RIBBIT! RIBBIT!”

They made discoveries:

“I hear the nut shaking.”

“This shell smells different?”

“I see a heart inside!”

They found differences:

“The walnuts are BIG! The hazelnuts are little.”

“The almonds fall down. The hazelnuts stand up.”

“This one is brown, dark brown. This one is not.”

We often view skill acquisition from a top-down approach (“This is how I can teach children to            ”, for example). The truth is, children are constantly extending their own skills by simply exploring the world around them. To my friends, an invitation with mixed nuts is a fun way to play, but they are also practicing:

  • Self-Confidence
  • Trust
  • Conversational turn-taking
  • Negotiation skills
  • The Scientific Method
  • Sequencing
  • Classification
  • Pencil grip
  • Geometric thinking
  • 1:1 correspondence

I encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open to all of the ways children teach themselves through play. Let them show you what they are already capable of and you just might be surprised to see skills well beyond their years.