Recently, I was talking to the mother of a young woman just graduating high school, about to head for college. Her mother was worried about her, wondered how she was going to manage on her own without her mother’s protection. As I listened, I reflected on an event at the preschool the week before.
The preschool has a tradition of studying the life cycle of the butterfly during the second half of the year. Each class grows a butterfly by keeping a caterpillar in a container in the classroom, feeding it, watching it spin a chrysalis and after some time, hatch into a beautiful butterfly. All the children in each classroom were very invested in this potential transformation. They watched the caterpillar disappearing inside the chrysalis with fascination and would periodically check on its progress. When the butterfly started to appear, the excitement was electric. The yellow butterflies became the classrooms’ new pets; the children frequently passed by the container to admire them.
In the 4-year old classroom, the final ceremony of releasing the butterfly was about to begin. The ceremony had a special poignancy because of the symbolic correspondence to the children preparing to leave the classroom where they had felt safe and comfortable during the school year, say goodbye to their beloved teachers, and and to some of their classmates who were moving on to a new school and not following them into the 5-year old classroom next year. The children, like the butterfly, were preparing to leave home.
The ceremony was held in the playground. The teacher brought out the container and opened it. All the children watched as the butterfly flapped its wings and sailed gracefully into the sky. Then, in front of all those eager little upturned faces, the unthinkable happened. A bird swooped down, there was a short flutter of small yellow and big black wings, and the butterfly disappeared. The dismayed teacher struggled to deal with the situation, while the children looked on in horror.
How does one help young children accept the brutality of Nature and the inevitable losses in life? The teacher’s attempts were as successful as possible, but the best solution was demonstrated by two boys in the class whom I happened upon in the sandbox later in the morning. I interrupted their busy activity to ask them what they were building. One of them looked up with a wonderful frown and grimace. “A bird trap!” he exclaimed. I thought to myself, “the magic of pretend”.
Later, I suggested to the teacher that when they are older the children may look back on this event as a “teachable moment” and appreciate that there is no freedom without risks.