The Caterpillar’s Gift

Johnny had trouble speaking, making very short sentences, even words. Three syllable words were a challenge. He was often frustrated by seeing the ease with which other children his age could make their needs known to adults. And he saw this all day, every day. Johnny had the same wants and needs that the other children had long since put into words. Inside, he was like them. On the outside, and to others, he wasn’t.

Johnny knew that the teachers in his preschool cared for him, and that they tried to understand and help him as much as they could. But even their kindness couldn’t erase his dilemma. His frustration didn’t help anything, but he couldn’t help expressing it. Outbursts were common — indoors.

Outdoors, his behaviors in the school’s Nature Explore Classroom were very different. Outdoors, as indoors, he still avoided contact with peers and teachers when possible. Yet the freedom to run around and to choose his own activities allowed him respite from his frustrations. He often felt happy and relaxed outdoors, exploring as he saw fit, connecting with others occasionally, and only on his own terms.

One day, he watched from a distance as other children surrounded a small plant, observing something intently. Johnny couldn’t see what they saw, and didn’t want to risk an outburst by entering the group. So he stayed where he was, and continued to watch them.

When they left, he moved in.  hey had been watching a small caterpillar inch its way up and down a plant. Johnny, like the other children, found the caterpillar’s slow progress along the stem very interesting. Transfixed, he watched its journey for a good four minutes.

Yet he wanted to experience the caterpillar’s movement more closely. He ran to get a magnifying glass, and again, spent many minutes watching the show.

Teachers, who he often avoided, were nearby. But this time he had something to share with them. By using the magnifying glass he had discovered great details about the caterpillar and its journey, details that he alone had experienced. This close observation was his discovery: he owned it. He now had something to share that didn’t need words. Now he was just like the other children when they wanted to share their discoveries.

He sought out a teacher, brought her to his caterpillar, and shared his experience with her. “In that situation he didn’t have to use any words, and that gave him a platform to invite a staff person into his world and share that moment of nature. He was so thrilled,” said his teacher. 

 No words were necessary.

But Johnny found one.

“Cat-er-pill-ar,” he said.  “Cat-er-pill-ar!”