A sensational conversation with Duncan, aged four-and-a-half.
Duncan says, “When you breathe in your nose, you smell automatically!”
“That’s true! Good noticing!” I reply.
“But,” he continues, pinching his nose shut, “if your nose gets cut off and disappeared… you can still breathe in your mouth… because that’s the, um, the other breathing hole.”
“Yep… but you don’t smell with your mouth, do you?”
He laughs. We are sitting on the porch, picking at the remains of a late lunch. Big brother Wyatt is off at school; little brother Milo is napping. I should wake the one soon so we can head to school to pick up the other, but I know Duncan relishes this special time with me and I don’t want to end it before I have to.
“You know what?” I say, “I saw on the calendar that you’re going to be learning about senses at preschool next week. Do you know what your five senses are?”
“Yes! Lizards smell with their tongues, I think!”
“Well, ‘smell’ is one of your senses. Senses tell you about the world around you– so when you smell things, that’s using one of your senses! Can you think of another one?”
“Good! When you lick something, you taste it. Taste is another sense.”
“Look, I am licking my arm!”
“How does it taste?”
“Um… weird. Sunscreen-y. Can I lick you now?”
“A little bit?”
“Just on your arm?”
“Not at all?”
“No, but thanks for asking first.”
“Let’s think of another sense. So far we’ve got smell and taste…”
“Nice! And what can we do with ears?”
I demonstrate my ear-wiggling prowess to his satisfaction and then say, “Well, that’s a movement, but not a sense. I mean, how can your ears tell you about the world around you?”
“Like… um… if they growed little mouths and then they talked to me? Talking ears!”
“But how do your ears help you notice things right now, just the way they are?”
“Because… they have to have sunscreen so… then I know it’s sunny out.”
I wait to see if he has anything else to add to that observation, but he looks up at me with a squinty smile and I can see that’s all he’s got: ears with tiny mouths and sunscreen.
“Hearing, Duncan,” I say. “Your ears can hear.”
“And your ears can’t hear?”
“No, mine can hear, too. Our ears hear. That’s another of our five senses.”
“Is that number seven or four?”
“Three. Smell, taste, and hearing— that’s one, two, three— can you think of another?”
“Here’s a hint: what do we do with our eyes?”
“That’s a movement. We’re talking about senses.”
“Look how fast I can roll my eyes around!” He’s moving his entire head around in a circle with his eyes open as wide as he can. It’s making me dizzy to watch him.
“Cool. Now hold on, can you tell me what else eyes can do?”
He stops rolling his head around and says, “Make teardrops to be sad.”
“Mm-hmm. And what else?”
“That’s all. Teardrops and rolling.”
“Anything else that your eyes can do?”
“How about sight, seeing? We see with our eyes, right?”
Potamus closes his eyes and covers them with his hands. “Not now!” he says.
“Okay, come on, stay with me, buddy. We’ve got sense of smell, taste, hearing and sight. That’s four. There’s one more sense– another way we can find out about our environment-”
“Do beavers really exist?” he asks. He’s still got his hands over his eyes.
“What?” I say, although I heard him correctly the first time.
“Are beavers real or pretend?”
“Beavers are real.”
“In the real world?”
“Yes… and you know what? Beavers use their senses, too.”
“Is that why they make it so people can’t go swimming in lakes? By making big walls on their… on their… bams? Their big bams?”
“Well, that’s not really why they… you know what? It’s time to go get your brother from school. Let’s finish talking about our senses while we walk… and then we can learn more about beavers when we get home! Okay?”
“But I don’t even know what they look like!”
“Okay, I can show you some pictures when we get home.”
“On the computer?”
A few minutes later, Milo’s in the stroller and we’re on our way to Wyatt’s school.
“Okay, Duncan, we’ve got one more sense to talk about. Here’s a hint: what am I doing to this tree?”
“Moving your hand up and down on it!”
“Uh-huh and..? What are my fingers doing?”
“I mean, my fingers are on the tree bark, right? I can tell this is a tree with just my fingers, even if I can’t see it, because I’m using my fingers to do what..?”
“A tree massage?”
“Touch. I’m feeling the tree with my fingers. I’m using my sense of touch.”
“Oh,” he says, “Look at that dog!” We see a young couple walking down the sidewalk towards us with a small dog in a vest.
“Okay, Duncan, let’s look at that dog and think about your sense of touch. If you had no eyes and no ears, you could still figure out about that dog if you could touch it, right?”
“Can I touch it?”
“Maybe… We have to ask. But you can imagine touching it, right? How would it feel?”
“Well, if it went swimming, I meaned.”
“Right…. and if it was not wet?
“Fuzzy and furry.”
“Very good! And what sense would tell you that?”
“Right! You got it! Nice work, Super D!”
The couple approaches, notices us noticing their dog, and give tentative smiles and waves.
“Do you want to pet her?” the woman holding the leash asks.
“Yes!” Duncan says, crouching down to pat the dog. Then, by way of explanation, he smiles up at these kind strangers and announces, “We’re talking about touching and then Mommy is going to show me pictures of beavers on the computer!”