The Wonderment of 
Young Children

 Dick Miller 

 October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on. 

© Copyright 2014 by  Dick Miller 

Photo of a child with eyes wide in astonishment.

There he stood in the middle of the aisle at the Target store, mouth agape, eyes like saucers, staring at my two leg prostheses as I sat in my motorized wheelchair. He had been obediently following his Mom as she headed in the direction of the checkout line, but this sight brought him up short.

Pretty funny looking legs, aren’t they?” I asked. He nodded, still wide-eyed. “I’ll bet you haven’t seen anything quite like them before, have you?” I continued. This time, his head shook from side to side. By this time, Mom had realized the boy was no longer in tow, turned around, and circled back to recapture her wayward son.

This scenario repeats itself time and time again whenever I go out to a public place because I wear athletic shorts, summer or winter, and my prostheses are always quite visible. And young children are always fascinated by anything that’s outside their usual world of experience. At the age of three or four or five, young minds are like sponges, ready to soak up all sorts of knowledge. I, being a former schoolteacher, am only too happy to supply it if the situation is right.

The way that I proceed from this point on depends upon Moms reaction. Some mothers are anxious to get going, whether because they are running late or because handicapped people make them nervous I dont know. I just smile and let them go on their way. But most mothers recognize a learning opportunity when it presents itself and are willing to take a few moments to let their son (or daughter) learn something new if it is done in an acceptable manner.

Ill bet youre wondering what happened, I continue. Head nodding follows. Well, you know how, when you get an owie, your mom puts a band aid on it and gives you a kiss and before long it feels better? More head nodding. And sometimes, if its a bad owie, you have to go to the doctor and have the doctor give you a big bandage and it hurts for a long time before it feels better? Still more head nodding. Well, I had really, really bad owies that even the doctor couldnt fix. They were so bad they were making me sick. So the doctor took away my regular legs and gave me these special ones so I wouldnt get sick, but I could still stand up.

I then take a quick look at the mother to see how shes dealing with all of this. If she seems to be fine with the way her child is reacting, and the child is still interested, I keep going.

Even though the special legs let me stand up, I cant do it for very long because my balance is pretty bad. If I tried to walk, I wouldnt get very far before I’d fall down. So thats why I have this wheelchair that helps me get around.”

Most of the time, I will have been interrupted several times by questions during this little speech, and I answer the questions as they come up. If there havent been any questions Ill usually ask something like, Would you like to touch the legs to see what they feel like? Is that okay, Mom? Older kids and boys tend to be a little braver on this one. Ill explain that the top part is made of plastic, the middle part is made of metal, and the part that looks like a foot is also made of plastic. Ill tell them that some people like to cover up the middle part with plastic so that it looks more like a real leg. From a distance, you can hardly tell that its a special leg like mine. And other people like to wear long pants so you don’t even know that they have special legs at all.

At one point in my life, after surgery and intensive rehab and before I found an apartment that would accommodate my wheelchair gracefully, I lived in an assisted living center as a sort of transition arrangement. There was a children’s day care center next door, with preschoolers in attendance during the school year, and some older kids in addition during school vacations. The kids would troop over en masse for performances, to show off their Halloween costumes, or to enjoy a visit from our Santa. Part of their routine was to line up in the lobby of the building before heading back to the school, which was just a short walk next door, but passed along the sidewalk of a fairly busy street, so order and safety were the order of the day.

While the kids were lining up waiting to be marched back to school, I made sure I was nearby so I could chat with them while they waited. It always delighted me how completely without guile or pretense they were. They were obviously fascinated by these very different looking legs (as well as my bright blue power wheelchair that looked like it could go pretty fast) and were not at all afraid to ask questions about anything that piqued their curiosity. I had great admiration for their teachers who, watching from a distance, seemed to enjoy seeing the young minds exploring and learning as much as I did.

One of my earliest experiences with this wonderment occurred when I was a young high school physics teacher. My wife had just finished her Bachelor’s degree on her way to a Master’s in Early Childhood Education, and had taken a summer job, along with her school chum Mary, as Kindergarten teachers at the Jewish Community Center’s Summer Day Care Center. That was quite a sight: Irish Catholic Maureen across the hall from Italian Catholic Mary, in charge of all the Kindergartners at the Jewish Community Center for the whole summer!

Besides being a physics teacher with the whole summer off, I was also a musician of many years experience. Maureen was just learning to play guitar, while I was versatile enough to be able to handle just about every children’s song the kids knew, all the way from “Eensy Weensy Spider” to “On Top of Spaghetti.” So, once a week, I brought in my guitar and we’d gather in a circle on the floor and sing.

At first, I must have seem rather frightening to the kids. I’m 6’ 3” tall, so when this giant with a big black bag walked into the classroom for the first time they must have been taken aback. Maureen then introduced me and assured them that I was harmless, and that the mysterious black bag had a guitar inside. We all sat on the floor (which made me a little less intimidating) and, launching into teacher mode, I asked them if any of them had a guitar at home. A few raised their hands. I pointed out the strings, the soundboard, the fingerboard, the frets, and plucked a few strings so they could hear what the strings sounded like individually and together.

Then Maureen and I launched into a humorous song that the kids always enjoy: “There’s a Hole in the Bucket.” In case you’re not familiar with the tune, it’s a conversation between Henry, who’s complaining that there’s a hole in the bucket, and Liza, who offers a series of solutions on how he can fix it until it all comes back to needing water, which he can’t get because there’s a hole in the bucket. Amazingly, even young kids get the irony of the situation and have a good laugh.

I then asked the kids what songs they knew. Maureen had prepped me with the ones they had learned a capella, so I was ready for those. Some, I suspect, were made up on the spot to stump the visitor, so I asked how they went, and made up an accompaniment for the made-up song, which was always a big hit.

I then reverted to teacher mode and began explaining how softer plucking made softer sounds and stronger plucking made louder sounds; how shortening the vibrating length by pressing on the string behind one of the frets made the pitch higher, and so on. The most popular part was when I had the kids come up one at a time to strum the strings while I fingered the chords. They could try different strums to get different sounds, and I would vary the fingerings to make “songs.” The expressions on their faces were priceless: from rapt, delighted, giddy, fascinated, awed, to I-want-to-go-home-and-do-this-by-myself. It’s no surprise that many of Maureen’s students wanted guitars after that summer session was over.

I’ve taught people of many different ages and in many different settings over the years: in public schools; in industry; in retirement homes; in in-service workshops for government employees; at every age level from pre-Kindergarten through graduate school and on to senior citizens. But, without a doubt, the most fun I have had is when I’m teaching young children around age three to five, whether it’s in a formal setting or not. I think what gives me the biggest kick is their openness to learning, their willingness to ask questions without being afraid to look stupid, and their curiosity about the world and how it works. Sometimes I wonder why society has drummed those characteristics out of so many our children within a few short years after these ages of wonderment.

It’s my fervent wish that we all had a bit more wonderment in our lives, and acted upon it as naturally as the little boy in the department store I described earlier.

Contact Dick
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Dick's Story List and Biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher