Almost all classrooms have the ability to grow plants outside, even if it is only in containers. Many schools have extensive grounds. Some fortunate schools are surrounded by a natural area, but frequently, the landscape is mainly ornamental plants that are native to other regions. How many of the plants around your school are from your local ecosystem? This is an important question to address.
Humans have taken over a significant part of our planet. Our buildings, lawns, roads, and fields exclude the native plant communities and all the animals that rely on them. It is heartening to know that this is a problem that we can address simply by what we choose to plant. We can give important support to insects, birds, and other life in our native ecosystem. It is good for all the life of our ecosystem – including us.
Children can learn about what we can do from the Young Reader’s Edition of the book, Nature’s Best Hope: How You Can Save the World in Your Own Yard. It was written for adult readers by Douglas W. Tallamy and adapted for younger readers by Sarah L. Thomson. Older elementary and middle school children can read this book to learn about the problem and ways to help.
I learned important ideas from this book. I knew that we need to grow plants that support pollinators with nectar and pollen. I had not fully grasped the need to plant host species for caterpillars. These plants are vital to the insects’ survival, but beyond that, they play a huge role in the support of bird populations. It is because of the food baby birds eat. They cannot feed on the seeds or adult insects that their parents consume. Instead, they need soft-boded caterpillars, and their parents have to find thousands of these insect larvae to raise a nest full of babies.
How do we find plants that support our insects and birds? The National Wildlife Federation is a good source of this information. See https://www.nwf.org/Garden-for-Wildlife/About/Native-Plants. This website features a native plant finder. You enter your zip code, and it gives you lists of plants that host the most butterfly and moth species. These plants will help provide food for the birds in your area.
What is in our gardens now? Many of the ornamental species we grow come from other parts of this continent and even from other continents. People love to have a variety of plants in their gardens. We don’t have to get rid of all our exotic species; we can add native plants. A good goal is at least half in native plants.
The lawns in the US take up an amazing area. Tallamy writes that in the state of Maryland, there are twice as many acres in lawns than in all state parks, state forests, and wildlife management areas put together. It is the same in most Eastern states.
Schools need playing fields and spaces for children to run and exercise, so it isn’t practical to get rid of the grass. All of the area around the school doesn’t have to be a lawn, however. A border or corner can be set aside for native plants. Areas that get little foot traffic can be changed to a meadow of mixed native plants, very attractive to people as well as insects. Less grass means less water for irrigation and less mowing and fertilizing. Cutting back on fertilizer is important for greater ecosystem health because fertilizer runoff promotes harmful algae blooms and lowers drinking water quality.
The University of Florida Thompson Earth Systems Institute has information about the importance of insects and what we can do to help rebuild their populations, which are declining. See https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/earth-systems/the-insect-effect/. This website has guidelines for making your outdoor spaces insect friendly. The decline in insect species and numbers doesn’t make headlines like other climate problems, but it is a critical one to address.
Beds of flowering plants offer many possibilities for botany studies, including pollinator watches, observations of bud formation, finding flower parts, and watching fruits develop. Diversity – having many different species – is important for survival of ecosystems. Children can compare the life they see in a flower bed planted with many native species versus a grass lawn. So many good learning experiences await in a richly planted landscape!
Normally, I write about elementary or secondary education in my blog. In this one, I’m addressing an issue that starts in early childhood, and it affects the way children view the living world in their later studies.
Traditionally, Montessori life science (biology) was divided into zoology and botany. The divide began when young children sorted pictures into animals vs. plants. This exercise fit well with the two kingdom approach to classifying the living world. I certainly hope that Montessori teachers no longer use two kingdoms. Biologists began moving away from two kingdoms in the mid-1800s, although it took a hundred years and major advances in biochemistry and microscopy to complete the break. We can give children a more useful overview of the living world than simply animals and plants.
It is time to quit thinking of life science as zoology or botany, or structuring our teaching albums (manuals) this way. When we offer only two categories for living things, children miss much of the living world. While young children are not ready for lots of details, they can sort pictures of living things into three categories, the third being “Other living things.” This tells them that there are organisms that are neither plants nor animals, and it keeps the door open for further learning. Mushrooms, lichens, and kelp are examples of macroscopic organisms that fit under the “Other” heading.
