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What goes on a chart of the animal kingdom? November 29 2018, 0 Comments

A chart of the animal kingdom is standard equipment for any Montessori elementary classroom. The chart could be purchased or made by the guiding adult. Either can be appropriate and useful to children. Conversely, either can have significant mistakes and misconceptions. Here are guidelines for choosing or making an animal kingdom chart.

First of all, the animal kingdom chart presents the major phyla. “What are those phyla?” you may ask. There are about 35 phyla of animals, and that is far too many to present to elementary children. Some have few members, and children are not likely to ever experience their members. The Wikipedia article on animals has a table that gives the number of species in the 11 largest phyla. Here is my list of phyla that show important structural features or notable evolutionary features. I consider the following “must haves” for the animal kingdom chart for beginning elementary.

Phylum Porifera, the sponges

Phylum Cnidaria, the anemones, jellyfish, corals, and hydras

Phylum Platyhelminthes, the flatworms

Phylum Annelida, the segmented worms – earthworms, leeches, and polychaete worms

Phylum Mollusca, the mollusks – snails, clams, octopuses, etc.

Phylum Nematoda, the nematodes or roundworms

Phylum Arthropoda, the arthropods – insects, crustaceans, spiders, and many others

Phylum Echinodermata, the echinoderms – starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, etc.

Phylum Chordata, the chordates – lancelets, tunicates, and vertebrates (NOTE: Chordata is not equal to Vertebrata. The latter is a subphylum of Chordata.)

These belong on all animal kingdom charts to illustrate the range of creatures in this kingdom. There are other phyla of interest that can be added for a more advanced chart or one that spans elementary and secondary levels.

Phylum Ctenophora, the comb jellies – This phylum is significant because it is likely to be the second branch of the kingdom after the sponges. Ctenophores occur worldwide in marine waters. They were formerly grouped with the cnidarians in the obsolete phylum Coelenterata.

Phylum Rotifera, the rotifers – If children look at pond water under the microscope, it is likely that they will see these tiny animals. On a chart, rotifers would go near flatworms and segmented worms.

Phylum Ectoprocta or Bryozoa, the bryozoans or moss animals – Children are unlikely to observe these animals because they are about 0.5 mm across, but they may find bryozoan colonies at the beach. Use a guide to seashore life to identify them. Almost all bryozoans live in colonies, which can look like crusts on other organisms or rocks. Some form larger colonies that are commonly known as brown hairy tongues.

Phylum Brachiopoda, the brachiopods – These were much more common in the fossil record than they are now. The two halves of their shells enclose their top and bottom halves, whereas the two halves of a clam shell enclose the left and right sides of the mollusk’s body. This makes brachiopods a bit challenging for the beginner. I would hold this phylum for later introduction, perhaps along with studies of the Paleozoic Era.

Phylum Hemichordata – This small phylum of marine creatures includes acorn worms and pleurobranchs, which are tiny colonial animals. The extinct graptolites are placed in this phylum. Despite its name, this phylum is more closely related to echinoderms than to chordates. It is too confusing for beginners. Let children get a firm grasp of chordates before you introduce this phylum.

Other minor phyla – There is plenty for beginners to learn without adding minor phyla, however it is good to be prepared in case your children encounter an animal of a minor phylum. Many of these will be marine animals, and so a guide to marine life can be useful to place these finds into a phylum. Possibilities include ribbons worms, horsehair worms, velvet worms, and tardigrades.

Keep in mind why we are introducing children to various animal phyla. In this kingdom, each phylum has a different body plan. Children learn about the unique characteristics of each lineage. To this end, the illustrations on the chart should show at least one example that illustrates the identifying traits. Close up photos of a portion of the animal’s body or photos with a messy background or many animals together are not helpful for seeing the body plan of the organism.

Of course, the description of the phylum needs to include its scientific name. Don’t stop there, however. Children may not be able to find further information that they can read and understand unless they have common names as well. They likely know many of the common names, and it boosts learning to start with something known and move to new information.

The phylum description needs to state simply and straightforwardly the main features of that lineage. For example, segmented worms should be described as having repeated segments in their bodies. If you have a good illustration, it is easier to describe important visible features.  

