Last week I chaperoned my youngest daughter’s third grade field trip to a county-run educational farm. Field trips always offer a rich opportunity to support my kids, observe them among their peers, observe the kids I’m glad are not mine, and even learn a thing or two about the subject matter. This trip was no exception. I learned about sheep docking (ouch!); I learned details about our county recycling program; and I learned how a water expert can study a sample of creepy crawlies from a stream to predict the level of water contamination. But one of the learning stations was about the water cycle, and it offered a bigger life lesson that I suspect the kids didn’t fully appreciate—not yet.
A water conservation expert had set out an activity to teach kids about a different way to look at the water cycle. Just about anyone who’s obtained at least a third grade education could probably recite the typical water cycle, or at least explain it in lay terms. Evaporation, Condensation, Precipitation, Infiltration. If you are really impressive, you might even come up with additional terms such as Percolation, Surface Runoff, Plant Transpiration, Sublimation, and so forth. But this educator wanted to demonstrate that the water cycle—what you learned in school—is too easy of a picture. It’s too neat and tidy, too perfect, and that’s not actually what happens. A droplet of water doesn’t go from one stage to another in a closed circle, and especially not a stationary circle. She explained that water could stay in one place for a while; it could travel; it could be consumed; it could be interrupted on its journey a hundred times. The water cycle is much less predictable than what they teach in elementary school. It’s more like a messy web than a circular cycle.