Joco Diversions

For a kid who loves nature, the key to lessons is to avoid the ‘boom’ factor

This fourth-grade grad has a passion for all things “nature.” Including ducklings and things that go “boom.”
This fourth-grade grad has a passion for all things “nature.” Including ducklings and things that go “boom.” Special to The Star

I was relieved when the little one finished fourth grade last week.

It wasn’t any worry that he might get held back that had me concerned for a good chunk of the year. He’s a smart kid, and sure enough, his final report card was full of the usual good grades that he likes to bring home.

No, what had me sweating a little was the question of what he might do with those smarts.

See, he worked on two big research projects of his own design over the school year. The last one sounded like pure fun — learning about Rube Goldberg devices, those overly elaborate machines where you might set a marble rolling on one end and, 100 unnecessary steps later, wind up lighting a candle on the other.

Good, wholesome fun, right? But you’ll have to consider that the boy’s mom and I were watching project No. 2 unfold out from under the shadow of project No. 1.

And that first project involved getting to know all about nuclear weapons.

Like I said, the kid brings home good grades, so he packed his head with all kinds of information about the most destructive devices the world has known. By the end of the first semester, he was able to keep up longer than a fourth-grader probably should in discussions of effective missile design and the finer points of achieving a good detonation.

I was glad I made him throw in a little reading on what happens to people after one of those detonations. Otherwise, who knows what might end up getting lit if you were to set a marble rolling on some convoluted machine he builds one day.

As a friend exclaimed when I mentioned the back-to-back research projects, “The apocalypse will be whimsical!”

So with school out for the year, it’s up to my wife and me to steer the boy’s attentions as best we can for the next couple of months. We’re trying to aim him at things that are unlikely to go boom.

On that basis, I felt like the summer was off to a good start.

While he and I were walking the dog this morning, the kid noticed that the ants on a neighbor’s lawn were building weird little spires at their nest entrances, like they’d just seen a documentary about the huge towers that African termites construct to cool their nests and were trying to work out the principles on tiny models.

Jack waited patiently on his leash as the boy and I got down on all fours for a close look at what the ants had made.

To a dog who’s always pausing our walks to sniff interesting patches of grass, it was probably the most sensible thing he’s ever seen a human do. Anyone driving by, on the other hand, must have thought we’d lost a contact — or our senses.

But a little public ridicule is a small price to pay to fall into conversation with a curious kid about how weather affects the adhesive properties of dirt, what a chimney does for air quality in an underground nest and what, exactly, an ant might want out of life.

The boy’s attention turns to nature easily.

Down at the neighborhood lake, he’s been watching the chicks that are paddling behind a few of the ducks and geese this season to see what he can learn about their habits.

He’s been experimenting with ways to gain their trust, too. And he’s figuring it out pretty quickly, judging by how close one of the families lets him get before the parents start hissing. The goslings will be climbing all over him soon at this rate.

It all looks perfectly innocent, but now I wonder if I should worry as I connect the dots — a potential squad of flying minions, cooling towers for underground lairs, elaborate machinery and weapons of mass destruction.

Nah, I’m sure we’ll all still be safe and sound by the time school starts back up.

And if I’m wrong? Well, maybe there’s something to be said for going out in a blaze of whimsy.

Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @respinozakc.