Entering a first grade classroom to pick up my students yesterday, I was greeted with a chorus of “Look what fairies and elves did to our desks while we were gone!” Sure enough, all of the desks were strewn with gold glitter, and the kids were beside themselves with excitement and consternation. “We need to catch them! But how?” The teacher turned to me and said, “I bet Emily has some ideas.”

What is a science teacher to do? As we walked to my classroom, I asked questions. “How big are elves, do you think?” “Can fairies fly?” “What do they like to eat?” “Do they collect things?” By the time we were in the classroom, I had learned that elves prefer green, unless they are rainbow elves, in which case they like all colors. Fairies come in different sizes; the tooth fairy (who is definitely not implicated in the glitter case) has to be very tiny to fit under a pillow, but some fairies are bigger so they won’t blow around in the wind. Both elves and fairies carry magic wands – thus the glitter. They like candy and shiny things, so these should be used as bait in the traps.

This was not the lesson that I had intended for this day, nor ever really. My plan that day, which we moved into eventually, was one of my early fall standards for the younger grades. Kids use wooden blocks and a large assortment of plastic animals to create imaginary zoos. Sorting animals into groups of their own choosing reveals a great deal about their knowledge, experience, and perceptions. Some approach the task by applying predator/prey filters, while others sort by color, size, species, or habitat. The cage constructions are also telling: some are elaborate buildings, and some are expansive fenced fields. I visit each zoo and ask questions, trying to figure out sorting strategies: “I see this area has horses and zebras. Could you add a cow to it?” “Why does a bat belong with stingrays and chickens?” (wings, of course).


Young children figuring out science often appear to recapitulate the long – and ongoing – story of humankind figuring out science. It begins with phenomena that demand explanation, creates a narrative of logical explication, and arrives (usually) at a solution that makes sense. We constantly talk about testing ideas, obtaining measurable and meaningful results, and yet the whole process of figuring out the answer to a scientific mystery can still feel beautifully magical at times.

At the end of class, I announced that it was time to take down the zoos and return animals and blocks. In five minutes, all traces of zoos were gone except for one small, square block structure on the floor that two boys had vigorously protected as the others were cleaning. “What’s that for?” I asked, seeing no animals inside.

“Fairy trap,” they answered. “Do you have any candy?”

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