We learned about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a tragedy that took 3,000 lives. It was the deadliest earthquake in U.S. history, but not in the world. Last October, an earthquake in Pakistan killed 73,000 people. The Tokyo earthquake of 1923 killed more than 100,000 people. I left those facts out of the lesson, obviously. My kids are only 9 months, and 3 and 5 years old, though only one of them was listening to me. This became clear when Richie, 3, asked, "But why does Robin wear a superhero mask?"
We talked about how earthquakes happen when the earth's plates shift at a fault line. San Francisco is built next to the San Andreas Fault.
I've never been in an earthquake. I just read about them in National Geographic last month. I can't imagine the fear of not knowing where to go. In a tornado, you go to the basement. In a flood, you go to higher ground if you can get there fast enough. But where would you turn to avoid the wrath of falling skyscrapers, collapsing houses and runaway cars?
Of course, I tried to avoid this doom when discussing the lesson with the boys. I told them that in earthquakes, people go to the middle of a field for safety. It's the opposite of a tornado, I said. I have no idea if this is true. If it is true, it's also completely impractical for city dwellers.
Finally, we created an earthquake. We laid down a newspaper broadsheet and built a city of blocks on it. There were sky scrapers, houses, cars, and a bridge leading to the middle of the ocean. This would come in handy if...hmmm...if you were a whale who drove a car, perhaps?
Building a city is never easy. But engineers/builders Johnny and Richie had an added challenge: Baby Godzilla. J.J., 9 months old, whose hands are the size of a grown man's, did his army belly crawl across the living room and swiped at the buildings like a grizzly bear batting a fly. Luckily, the 3 and 5 year old builders thought it was funny when they had to start over.
When it was time for the earthquake, we tore the newspaper at its crease, which represented the San Andreas fault line, and watched the buildings crumble.
Pretend destruction is fun for boys. In their minds, the pretend people had escaped to an open field by the time disaster struck. So as the blocks tumbled to the floor, Johnny and Richie crashed cars into each other. Superman swooped in, not to save the day, but to knock down the blocks that were still standing.
Richie yelled, "Bubble bottom!" as some sort of battle cry. J.J. started screaming.
"Stop. He thinks it's a real earthquake!" I told Johnny and Richie. When they paused, J.J. belly crawled over and grabbed two blocks with his man hands. It turns out he was screaming not out of fear but because he wanted to tear stuff up, too.
Afterwards, Johnny said, "That was fun" and Richie said, "That was a nice day."
I refrained from saying, "But you know what isn't fun and isn't a nice day? Real earthquakes."
Because really they're too young to think about that. But the lesson definitely turned out to be more of a hoot and hollerin' good time than I intended it to be.
It made me wonder, why is knocking things down so fun for kids? For that matter, why are so many looming pretend disasters fun for them. In our backyard, a flood always lurks around the corner, and Johnny moves his hundreds of plastic dinosaurs, animals and superheros, who are naturally exotic pet owners, to different areas of the yard to save them. Volcanos are another favorite at our house.
Maybe the fun is being bigger than the disaster. Since the dawn of time, nature has drawn us to fertile floodplains and volcano valleys, and then struck without warning. Is it any wonder that we want to turn the tables? Not to stop the volcanos and floods from happening--because they serve a purpose. But to decide when they happen. So that everyone can get to safety in time.
Children stage disasters to outfox them. A flood happens almost every day in our backyard. And not a single animal has ever been swept away. We explode baking soda volcanos weekly, yet no dinosaur has ever been burned.
Scientists try to predict when disasters will occur. In the case of earthquakes, the article said, scientists know where they are likely to happen, but not when. To a child, however, they happen whenever the people are safe.