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Ask Questions

search“Why do red lights have those big shields around them?” asked my nine-year-old Grand. I looked up at the red traffic light in front of my van. “Shields?” I asked. David said, “Yes. Look, all three lights have metal around them. Why’s it there?”

I’ve driven for decades and stopped hundreds, no thousands, of times at a red traffic light and never noticed a piece of metal around each of the three colored lights. “Maybe, it’s to make the light look brighter,” I said.

He shook his head. “I don’t think so.” The light turned red and I drove under it, only to be stopped by another red light. “Look, those are the same. Do they all have shields?” David asked. I didn’t know. “I think they’re there so the people coming the other way can’t see them,” my Grand said. “You know. From the side. So just the people in front can see them. Or maybe it keeps the snow off of them.”

search   Our guesses seemed logical, but we wanted official answers. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s website, the shields surrounding traffic lights are either louvers or visors. The main purpose is to “improve visibility by providing a contrast between the lens and the signal head.” And “so that an approaching road user can see only the signal lens controlling the movements on the road user’s approach.”  The signals that David asked about are partial or cutaway visors so that snow and water can’t accumulate at the bottom. (If a traffic light were a clock, the space between 5 and 7 isn’t encircled.) This open space also reduces the problem of birds making nests in a visor.

Lou, age 7, sat beside me. We searched for a jigsaw puzzle piece that was blue and green. We’d worked together for thirty minutes putting some of the 750 pieces together to create a scene of hot air balloons. “The piece we want has two outs and two ins,” I said. My Grand jerked her shoulders back, frowned, and said “What?” I held a piece in my hand and explained. “An out is that little knob that fits in the cut out part, the in, of another piece.”

search-1 “Gran, what’s the real names? Not outs and ins!” Lou said. A puzzle history website proved us both correct. The protruding pieces are called tabs or knobs. But I didn’t find a name for what I called an in. However, some people call tabs “outies” and the holes they fit in “innies.” Isn’t that the same as outs and ins?

So now we know why traffic lights have shields and the name of protruding jigsaw puzzle pieces. The answers aren’t nearly as important as the questions. I know from my teaching days that when children ask questions, they are thinking and learning.

This week I read a quote by C. S. Lewis from The Great Divorce. His book’s topic was much deeper than traffic lights and puzzle pieces, but the quote fits. “Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time when you asked questions because you wanted answers and were glad when you had found them. Become that child again: even now.”

It reminds me to never quit asking questions and to notice such everyday things, such as traffic lights.



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