“There is nothing permanent except change.” – Heraclitus
The last two years have been full of changes, and it is sometimes hard to adapt quickly. Children need to know that change is a characteristic of our planet and of life. There is a new book that helps with this concept. All Things Change: Nature’s rhythms from sprouting seeds to shining stars by Anna Clayborne and Sarah Edmonds (2021) tells about change on many scales. It starts with the Big Bang and looks at seasonal and daily changes in the cosmos. It shows life cycles and changes in people, too. And it introduces the change that is so challenging to us, climate change.
Natural cycles of change – day and night, phases of the moon, the tides – are comforting and familiar. Climate change is quite the opposite. All of us are impacted by it, some in small ways but many in very major ways. Children need to know what is happening and what they can do to help. This is not a subject to ignore, but rather one to prioritize.
To understand why climate change is such a problem now, one needs to consider the rate of change. It might help children to imagine this with a story about changes in their classroom. What would it be like if their daily schedule changed frequently, and they didn’t know what to expect? What would it be like if materials were in a different place each day? It would be confusing, and children would spend a lot of energy figuring out what is going on. Animals and plants whose environment is changing have lots of stresses, including not being able to find enough food and having extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves, and extra strong storms.
There is a productive place in between despair and denial, and that is where our lessons and books need to be. Some of the books I read were so heavy on the doom and gloom that I felt they would produce more paralysis than action. Others brought the hope of people working together in a variety of ways.
It is always good to start with factual information. For this, I like a World Book publication, Understanding Climate Change, from the Earth’s Changing Climate series (updated 2019). It lays out the basics of the greenhouse effect, and it brings up a number of ideas about why the Earth is warming. It provides evidence that the magnitude of change that we are seeing is not because of volcanos or variations in the Sun, but rather, it is because of humans burning fossil fuels and releasing other greenhouse gases. This series is for upper elementary and middle school levels. You can preview it online.
For beginning elementary, the book, The Story of Climate Change: A first book about how we can help save our planet by Catherine Barr and Steve Williams is a good introduction. It begins with the early Earth and tells about climate change throughout our planet’s history.
You may need to help children understand that “save our planet” really means “save the biosphere.” The Earth will keep on rotating on its axis and orbiting the Sun no matter what humans do. The tides will continue each day no matter the sea level. It is the biosphere that is being threatened by climate change.
Children need to know that they can take actions that help with climate change, but I would not want them to feel like they have to fix the whole problem. It is, however, important for everyone to do what they can to make constructive changes in their everyday life. Some have voluntarily taken extensive actions, and their stories can be inspiring. Old Enough to Save the Planet by Loll Kirby and Adelina Lirius tells the story of twelve children from around the world that have done something to counter climate change. The children and their projects are diverse, and their stories lay out a range of possibilities.
Climate change is directly related to how we use the resources of our planet. One of the pressing problems is with plastics and waste. A Portuguese marine biologist has written a book with a creative approach to the problem. She decided to treat plastic like an invasive species, so she gave it a Latin name that is also the title of her book. Plasticus maritimus: An invasive species was written by Ana Pêgo and Isabel Minhós Martins and illustrated by Bernardo P. Carvalho. This book tells the story of the main author and her efforts to clean up the beach. It has lots of good and interesting information about plastics and the environmental problems they cause. It also tells about alternatives to plastic and the places where laws have been passed to limit the use of plastics.
The problems of climate change and the use of plastics will be with us indefinitely, but that is no reason to ignore them. I hope that you and your children will find uplifting stories and productive ways of making progress on these problems.
It is imperative that we inspire children with scientifically valid ideas.
When we use the botany impressionistic charts to introduce children to plants, are we giving them correct information and the important ideas for them to know? That is the question I’ve been asking in this series. I’d like to call the charts “An overview of how plants work” or perhaps “Imagine how plants work." In English, the term “impressionistic” can imply that the material is hazy and unclear.
Several of these charts show people doing things to illustrate what the plant accomplishes. For instance, little men are shown anchoring roots like tent stakes. While some of this may help children understand plants, I find the real plant characteristics and real plant structures wonderful and inspiring as they are.
