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The spring rains had our family cooped up for several days. Little League practice was cancelled, and the stingray bike I had been riding in circles in the empty garage now had a flat tire. Eight years old; nowhere to go; nothing to do. As I sat there dejected, my mom entered the garage just as the sun came shining through the clouds.

“Time for a nature walk,” she said as she handed me a plain looking stick. “Just follow that stick and see what it finds” and off we walked.  

The lot behind our house typically had a wet, muddy area, but it was transformed into standing water. Tall grass covered half of this new, unnamed body of water which immediately felt like it needed exploring. My stick kept poking itself in the water to see how deep it was. Then I saw movement.

“Mom,” I said excitedly, “There’s something alive over here.” I wanted to know right then what it was. What name was it called? How did it get here?   Wow, it moved fast. I wanted to know more.

The Art of Teaching Kids by Jeff Goodwin was written in 2000 while he was an Idaho Extension state 4-H specialist and member of the National 4-H Shooting Sports Committee. There is a very special balance between a child’s ability (knowledge or skills) and the level of learning challenge presented to them, Goodwin says. To keep a child interested and motivated to learn more, first challenge them, just a bit, to make them slightly uncomfortable. Then, let them practice until they improve their skills and are back in their comfort zone. Once again, then, raise the challenge bar a bit higher.

My mother was a biology teacher. She knew exactly what organism my stick was poking at in the temporary lake that I had claimed to discover on my own. “If you want to know about it," she said, "you have to study it very hard. Observe every detail of what you can see for as long as you can.”

She then walked away leaving me to decide my next move. My mother had sensed a teachable moment, and she set the trap. Teachable moments don’t just happen; they are intentional. Being intentional is very important in positive youth development. Educators and parents need to set these educational traps in consistent places for maximized results.

The nature walk and the stick; it was an intentional move by a loving parent and intelligent educator. No pressure, just “follow the stick and see what it finds.”

Day two of the sunshine. I now had a plan. My neighbor had a rusty, old cement mixing pan which would now become my new boat. It was about 3 feet wide, 3 feet long, and 1 foot deep. I would drag it to my new pond and bring a container to catch that organism I now believed was a beetle of some kind.  

Floating and paddling around in my new lake was a joy. It was freedom in what was realistically just a big mud puddle, and I forgot all about playing third base at Little League practice that day. “Got one,” I shouted to myself. I paddled hard to get to the bank and run to tell mom.

A young person knows when they’ve been caught in an intentionally set teachable moment trap, Goodwin says. The student knows they’ve been had, or in the case of education, they know what the point is that is being made.  

I showed my mother the two, fast moving water beetles in my bucket and smiled from ear-to-ear. She helped me get a clear jar and make a smaller habitat for them to enjoy. I watched, drew sketches of their bodies and legs, and counted how often they swam from side-to-side of the jar in one minute. She then handed me a book with words I couldn’t read but it had pictures of bugs. It was a thick book and she didn’t point me to the right page. She just went back to her work of raising a family of six.

Mistakes are an important part of positive youth development teaching as long as these mistakes are made in a safe and controlled environment.The true life lessons that stick with you are when you learned from self-made mistakes. Many times adults want to rescue youth from adversity, paving them a smooth, easy path. This robs the young person of a powerful learning experience.  

“I found it Mom,” I hollered from the porch. My mother showed up at the screen door and asked if I knew for sure what it was. "Yes, it’s a water tiger.”    She looked at the picture I was pointing to and said “maybe” then returned to the kitchen. Lacking the instant gratification I craved, I looked harder. Then I saw the subtle difference between the picture of a water tiger and a water boatman. The boatman is thinner and had longer arms!

I ordered my first canoe four years later when I was 12 years old. I earned the $220 myself from delivering 56 daily newspapers seven days a week for over a year. I painted the name Water Boatman on the side of this canoe and slid it into water on my first fishing expedition at Elks Lake at the local Forest Preserve. "Be back by dark,” Mom said, as she sat in a lawn chair grading papers from her freshman biology students as I caught bullhead catfish from that canoe on a muddy 3-acre ocean.

Curt Sinclair, University of Illinois Extension
Specialist, Illinois 4-H Shooting Sports and Environmental Sciences