I started my work to bring current science concepts and content to teachers over 20 years ago. My first conference workshop was about the Five Kingdom classification. I spent nearly a decade helping teachers move from two kingdoms to five kingdoms. Then I had to switch gears again as expanding knowledge (via DNA and RNA) of the relationships between living things led to new concepts of classification, principally the Tree of Life and phylogenetics. My book, Kingdoms of Life Connected: A Teacher’s Guide to the Tree of Life, has learning activities and resources for exploring all the branches of life and viruses, too.
The microscopic living world is more abstract and harder to observe than plants and animals, but that does not mean that children shouldn’t know about it. They can learn that microorganisms help plants grow, recycle nutrients, and make foods like yogurt and cheese possible. The disease-causing microorganisms are the ones that we experience most directly, and these get the most attention, but children need to understand the vital importance of microorganisms to all ecosystems.
The book, Tiny Creatures, by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton (2014) is a valuable resource for introducing young children to the microscopic world. These authors have a second book (2017), Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth, which supports a more inclusive view of life. The Invisible ABCs by Rodney P. Anderson (2006) sounds like it would be for early childhood, but it looks better for beginning elementary. This publication from the American Society for Microbiology has accurate information and good images of the organisms. Its breezy style makes this abstract world more interesting.
Moving past botany and zoology also means considering more than biological classification. It means thinking about the ecosystems, environments, and interactions of life, the structures of life, and the evolutionary history of organisms. Elementary children will have a better idea of the importance of microorganisms after they read Ocean Sunlight: How Tiny Plants Feed the Seas by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm (2012). This book uses the term “plants” for the ocean’s protists that perform photosynthesis, even though many are not on the green algae-plant lineage. More importantly, it shows children the microbial underpinnings of the ocean ecosystem.
In elementary life science studies, there will be times to focus on the animals or the plants, but children will have a better perspective if they start with an introduction to the whole Tree of Life and learn to use this conceptual framework. As children develop their abstract thinking, they are likely to be interested in exploring all the branches of life. They will need good tools, such as magnifiers and microscopes, to help them observe the protists and prokaryotes. They also need appropriate search terms for finding resources they can read and understand.
I hope you and your children enjoy studying the greater living world.
Fact-checking... is an important part of preparing the classroom environment. Here are some tips on how to do it.
I’m always happy to find children’s books that portray bacteria as something other than germs. In my recent searches, I’ve found three gems. Two of them came from Australia, but I found the shipping was quick. The publisher is Free Scale Network, and the books are sold by Small Friends Books http://www.smallfriendsbooks.com/. The authors are Ailsa Wild, Aviva Reed, Briony Barr, and Dr. Gregory Crocetti.
It’s not often that bacteria get to be the protagonists, but in The Squid, the Vibrio, and the Moon the heroes are bacteria that help a young bobtail squid evade its predators. The story is set near the Hawaiian Islands, and it is dramatic and engaging. The attractive illustrations do a great job of supporting the story. They combine scales and will need some explanation, but the size scale at the front will help children keep all the components of the story in perspective.
The second book, Zobi and the Zoox, is set in a coral colony on the Great Barrier Reef. The protagonist is a rhizobia bacterium, Zobi for short. The action takes place in a coral polyp named Darian. The personification of these organisms could be distracting, but it isn’t. It helps one keep the characters separate and follow the action. There’s plenty of action as the coral faces warming in the ocean.
Both of these books can give children a greater appreciation for the many roles that bacteria play in making the biosphere work. It is easy to say that bacteria are an important part of all ecosystems, but that statement needs to be followed with great examples of actual symbioses like these books provide.
These two books are 38 pages long, and they can be enjoyed as a read-aloud by beginning elementary children. Older elementary can read the books themselves, and even secondary levels can learn from them. There is a glossary and several pages of additional information in the back of the books.
The third book that would be a great addition for studies of the microbial world is Inside Your Insides: A Guide to the Microbes That Call You Home by Claire Eamer, illustrated by Marie-Eve Tremblay. It was just released this month. This book has a wide range of information about microbes – what they are, where they live, and what they have to do with us and our world. The illustrations are goofy and cartoonish, but they work well enough to help children picture what is going on. The information is accurate and current, something that is hard to find in any children’s science book, much less one on microbes. Upper elementary children will likely enjoy the corny jokes sprinkled through the book, but they will also find plenty of good information. You could read it to lower elementary children.
World Read Aloud Day, February 24th, slid by me while I wasn’t looking, but I hope you celebrate reading aloud every day. I learned about the “official” holiday from Science Books and Films (SB&F) February issue, which included this book list.
