The price of trying something new is often a scary word: failure. Most of us don't do something perfectly the first time we try it. Some of us don't even do it perfectly the tenth or hundredth time we try it. For every successful attempt, there are plenty of failures. And more often than not, the failures far outnumber the successes. So, why keep trying?
My children reminded me why today.
I'm homeschooling my older two children right now and one of the things I love about it is the freedom I have to do things which would be impractical (if not impossible) in a traditional classroom. Since it is Talk Like a Pirate Day, I thought it would be fun if our learning today was centered around the theme of pirates. We drew pirates for journal time (and my son drew a rather impressive ship and crew considering he's five). We listened to Mama Hook Knows Best and talked about the lessons young James learned. Then it was time for a science experiment. It was one I was really excited for and have been planning since I saw it on Facebook over a month ago. We were going to make chocolate soda bottles and fill them with M&M's. Oh were we excited! I had planned several lessons that could go along with this and it fit right in with our theme because is there any greater treasure than candy to a five-year-old?
We melted the chocolate and I swirled it in the bottles. They watched me put them in the fridge to cool and harden. Then it was time to take the soda bottles off and that's where things went awry. First I couldn't find my craft knife and had to resort to a small, but sharp, kitchen knife. It worked okay and then I realized the knife had cut through the chocolate too. No biggie, I thought, I'll just leave the top of the bottle off. No big deal.
Then I started to pull the plastic away from the chocolate. Chunks of chocolate broke off while my children watched. I waited for the tantrums. Waited for them to shout that I'd done it on purpose and was ruining their lives (I have drama queens). I steeled myself for what I thought was inevitable: the demand to start over and try again right now.
But that didn't happen. My children smiled and giggled. "Oops," my son said, "guess it didn't quite work right, did it?"
I seized the moment to teach them a different lesson than I planned. "Nope, it sure didn't. What do you think we should have done differently?"
"It needs more chocolate," said my daughter (who is three).
"And you should have looked more for your craft knife. But look, Mommy, the bottom stayed together. Can we use that as a bowl instead of having a treasure chest?"
My son is a genius, in case I've never told you that. I poured some M&M's into the "bowl" and we took pictures of our failed experiment before enjoying our little treat.
But as I thought about it more, I realized we didn't really fail. My children learned about solids and liquids as they watched the chocolate melt, just like I had planned. Without realizing it, they learned about the scientific process and how scientists take "failures" and improve them. They learned that it's okay for things to not go the way we planned. And they learned that even failed experiments can bring sweet results.
We didn't get to estimate how many M&M's would fill a chocolate soda bottle this time. We didn't get to take pictures of our experiment succeeding in all it's chocolaty glory. But, they learned some great lessons and they had a lot of fun. And isn't that the best part of an experiment? Isn't that what makes trying something new so enjoyable? Don't be discouraged if you don't do it perfectly the first time, or the tenth time. Or even the hundredth time. Keep trying, keep learning, keep experimenting.
Someday we'll try to bottle experiment again. We'll use more chocolate and I'll make sure I know where my craft knife is ahead of time. And if it falls apart again, that's okay. We can always try, try again.
Jessica L. Elliott
Author, artist, mom and super-genius