Finally, how do you arrange the phyla on the animal kingdom chart? HINT: It isn’t in an evenly-spaced straight line. Some phyla are more closely related than others. The animal kingdom chart that high school or college students will see is a phylogeny, a branching diagram. If you do not wish to start with a phylogeny, you can still group related phyla together. The echinoderms and the chordates are sister phyla. So are the nematodes and the arthropods. The mollusks and annelids are another closely related pair. The animal kingdom chart from InPrint for Children is a good example of grouping phyla.

For any studies of classification beneath the level of phyla, it is best to use a phylogeny. For an example, see my material, “From the Chordates to Mammals: Exploring the Tree of Life.” https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/from-chordates-to-mammals-exploring-the-tree-of-life

Happy animal explorations! For more information about the animal phyla and the phylogeny of the animal kingdom, see my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected.  


Why is the horse the example of a mammal? January 30 2018, 1 Comment

Certain materials are “classic” in Montessori classrooms. The external parts of the vertebrate animals are one of those essential materials. This set traditionally has a horse as the example of a mammal, and almost all commercially available card sets for study of the vertebrates uses the horse.

My question is “why?” Unless we try to understand Maria Montessori’s purpose in the design of her materials, we can easily get caught in a web of tradition that keeps us from serving children’s learning needs to the best of our ability.

Here is my best guess on the horse as the mammal example. The horse was present in the lives of children all over the world until about 1920. It didn’t matter if they lived in a city or on a farm. When Maria Montessori first created her materials, the mammal that most children would see in their everyday lives was a horse. That has changed for most children. The horse is still used for transportation in some rural areas, but this animal is now more likely to be seen in a hobby or leisure situation. Most children in the United States do not see a live horse with any regularity.

What mammals do children see today? Dogs and cats would likely top the list. Classroom pets like gerbils, guinea pigs, or hamsters are common enough. Why don’t we use one of these for the example mammal? Children are more likely to be interested in learning about an animal they can experience, and learning about the care of that animal may also be very relevant to them.

Should we get rid of the “Parts of a Horse” cards? Probably not. There is nothing to keep you from having additional examples after you study the first one. Some children do see horses regularly and will be very interested in learning their parts.  Others could have their horizons expanded by seeing additional examples.

What about the other vertebrate examples? The frog as an amphibian is about as good an example as a newt or salamander. The latter two are harder to observe in nature, but they can be kept in the classroom, probably with fewer problems than keeping a frog. It depends on the frog. Some can be escape artists – voice of experience here.

The turtle probably became the reptile of choice because it is less intimidating than a snake or a lizard, but a lizard gives a better look at the basic reptile body. Turtles are quite derived – they have changed a lot from their ancestors. They still have the scaly skin and lay eggs, so they work.

At some point, the crocodilians (crocodiles, alligators, caimans) need their own category. They are more closely related to birds than they are to the squamates (snakes and lizards). Both crocodilians and birds belong to the archosaur branch of the reptiles. Now that this is known, even children’s books point out the similarities. Both birds and crocodilians make nests, vocalize, and care for their young. They both have four-chambered hearts as well.

These two are closer cousins than either is to a lizard.

Using a perching bird for the example of the feathered vertebrates works well. It is worth asking, however, what birds children see. Maybe they see chickens on the school grounds. Maybe it is song birds that come to a feeder. Maybe it is a pigeon in the city. Maybe it is caged bird in the classroom. Going back to a real bird is an important step to make learning the parts into living knowledge.

Finally, the whole collection of vertebrates should be called the groups of vertebrates, NOT the classes of vertebrates. Biologists haven’t placed fishes into a single class since about 1850. The former classes were jawless fishes, cartilaginous fishes, ray-finned fishes, and lobe-finned fishes. That’s much more than children need at the beginning of their studies. The classroom fish tank can house valuable examples of ray-finned fishes, and that’s a great launching point. After all, ray-finned fishes are more than 99% of all fishes.

