The Time We Put Chalk in the Fire
Petra Eperjesi, Manager of National Programs
I’m squishing a waterlogged piece of sidewalk chalk with my hand, making an irresistible mauve-coloured mud-paint.
“Can I try?” M. asks.
“Sure!” I say, handing him the chalk.
“I can’t do it!” M. says. (I resist the urge to tell him how to do it.)
“Hmm, what could we do to make it squishier?” I wonder out loud. (I resist the urge to tell him my hands must be stronger than his and that we should soak it longer.)
“Put it in a fire!” M. squeals, eyes twinkling.
“Ok!” I say. Now we’ve got an experiment – a theory to test!
I don’t think M. was expecting me to say yes to putting chalk in a fire. His eyes widen a bit.
“I’m going to go get a fire pan and some matches,” I say. “What else do we need for a fire?”
By this time a small gaggle of kids has gathered.
“Sticks!” they shout.
“Great!” I say. “Let’s get sticks!” (I resist the urge to micromanage the kind of sticks we get.)
We get to work gathering the (mostly wet) sticks closest to our feet. (More resisting for me…)
I do want to keep this fire pretty small and contained, so I (micromanage a bit and) say, “Let’s get sticks that fit in this pan!” and now we’re doing math. Is this stick longer than the diameter of this pan? Yes? Throw it away. No? Great!
I also really want this fire to catch and burn, so I (steer things a bit more and) say, “Let’s find some sticks that are skinnier than our pinky fingers.” We determine which fingers are our pinkies. Then we compare. (More math.)
We think about how many sticks we’re going to need (math again!), we collect (dead) birch bark (eco-literacy and identity), we talk fire safety and fill a watering can. We sustain interest in having a fire and finding out what will happen to the chalk through all this preparation. Most of us are 3.
We light the fire. We get mesmerized. We notice the smoke, and the smell.
After a while I ask, “Do you see any changes in the chalk?” Nope. (I resist the urge to tell them that it is steaming and that it is steaming because it is waterlogged and water evaporates as steam when it is heated.)
“I wonder what’s going to happen to it,” I say, out loud again. “M. thinks it’s going to get squishier.”
“I think it will melt!” says A.
“I think it will change colour,” says L.
We get our snacks, and I get a fire glove so that we can take the chalk out of the fire and take a closer look.
“It changed colour!” L. exclaims!
“You were right!” I exclaim! “And I can feel it’s warmer than before. What else has changed?” Not much response. (I resist the urge to push this question.)
“Should we put it back in the fire?” I ask.
We get more snacks, we put some stones in the fire to see what will happen to them, too, we wander in and out of the fire circle.
Interest builds in the watering can…
“Can I put out the fire now?” M. asks.
“Can I put out the fire now?” C. asks.
“Ok. Are we done with our chalk experiment now?” I ask.
Seems like it. (I resist disappointment.)
We delight in and squeal about putting the fire out.
“The chalk isn’t too hot now. Want to touch it?” I ask.
M. takes it into his hand and squishes. This time, success! Mauve-coloured mud-paint!
“It’s squishy!” he shouts, looking up at me, smiling.
“You were right!” I shout. “Can you believe you were right?! How did you know!?”
I’m so excited about our chalk/fire experiment I go to the shed for a pencil and paper.
“What are you doing?” M. asks.
“I’m so excited about our chalk/fire experiment I want to write down what happened!” I say.
“I want to,” M. says.
“Ok!” I say. (Literacy!)
Here’s what he wrote:
That’s what happened the time we put chalk in the fire.