What do the traditional charts say about stems? One chart says that some stems are weak, and so they have to grow some structure to help them climb to reach the sunlight. This one has always driven me nuts. Nature doesn’t make weak organisms; natural selection acts against the poorly adapted. There is a better way to look at stems that climb. They have adaptations that allow them to grow upwards but don’t require them to develop a thick, rigid stem. Some kinds of vines have flexible woody stems. They are called lianas and they include grape vines and cat’s brier (Smilax). Lianas are common in tropical forests, and their stems certainly shouldn’t be called weak, as the photo shows.
The chart on stems that climb could also show children that plants do many things with their stems beyond the usual connecting roots and leaves. Stem adaptations include food storage (kohlrabi, potato) and water storage (cacti, other succulents). Two quite different looking specialized stems help grow new plants. Corms are short, thick stems that store food and propagate the plant (gladiolus, banana). Without corms, we wouldn’t have bananas to eat because the domestic bananas are seedless. Runners are greatly elongated stems that enable the plant spread its offspring across the ground (strawberries). Thorns are short, pointed stems that discourage herbivores (hawthorn). Climbing roots, twining petioles, twining stems, and tendrils represent many ways that plants can fulfill their need to reach the sunlight.
The traditional botany charts include a depiction of photosynthesis in the leaf. Please make sure that you are giving children accurate ideas about photosynthesis. Hint: If your “chemical factory in the leaf” chart shows carbon monoxide being formed, it is giving false information. Why should we ask children to imagine false ideas when we can give them steps in the real process? The process of photosynthesis has quite a lot of details, and it must be greatly simplified for children, but if we are going to give them an idea of what goes on, it should be a valid framework to which they can add details later.
The “chemical factory in the leaf” should show that sunlight is used to break apart water molecules. It is the chlorophyll molecules that capture the Sun’s energy. The sunshine-requiring “light reactions” produce hydrogen ions and oxygen molecules. (They also produce high energy electrons and energy-rich molecules (ATP), but that is more chemistry than beginners need.) The hydrogen is joined to a carrier molecule, moved to a different area, and combined with small, carbon-containing molecules that have had a carbon dioxide attached. A series of reactions produces sugar. Most charts simply show the hydrogen and carbon dioxide entering a structure of some sort and sugar coming out. That is likely to be enough information for the beginner.
Check the depiction of carbon dioxide on your charts. It is a linear molecule. There is a carbon in the center with an oxygen on either side. The oxygens are directly opposite one another – 180 degrees apart. It isn’t like water, which is v-shaped.
I’ve seen charts that show the sugars from photosynthesis being combined into starch, which does happen in plants. A little bit of starch is made in the chloroplast, and it acts as fuel during the nighttime. Starch, however, is NOT transported through the plant’s phloem. Starch is too big to go into solution. The transportable product of photosynthesis is the sugar sucrose (table sugar). The sucrose travels to leaves, stems, and roots, where it is converted to starch, which stores the chemical energy until it is needed. Sucrose is made from two 6-carbon sugars, so there is some processing of the product of photosynthesis before it is transported.
And then there is the chart that shows leaves worshiping the Sun. Do we worship the food on our plates? No, although a healthy serving of appreciation for the food that sustains us is a good thing. The real leaf story is so much more interesting. We can help children imagine how a plant positions its leaves and appreciate beautiful leaf arrangements. As for the leaves, they are arranging themselves to get maximum sun but minimum damage. Sunlight comes with heat, and leaves take action to avoid getting cooked. A leaf in the shade may be oriented horizontally. In full sunlight, the same species may turn its leaves on edge to protect them from heat. In deserts, many plants orient their leaves to catch less of the Sun’s hot rays.
I’ve always found much in nature that is inspiring and remarkable, and that’s without turning plants into people. When we learn about a natural phenomenon, there always seems to be more of the story. This alone can be inspiring to children. We can let them know that there is much more to the story of plants and how they work than we show on the botany charts.