10 STEM Books for Reading Aloud
A Chicken Followed Me Home, by Robin Page. Simon & Schuster, 2015.
You Nest Here With Me, by Jane Yolen and Heidi Stemple. (Illus. by Melissa Sweet.) Boyds Mills Press, 2015.
Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes, by Nicola Davies. (Illus by Emily Sutton.) Candlewick Press, 2014.
Raindrops Roll, by April Pulley Sayre. Beach Lane Books, 2015.
Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold, by Joyce Sidman. (Illus. by Rick Allen.) HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014.
One Plastic Bag: Isatou Ceesay and the Recycling Women of the Gambia, by Miranda Paul. (Illus. by Elizabeth Zunon.) Millbrook, 2015.
Tree of Wonder, by Kate Messner. (Illus. by Simona Mulazzani.) Chronicle Books, 2015.
High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs, by Lisa Kahn Schnell. (Illus. by Alan Marks.) Charlesbridge, 2015.
Waiting for Ice, by Sandra Markle (Illus. by Alan Marks.) Charlesbridge, 2012.
Feathers: Not Just for Flying, by Melissa Stewart. (Illus. by Sandra S. Brannan.) Charlesbridge, 2014.
I reviewed Tiny Creatures in a post for September 2014. Feathers: Not Just for Flying is a favorite of mine, both for the beautiful artwork and the science content.
If you subscribe to SB&F, you will receive the full content, which includes special features like this month’s list of books about technology and innovation for Black History Month. There is also a Read-Around-A-Theme feature on bats, and the usual great reviews of books for kindergarten through adult general readers.
If you can’t subscribe now, you can still get several valuable resources on the SB&F website (http://www.sbfonline.com/Pages/welcomesplash.aspx). This month there is a list of children’s books to celebrate spring, biographies of women in science, and science poetry for kids.
I’ve heard from teachers that they are not sure what to buy or how my materials fit into their lesson sequence. Here is some information that I hope helps you with those decisions for your botany studies, as well as a link to our complete range of Montessori botany materials.
Plant Lessons: Introducing Children to Plant Form and Function. This book is the anchor for your botany studies. It gives you the lessons you need to present children with the parts of plants and what those parts do. It starts with basic lessons and continues through elementary, at least. At middle school level, it is helpful for review and to fill in gaps in plant knowledge that children may have.
For early childhood – Basics lessons on the parts of a plant, kinds of roots, and the parts of a stem, leaf, flower, fruit, and seed. Other lessons on the whole plant – deciduous and evergreen, plant life cycles, growth forms, and basic reproduction (whether the plant makes spores or seeds, or reproduces vegetatively). The five basic leaf shapes, and other leaf lessons as needed.
For first level elementary (6-9 year-olds) – All the lessons are appropriate, although it is highly unlikely that all be needed in the first three years of elementary. If children have not had the basic lessons listed under early childhood, they should receive those first. Past basic lessons, the lessons can be guided by the available plant materials. Lessons such as “Woody Stems in Winter” are best when the real plant material is available. Flower lessons can be matched to the flowers that are available. It is more important to use the lessons to further children’s knowledge of real plants than to march through all the nomenclature. If you follow the development of plants on your school grounds and in the area through the year, and supplement with cut flowers, you are likely to give your children an excellent foundation in botany.
Illustrated Botany for Children is the botany nomenclature booklets and three-part cards for the children’s work in botany. The language level is simple enough that the young reader can manage it with a bit of help. There is a nomenclature booklet and accompanying cards for each of the lessons in the Plant Lessons book. The wall charts (summary charts) give a visual overview of each lesson and help children remember and review the content.
48 Flower Cards for Study and Sorting (Botany photo card set 3) is useful both to use in flower lessons and in follow-up work for the children. The table that comes with the cards tells which cards are useful for a wide range of flower lessons. For example, children can sort cards that show tepals vs. petals and sepals, or they can use the cards to practice finding stamens or pistils.
The Story of Poinsettias and The Amaryllis are children’s books for beginning elementary. These are available as files that you print. They are illustrated with color photos that show the botanical details. When these flowers are in season, the books are a great way to help children see the flowers’ important details. These books also work as a read-aloud for younger children.
Early Spring Flowers is another file that you print to make study and research starter cards. It helps children learn the names of flowers and see those challenging inconspicuous flowers on trees like maples and alders. Older children can learn more about the flowering plant family and other plant classification.
