Ask Amma

Why does water put fire out?

In Why on 17 February 2012 at 5:23 pm

Why does water put fire out?
from Mothering Community

Ga-goo turns into "why? how?" faster than a speeding bullet! Once your kids learn to talk, be prepared for questions on everything under the sun. And beyond.

Why does water put fire out? Remember, this is not an exam. Your job is not to defend your thesis. Your job is to defend your child’s inquiring mind, which may be assaulted by any of the following responses:

"Don’t ask such questions!"
"Why do you need to know?"
"You are too young to understand"
"I don’t know / cannot explain. Do something else."

Gentle reader, as you read this you are no doubt thinking, "I would never say that to my precious little one when s/he comes to me with a question. I would embrace each and every question as an opportunity to listen and share and discover!"

Good. Now ponder. Would you …

– say fire needs oxygen, air has oxygen, water keeps air and hence oxygen away ergo, fire is out
– demonstrate by covering candle with glass, cutting off air supply
– show wood burning, point out the bubbles at the ends and describe how the heat releases gas that keeps the fire fed (thus creating more heat)?

– find books / websites to explain
– not answer and maybe keep making fires and putting them out and let child observe, think, unraveling further questions

What if answering the question pre-empts discovery? I often find myself wondering about this. Our heads are so full of facts. How do we keep quiet? (And even if we say fire needs oxygen, there is always "why does fire need oxygen?")

Let me recall a question that I did not readily know how to answer. For example when my four-year old asked me when the earth started turning, I was a bit stumped. In retrospect, I am glad I was stumped, otherwise I might have just said something like 4.5 billion years and then maybe gone on to talk about what a billion was and thought it was a great moment of spontaneous learning. Instead I slowly repeated the question and stayed with it for a little while but did not really answer it – maybe somewhere in there I said, "for a very long time." A year later when we were at the Museum of Natural History she saw some video about the collisions of heavenly bodies and exclaimed, "so that is how the earth started turning, and those collisions are still going on!"

Not an "independent discovery" since she saw it explained on a video, but what impressed me was that the question had stayed with her and she connected this information to it with gusto. How glad I was that I did not give a date in the past … even in that moment I had some inkling that the relevant part was the turning and not the age of the earth – because when she finally got her answer, she delighted in the ongoing nature of the process responsible for the turning.

  1. Thanks for this, Aravinda! Anika is just at that age starting the What/Why/How/Where questions and I loved reading this post:)


  2. Wow, thinking back to her observations succinctly expressed in one-liners (and one-worders) I can only imagine the kinds of thoughtful questions Anika might be asking. Could you share one or two, Sunita?


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