Photograph by Krista Barré

I think, at a child's birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity. 
—Eleanor Roosevelt

My grandmother owned an antique store for a short time when I was young. If I close my eyes and concentrate on my distant memories, I can still see the dimly lit, dusty room, every nook and cranny filled with old furniture, random curios, vintage clothing, hats, and jewelry. The window at the front of her store allowed only enough light to help navigate through the narrow aisle pathways that wound around the room. I can still smell the slightly musty books, damp and mildewed with age. I remember the wooden shelves that held glass vases and plates and jars, and the display cases throughout the room were packed with tiny, fragile treasures. Her store was attached to her home, and visiting her throughout the year was my greatest delight — not only because she was a lovely and kind person, but also because she would unlock the door that connected her house to her store while I was there. My grandmother’s greatest gift to me was allowing me to roam through her store, and by doing so, she taught me the value of wonder.

I was never in the store when it was open to customers, so my only memories of that mysterious space are of my playing among the antiques when the lights were out. I don’t think her store was a tremendous source of income, but I know something within her loved items that held a story. She has been gone for a long time now, and I miss her greatly. I would like to have had the chance to glean from her the stories she had about each item she displayed in her store. I share with her a love for anything that was created during a different time, and I still get a little thrill of happiness when I have the time to wander through an antique store. I wonder if she felt the same rush of joy I feel when I come upon an item that someone else held centuries before. Perhaps she wondered about its former owner as I do. Sometimes I like to think, in a whimsical way, that maybe she owned her store just for me.

I was feeling nostalgic this past winter and felt a need to share some of my history with my three children. I was thinking about my grandmother, and in particular, I was thinking about the pastry she would make every winter. I never knew the origins of her recipe, but I do know that her family ties to Central Europe and the Czech Republic were strong. I like to imagine that her mother made the pastry as did her mother before her, and the recipe has been handed down from generation to generation. I have been told my grandmother would spend hours meticulously measuring and mixing the dough and creating the filling for her kolache. One morning this winter I woke up thinking of my grandmother and craving the sugary nut-filling and buttery dough that she would make. An inquiry to one of my grandmother’s ten children led to the discovery that one of my aunts had my grandmother’s recipe. 

The sweetest surprise I received this Christmas, then, was from my aunt, one of my grandmother’s daughters. My aunt had mailed me the kolache recipe on a lined index card with the directions handwritten by my grandmother. I gasped when I opened the card from my aunt and may have cried a little. In my grandmother’s print, there was her recipe. Margarine, sugar, flour, a pinch of salt, 3 large eggs, 1 can PET milk, and my favorite part was the place where she wrote “2 pounds ground nuts (pulverize).”

I felt a little thrill of happiness and at the same time a sense of loss that I would have to read her recipe and not be able to ask her how to make her pastry. Now that she’s gone, I wish I could spend the day with her making kolaches and pulverizing those nuts. And I would have asked her to show me the antiques she surrounded herself with and tell me stories. 

As a child I remember enjoying my grandmother tremendously because she would let me play and explore. So much so that I would spend some of my summer staying with her at her home with the antique store. Her big, old house had so much space to explore that it lent itself to my natural curiosity. My grandmother gave me room to satisfy my curiosity, and I don’t remember her scolding me for investigating something I wasn’t supposed to. She gave me room to play.

As I interact with children of every age, I am convinced the one common thread to maintaining a child’s natural curiosity is that we allow them to be explorers. And most of the time, exploration looks like play. Play remains the most valuable learning tool children use, and they never tire of it.  As children play, they collaborate, problem-solve, wonder, discover, risk failure and learn to persevere.

I was recently involved in Destination Imagination, a creative, problem-solving competition for school-age kids where teams of kids the same age solve a project-based challenge through the use of both the creative process and scientific methods — all with no adult assistance. The teams of children then compete in a local tournament with the top scorers moving on to state tournaments and, eventually, a world tournament. The adult leaders for each team can ask their children questions but cannot provide any guidance or solutions, nor can they help create any of the simple machines or props the children want to make. Destination Imagination challenges children to use their imaginations and be innovative — two things that are naturally bubbling inside a child’s mind if we make room for play. 

My particular little group of rambunctious third-graders were tasked with using physics, technology, engineering, chemistry, math, and art to complete their project of creating a creature that could move, speak, or create. As the adult leader for this team of kids, the only way I knew for them to begin the creative process was the one aspect of learning that has been consistent in studies and research: the children needed to tap into their natural curiosity and explore.

And explore they did. They requested PVC pipe and plastic tubing and duct tape. They dug through my garage and pantry and found paper plates and paper cups, and they created a water wheel that eventually spun on a wooden skewer. They tinkered with PVC pipe and elastic bands and a refrigerator box and created a way for a 2-liter bottle to pour water on their water wheel. They spent hours over several weeks playing with plastic tubing, duct tape, a balloon, and a bicycle pump, slowly figuring out by themselves that the balloon would inflate if taped to the tubing and bicycle pump. If I had jumped in to show them any solutions, I would have robbed the children of the time to wonder about materials and learn their possibilities. As the children explored materials, they began to make their own discoveries, resulting in an explosion of self-confidence and real, hands-on learning about science.

We are born curious people with the desire to investigate and explore. A child learns best if he can see, feel, touch and manipulate his surroundings. It is a tremendous gift to a child’s mind and heart to celebrate curiosity and inquisitiveness. Albert Einstein said, “I have no special talents, I am only passionately curious.”

I have a couple of items from my grandmother’s store. A pearl necklace, now in pieces as the thread that strung the pearls together has disintegrated and broken apart, and a gold pocket watch (its glass face cracked, it still ticks if I remember to wind it). When I hold these broken pieces of old jewelry, I feel a sense of contentment and peace. These are tangible memories of a grandmother who made sugary, buttery nut-filled sweets, but much more than that, of a place where my curiosity was honored and I was given room to explore.

Krista Barré has spent the past 19 years working with young children by providing art and creative play experiences in various classes throughout Middle Tennessee. She believes in the power of play as a way for children to have a sense of belonging and significance. Krista spends a lot of time searching thrift stores and yard sales for unusual art materials that children might find intriguing. She lives in Franklin, Tennessee, with her husband and 3 boys. 

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