You can look that fish in the eye and say to it, “You and I shared a common ancestor, back in the beginning of the Paleozoic Era.” You can tell the amphibian that you shared a common ancestor with it back in the Devonian Period. Not long (geologically speaking) after that in the Carboniferous Period you shared a common ancestor with birds and reptiles, the other animals that reproduce on dry land, which are known as the amniotes.

It’s all in the ancestors and the great evolutionary journey. Enjoy the trip.


The New Edition of Kingdoms of Life Connected is here! October 30 2016, 0 Comments



The second edition of my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected: A Teacher’s Guide to the Tree of Life, is available now. I wrote the first edition in 2008, and it was already time for an update this year. New information keeps coming in all fields of science. This leads to gradually evolving ideas, but change has been exceptionally rapid in the field of systematics, the study of the diversity of life.

The flood of DNA information continues, and we must bear that in mind in our presentations. It would be better to state that the story you tell is based on the evidence scientists have gathered for now. In the future, there could be adjustments. This doesn’t mean that all the information about the Tree of Life will change. Instead there will be small alterations. The potential for change certainly doesn’t excuse the presentation of obsolete classifications as anything other than history.  

One of the hardest tasks for my book revision was finding up-to-date children’s books about the diversity of life. I had to leave many older, but valuable, books on the resource lists. At least it is easier to find out-of-print books now than it was a decade ago. I also found that publishers have reprinted some valuable older books. They include Peter Loewer’s Pond Water Zoo: An Introduction to Microscopic Life. Jean Jenkins illustrated this book in black and white, and it has attractive, clear drawings of many protists, bacteria, and microscopic animals, along with text that upper elementary children can read. You will have to warn your children that the classification scheme presented, the Five Kingdoms, is obsolete, but the information about the groups of organisms is still quite good.

A forty-year-old book by Alvin and Virginia Silverstein, Metamorphosis: Nature’s Magical Transformations, has been reprinted by Dover Books. It has a chapter on sea squirts that shows the tadpole-like larval stage and tells about the life cycle of these chordates. I haven’t found another children’s book that tells this story. The black and white illustrations show how old the book is, but there didn’t seem to be a good alternative.

I know the pain of having to purchase a new edition of a reference book. My favorite biology textbook cost nearly $200, and I see the new edition, just published this month, is priced at $244. Yikes, that’s hard on the budget. If you own the first edition of Kingdoms of Life Connected, you will be able to purchase the ebook version – the pdf file – of the book at a reduced price. Please email info (at) bigpicturescience (dot) biz for information about how to do this.


Octopuses and other animals April 14 2015, 0 Comments

There’s a great new book out called Octopuses! Strange and Wonderful. It is by Laurence Pringle and is illustrated by Meryl Henderson. Together they present an attractive, accurate, and informative book about octopuses and other mollusks as well. The book would be an engaging read-aloud for younger elementary children and a good research material for upper elementary. I liked the information about how mollusks’ bodies are structured and how they work. Obviously this author researches his subjects carefully, and he knows how to tell a good story as well.

When I looked on Laurence Pringle’s website, I discovered that he has produced many highly rated children’s science books. The Strange and Wonderful series includes books on scorpions, cicadas, alligators and crocodiles, snakes, bats, and sharks. I was familiar with another high quality book by this author, A Dragon in the Sky: The Story of a Green Darner Dragonfly, published in 2001. I’m not sure how I missed the Strange and Wonderful series, but I will certainly seek it out now.

Another volume I have acquired lately is Animal Earth: The Amazing Diversity of Living Creatures by Ross Piper. It has many uses, from providing gorgeous illustrations of all sorts of animals to giving detailed biology for secondary student research. When I say all sorts of animals, I mean that the book covers all of the 34 phyla currently recognized in the animal kingdom. There is a chapter on animal lineages that helps one understand the current arrangement of those phyla on evolutionary trees (cladograms). The book is structured to follow the cladogram in the contents page. After the first branches of animals, the section on bilaterial animals starts with deuterostomes, and so the chordates, including us, are near the front of the book. Then it covers the protostomes, starting with the molting animals, including arthropods and nematodes. The clade called lophotrochozoa comes next, with annelids, mollusks, flatworms, and rotifers. The order alone will stimulate thought.

