Sick Horses, Presents, and Recess: A Study in Idioms

Idioms can be really hard for kids to understand. If you stop and think about it, quite a few don’t make much sense. My current class is made up of some REALLY concrete thinkers, so when I accidentally used an idiom, hilarity ensued.

It started with recess. I like to include a morning recess as often as I can, but we don’t always have time. So on a day we don’t usually go out, I decided I could squeeze it in, and told the kids we’d have about 10 minutes outside. They weren’t as happy as I thought they’d be, and instead loudly pointed out that we usually have at least 15 minutes outside, sometimes 20! They were outraged.

I pointed out that even getting the extra 10 minutes outside on a busy day was a good thing, and something we wouldn’t have otherwise had. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, I told them.

There was about a minute of shocked silence, followed by a collective “WHAT?” I explained as best I could what it meant, but they were lost.

“Is the horse the gift someone gave you, or did the horse give you a present?”

“A horse would be a dumb present to give, because you need things like a stable, and hay, and not everyone has that.”

“How could a horse give a present? What would it even pick out for you?” “Is it carrots? I bet it’s carrots.”

“Why can’t you look in it’s mouth?” “Is it sick?” “Are it’s teeth infected?” “Do horses have bad breath?” “My dog has bad breath.” “My dog eats socks.”

“Is the gift in the horses mouth?” “Did the horse put it there?” “Maybe the horse isn’t the present, but the person giving you the present put it in the horses mouth.” “That’s a terrible place for a present. Horses bite.” “If it’s a food present, there can be germs in horses mouths, so you shouldn’t eat it after.”

“Is it like Christmas, where you can’t look at the present right away? Is the horse hiding it?”

“Is this still about recess?”

This entire exchange took about 2 chaotic minutes, during which I tried futilely to explain what it meant. Then I gave up, and we went out to recess. I can’t wait until one of them tries to use it in a sentence.


One response to “Sick Horses, Presents, and Recess: A Study in Idioms

  1. I’ve always had trouble with idioms. First, it’s usually negative about an animal and I love animals. Second, why wouldn’t I want two birds in a bush…they are very pretty sitting there. Love your stories. They make me miss teaching. I’m retired and only slightly insane from teaching middle schoolers! Keep up the good work.

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