A polar bear stood amongst the trees

It’s been snowing a lot recently. Thanks to this, I’ve had some real fun out in the garden with my four year old son. A particular joy has been throwing snowballs at the brickwork of our house to make it spotty. Another highlight was this gem of a conversation:

“I think I can see a polar bear!”
“A polar bear? Don’t be silly dad.”
“I’m not. I can definitely see one.”
“But you can’t. Snow is white and polar bears are white, so you can’t see polar bears in the snow, you know. Maybe you can see his nose, because his nose is black.”

There is a science lesson for lower key stage 2 children that has been doing the rounds; I’ve encountered it in schools and I’ve heard it promoted on CPD science courses. It involves children spending a period of time finding different coloured pipecleaners in amongst shrubbery. The kids have a super time, rapidly tracking down the reds, yellows, blues and whites whilst failing to find the greens, browns and blacks. It’s real hands-on stuff. In the discussions afterwards, children demonstrate a real understanding of how camouflage works.

Now for the last part of that conversation with my son.

“I bet you’d be able to see that polar bear if he was standing in a forest.”
“Not if he was a green polar bear, dad!”

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this activity highlights a couple of problems with a lot of what we do in schools. First of all, there is the major issue of underestimating what children already know perfectly well. Clearly, my youngest son understands the concept of camouflage well enough that he probably doesn’t need to be retaught this in Year 4. Extrapolation can be hazardous, but I imagine that most children, by the time they encountered the activity I described already ‘get’ camouflage. Secondly is the issue of an activity taking centre stage at the expense of concrete learning. By the time the children had gotten themselves togged up to trot down to the school nature area, done the activity, entered the results in a tally chart, come back to class, detogged and discussed their ‘findings’, the big question should surely be ‘What did the children actually learn?’


Clearly this is not a polar bear. I happen to think that this image says more about camouflage than a whole packet of pipecleaners…

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