I found What on Earth?: 100 of Our Planet’s Most Amazing New Species while I was browsing in a bookstore. I highly recommend spending some time going through the stacks at bookstores, particularly those with a science section. I find things there that I missed on Amazon. This little book by Quentin Wheeler and Sara Pennak will likely stimulate conversations and research about a wide range of life. The 100 species are primarily animals, but fungi, plants, and a few protists also appear. There are even two bacteria. A feast for curiosity indeed.


Exploring animal adaptations February 23 2015, 0 Comments

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!


New Product: the Animal Kingdom Chart from InPrint for Children November 07 2014, 0 Comments

Big Picture Science now sells the Animal Kingdom Chart from InPrint for Children. Our stock is the latest printing of this chart, so it has new features. Carolyn Jones Spearman, who is the owner and designer of InPrint for Children, is meticulous in her images and designs. Each time she reprints this chart, she consults me for the latest updates.

With the high rate of change in life science, fueled by new DNA information and Tree-of-Life paradigms, there has been something to change on each printing. On this one, the material is a laminated sheet that lies flat. The color scheme is refined, and there are two new labels placed near the bottom to show the animals that are on the protostome and deuterostome branches of life. These branches are shown on my Tree-of-Life diagram for the animal kingdom.

If you are not familiar with these branches, they are explained in my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected. Briefly, the protostome (“mouth first”) lineage includes mollusks, annelids, arthropods, and roundworms. The deuterostome (“mouth second”) lineage includes echinoderms and chordates. One interesting difference between these two lineages is that identical twins are only possible in the deuterostomes. Their fertilized eggs keep the ability to develop into many tissues through several cell divisions, whereas the protostome cells specialize early. The deuterostome embryos can be divided in half and go on to form two individuals. The protostome embryos die if they are divided in half.

InPrint for Children’s Animal Kingdom Chart includes color cards to place on the chart. Each one illustrates an animal and has information about it on the back. There is a subtle clue to the animal’s environment in the shading behind the animal’s image. If the shading is blue, the animal is aquatic. If it is green, the animal is terrestrial, and if it is pinkish, the animal is a parasite.

This animal kingdom chart provides further experience for children, after they have seen the place of the animal kingdom in the Tree of Life, and after they have an introduction to the major branches of the animal kingdom. Those introductions can be done with my Tree-of-Life charts. The advantage of the chart from InPrint for Children is that it gives children more practice and introduces them to more members of the lineages of animals. The grouping of phyla on the chart reflects the branches on the Tree of Life. For instance, the arthropods and the roundworms, members of the molting animal lineage (edysozoa) are placed side-by-side with a wider margin between them and other branches of animals.

The InPrint for Children chart clarifies the confusion between chordates and vertebrates. Some Montessori materials show non-chordates and chordates rather than invertebrates and vertebrates. Those two groupings are not the same. The tunicates and lancelets are invertebrate chordates. The line on the bottom of the chart shows which animals are vertebrates and which are not.

There is a lot to learn by working with this chart. I hope you and your children find it an inspiring entrance into study of the animals.


Curious Critters encourages curiousity October 19 2014, 0 Comments

Curious Critters by David FitzSimmons is an engaging collection of highly detailed photos of animals. The portraits are set on white backgrounds that show the features of the animal very well. They include a good range of animals, invertebrate and vertebrate, with fish, amphibians, and reptiles well-represented. The story for each organism has some truth to it, but it is mostly anthropomorphic. This isn’t the worse thing as it may help children see why the animal behaves as it does. There is a short paragraph on the natural history of each organism at the back of the book.

I can see several uses for this book, both in illustrating the relationships between animals and looking at their external features. The feet on the blue jay are a good illustration of the tie between birds and crocodilians. The monarch butterfly larva shows the walking feet of lepidopteran larvae very well. Children can examine the features of frogs, toads, salamanders, and crayfish closely, whether or not they have access to the real thing.

The original book was published in 2011, and Curious Critters, Volume Two came out earlier this year. These volumes can help children hone their powers of observation. Did you know that beetles can have tiny mites riding on them?