Plants We Eat is a set of six booklets and matching cards for kindergarten and beginning elementary. This material from InPrint for Children is a great way to make lessons on the parts of a plant more meaningful. The set includes a master for copying booklet for the children to color and label.
Leaf Characteristics is another set from InPrint for Children that is very useful for kindergarten and beginning elementary. It helps children learn to observe the pertinent features for leaf description and is a good foundation for more advanced leaf studies.
I'll continue with recommendations for older elementary children and middle school level another day (but you can always email me with your questions). Today I feel the need to get my hands in the soil and observe my own garden plants.
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.
Children love to get their hands on real things and do experiments, and teachers love clear instructions and easy-to-find materials for those experiments. I have two new books that will be valuable for both. The act of making something for oneself is an important one that I think is too rare in our everyday lives, so I appreciate books that help children use their hands and minds to do science activities and learn about how the world works.
The first is a new edition of a book by the master science educator, Vicki Cobb. The title is We Dare You! The 2014 edition has a special feature, videos of many of the experiments online, which you can find at http://www.vickicobb.com/vickisvideolinks.html . You can even contribute your own videos of the activities to the website. Many of these activities have been published before, but it is helpful to have so many useful challenges for children collected in one volume. I would save the videos until children have done the activity for themselves, but seeing other children do the activity could be inspiring.
The second book is Junk Drawer Physics: 50 Awesome Experiments That Don’t Cost a Thing by Bobby Mercer, published in 2014. While the subtitle may exaggerate the frugality of these experiments, it is true that many of the materials come from a recycling bin. Some of the constructs are amazing simple. I didn’t know that you can make a Cartesian diver with a ketchup packet. I would give children the instructions, but hold the explanations until they have tried the activity. You will want to screen the activities for the classroom rather than just putting out the book so that children won’t find out how to set steel wool on fire with a 9-volt battery before you have prepared a safe environment. Yes, some of these activities will require special supervision, and there are a few you may not want in your classroom, but children can do most of them easily and safely by themselves. They will certainly learn while they are having fun.
These books look great for building children’s reading skills. Being able to read instructions and follow them is a skill well worth developing. If I were putting the activities in a classroom, I would probably give children the instructions to read, and leave the explanation of what happens for later. After children have tried the activity and recorded their findings, they could read the “Insider Information” section of We Dare You! or “The Science Behind It” section of Junk Drawer Physics , which tells about the science behind the happenings. They are much more likely to record what they actually observe if they don’t know what they are supposed to see. They are also more likely to take in information about the science principles after they have experienced the phenomena.
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!
When you are looking for real living things to study and observe in your outdoor environment, the birds of your area can be good subjects even in the middle of winter. Birds are still called class Aves by some scientists, but it is well accepted that they are a branch of the theropod dinosaurs, so they are nested within the Class Reptilia. They are related to the maniraptors, an extinct lineage of small, feathered dinosaurs. The birds that are alive now – the extant or modern birds – belong to the lineage Neornithes. But enough of long names. The real excitement is actually watching birds as they go about their lives.
Look Up! Bird-Watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette Le Blanc Cate (2013) is a great resource for launching bird studies. This book was the prize-winner in the 2014 book awards from Science Books and Films (SB&F). See http://www.aaas.org/news/2014-aaassubaru-sbf-prizes-celebrate-fieldwork-and-citizen-science . The book encourages children to observe birds and to sketch them. It is illustrated in cartoon style, with the birds making many human-type comments, but elementary children are not likely to confuse the messages from the birds in this book with real bird communications. They will likely find it amusing and engaging, and hopefully it will inspire them to see and learn more about their local birds.
If you want a more serious look at bird vocalizations, try Bird Talk: What Birds are Saying and Why by Lita Judge (2012). This looks like a good lower elementary read, and it has further information about the bird species shown.
Of course you will need a good field guide to birds so that children can identify the birds they observe. There are many excellent ones available. For the whole US, I like The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley (2000). You may find it useful to have a more local guide as well because it reduces children’s (and adults’) frustration when they are trying to identify a bird they have seen. For a children’s book about a man who pioneered modern field guides, see For the Birds: The Life of Roger Tory Petersen by Peggy Thomas and Laura Jacques.
Children may wish to add their observations to a classroom record, a field guide to their local birds. Will they see the same birds each year? Will the birds change throughout the year? To answer these questions, children will have to observe, identify, record, and see what everyone finds. Happy birding!