In January, I visited Tucson, Arizona and enjoyed exploring the Sonoran Desert. The plants there show many adaptations to the heat and dryness. The cacti and palo verde trees are what I expected. What surprised me is that plants I thought would need much more moisture are also able to survive in that climate.
There had been rain before my visit, enough that several hiking trails were impassable because normally dry creeks were flowing. As usual, if you want life, just add water. The plants that need moisture to reproduce, the spore-bearing plants, came out of hiding and were thriving. I saw a number of different ferns, but those weren’t a big surprise. I had seen ferns growing from cracks in lava flows before. The key for ferns seems to be finding a moisture-conserving crack on the shady side of a rock outcrop.
The spike mosses, genus Selaginella, were fluffed out and green. One of their common names is resurrection plant, so you can image how they look when they are dry. Spike mosses are not true mosses. They are members of the club moss lineage aka the lycophytes. One Sonoran species, Selaginella rupicola, is called rock-loving spike moss. There were hillsides with many spike mosses protruding from cracks between rocks.
The mosses were looking very green and active. They are known for their ability to dry out and wait for water. They formed their green carpets out on more open ground and in sheltered rock overhangs. It was in one of the latter habitats that I found the big surprise. There were liverworts growing with the mosses.
Liverworts are the plants that have leaf pores that are always open. I think of liverworts as growing in habitats that have abundant moisture, not just isolated periods of wet weather. It is true that the liverworts in Oregon’s Willamette Valley survive the summer drought, but the humidity is never as low nor the temperatures as high as in the Sonoran Desert. The Sonoran liverworts are small, thalloid ones, much smaller than the ones native to western Oregon. They have the right appearance for a liverwort. They look like a flat leaf growing right on the ground, and they branch into two equal parts, which gives them a “Y” shape. They must have special adaptations and be very tough and resilient to live the desert.
Plants offer surprises in all habitats, not just the desert. You just have to take the time to look.
As we study the diversity of life, the many adaptations of animals take center stage. For the record, an adaptation is a feature of an organism that helps it survive and reproduce in its environment. The experiments of evolution have shaped animals for their particular way of making a living. Knowing about adaptations helps children understand the differences in the branches of life. It can also help them see convergent evolution, that confounding phenomenon that shapes animals (or plants, for that matter) that live with the same environmental challenges to look similar. After all, there is only one shape that works well for large, fast-moving predators that live in water, and that is a streamlined shape like that of tuna, dolphins, or ichthyosaurs. In the case of convergent evolution, look-alikes are not relatives. In many other cases, common features show a shared ancestry. It's a good thing we have DNA studies to help sort it all out.
I have several great children’s books on adaptations. The first two are for 5-9 year-olds, although older children could likely learn from a careful look at them. Best Foot Forward: Exploring Feet, Flippers, and Claws by Ingo Arndt was translated from German to English and published in 2013. It has photos of the bottom of a foot and the question “Whose foot is this?” On the following page there is a photo of the animal to which the foot belongs, along with photos of other animal feet that move in the same environment. There are feet that walk, feet that climb, etc. The photos are excellent, and children will likely find them engaging.
Steve Jenkins and Robin Page produced Creature Features: 25 Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do in 2014. The title says it all, and they did it in great style. Because the illustrations show only one view – looking straight at the animal’s face, you may wish to provide children with resources with other images that show more of the animals. This book should certainly help children realize that animals look the way they do for a reason. The term “adaptations” doesn’t appear in the text, but the introduction says this about the features of the animals – “In some way they help these animals survive.” The Amazon page for this book has some great information about how the artwork was created.
Animal Tongues by Dawn Cusick was published in 2009, and it does an excellent job of introducing the variety of animal tongues and their functions. The book is attractive and fun to read. It would likely work for all levels of elementary, perhaps as a read-aloud for the youngest ones. The author has two new books that I haven’t seen, but which also sound good. They were published by the National Wildlife Federation last fall. The titles are Animals that Make Me Say Wow! and Animals that Make Me Say Ouch!