There is a dull silver teapot with a black plastic handle and black finger-topped lid that sits in the far corner of my desk. I would have to stand up to reach it, it is that far away from me. It has been there, alone, waiting, ever since I started work here. We don’t use it to make tea – that would be too obvious. It is, in fact, our watering can for the beautiful trees we have growing in the library.
Now, I look at the teapot and I can understand why it has evolved into the shape it has now – the pot belly holds plenty of liquid; the lid is on the top to prevent spillages and to make it easier to fill; the moulded handle gives a good grip; the flick over the top of the handle is perfectly for your thumb so the pot balances against it beautifully. But there is one design feature I could not understand. The curve in the spout. As the spout leaves the belly (quite low down so you don’t have to tip it too much and therefore risk liquid pouring out of the top) it comes out almost horizontally before looping in an arc back towards the pot, then rising up and away again; like an ‘S’ shape. Why doesn’t the spout just come away from the pot in a straight line? Why the ‘S’ shape? Well, I was intrigued – no, I don’t have too much time on my hands, and the day we stop thinking and speculating we may as well write our will and hang up our boots – and so subconsciously searched for a pot without a spout. I found one on my travels round the school and it was then, when I poured from each pot, that I discovered the answer. I’m not going to tell you what that is, you’ll have to find your own pots. But the answer is irrelevant (unless you’re considering buying a teapot in which case I recommend you go for one with a spout), what is relevant is that until I had a pot with a straight spout I was unable to fathom the reason for the curve. Now consider, if you will, the myriad of designs of the different species in nature. Every aspect has evolved for a particular reason, maybe more than one, but it is hard to discern what that reason might be until we are offered the alternative. That does not happen often and so we are left to speculate. Finding and using a differently spouted pot gave me an insight into the motion of fluids and gravity. It may never help me in any obvious way, but if ever I come across a gecko with a curved (cough here) I will have one more idea to offer. Also, if I’m ever asked to design a milk carton I shall remember that lesson.
It is through learning from such simple play that children gain a greater understanding of the physics of our universe and a greater capacity to reason. They may not be able to tell what they have learnt, but you can be sure they have learnt something. Children need to play!