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The blind men and the elephant

Posted on March 31st, 2021 in STEM literacy links

Retold by Phoebe Franklin | Illustrator: Coco Masuda | Age: 3+ years

The blind men and the elephant book cover

You and the children may have heard the ancient story of the six blind men who go to the palace to meet the elephant. As they all touch a different part of the elephant, they all end up with completely different ideas of what an elephant is like. The man who touched the elephant’s side says it is strong and wide, just like a wall. The man who touched a smooth tusk thinks that an elephant is sharp as a spear while the one who touched the leg thinks it is like a tree. The prince tells the men that they are “all right but all wrong too”. What does he mean by that?

This is a wonderful opportunity to dive into philosophical inquiry with the children and explore such complex concepts as truth, individual experience and the limits of perception. Why would the men trust the prince’s words rather than what they have felt with their own hands? Have you ever remembered something differently to your friends or family members? Can you describe from memory what your cat’s fur feels like, what your breakfast tasted like and what the birds sound like in your garden? Do all these things feel, taste and sound the same to everyone?

The conversation with the children could go into many different directions. If they seem interested in exploring the experience of touch more, you could introduce activities to support this investigation. You could pass around an object for them to touch with their eyes closed. Can they guess what they are holding in their hands? Do they all agree? Can they describe the object they are holding? Is it smooth, rough, cold, big? What material is it made of?

How does the experience of seeing something differ from touching something? Is it possible to describe an object accurately so that everyone knows what it looks and feels like? One child could describe an object and the other children draw or imagine what it looks like. They compare what they think the object looks like. Do they all agree? When they see the object, are they surprised by what they see?

There are many different sensory explorations that the children might be interested in. There are also many philosophical concepts to explore: What is truth? Can you trust what you see, hear, feel, taste or smell? Which sense do you find most important when you experience the world? Which sense is important when you try a new food or meet a new person?

With our book recommendations, we want to spark an interest in children to discover STEM in their everyday lives. Most books go beyond the obvious STEM connections and can be a great starting point for exploring children’s questions and ideas further.

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