Moving past zoology and botany April 30 2019, 0 Comments

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.


Help with studies of flowering plant families June 01 2017, 1 Comment

For many years, I have promoted the idea of structuring botany around the flowering plant families. It’s a practical way of addressing the diversity of the angiosperms, and it is knowledge that works in many places and at many levels. For instance, organic gardeners need to know the families of vegetables so that they can do the proper crop rotation and fertilizing. Plant identification is much easier if one can determine the family. Flowers in the same family share certain features, so it is quite possible to recognize the family even if you have never seen that species before.

To help you with your botany studies, I’ve just revised and expanded my PowerPoint slides on flowering plant families. This file is a pdf that can be printed to make letter-sized posters of 20 flowering plant families. The slides include text that describes the features of the flowers, and they show photos of family members. To round out this material, I’ve added a representative photo of 48 other families or subfamilies from all branches of the angiosperms. 

Perhaps you would like to do a Tree of Life diagram for the flowering plants. There is a good one in the book, Botanicum by Katie Scott and Kathy Willis. It is part of the Welcome to the Museum series from Big Picture Press (no relation to Big Picture Science), and it was published in 2016. The branches are correct on the diagram (pages 2 and 3), but they have just one example for each branch, and the orders are not stated. The example represents a whole order, which leaves out a lot. For example, the rose order, Rosales, is represented by a mulberry leaf. Mulberries and figs belong to family Moraceae, which is in the rose order, along with rose, elm, buckthorn, hemp, and nettle families. On the other hand, the diagram fits on two pages. It have to be much larger to be more comprehensive. All-in-all, the book is delightful and will provide lots of fun browsing. You will have to tell children that the page on fungi is a holdover from earlier definitions of botany.

The photos of families from my newly revised Flowering Plant Families Slides can be used to create a Tree of Life that has many orders. It gives a broader look at the families than its predecessor, and it is still centered on the families of North America. There are over 400 families of angiosperms worldwide. You don’t need to worry about being anywhere near comprehensive when you introduce children to flower families. Select the main ones for which you have examples from your school landscape, in areas near the school, or as cut flowers. If you or your children want to see the full list, go to the Wikipedia article on APG IV system (Angiosperm Phylogeny Group IV).   

I’m not the only one that advocates structuring botany studies around flowering plant families. Thomas Elpel has written a highly successful book called Botany in a Day: The Pattern Method of Plant Identification. It is further described as “An Herbal Field Guide to Plant Families of North America.”  This book is in its sixth edition. It has color drawings as well as black and white ones, and these could be useful in classrooms. I have not recommended placing this book in the elementary classroom, however, because it includes many food and medicinal uses for wild plants. I do not want to encourage children to eat wild plants or use them as medicine.

Botany in a Day is available from Mountain Press Publishing in Missoula, Montana, which also carries Elpel’s flower family book for children, Shanleya’s Quest. This book is a great one for elementary classrooms, and I strongly recommend it.

Enjoy exploring and identifying the flowers!

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.

Three cheers (and three books) for bacteria! September 10 2016, 0 Comments

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 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.

Science is for reading aloud, too February 26 2016, 0 Comments

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 ( This month there is a list of children’s books to celebrate spring, biographies of women in science, and science poetry for kids.  

Poinsettia time November 22 2014, 0 Comments

In the Northern Hemisphere, poinsettias are now available in plant nurseries. These plants have become a part of winter holiday traditions, so it is likely that children will see them. When poinsettias appear in classrooms, you have an opportunity to introduce children to the euphorbia family and its unusual flowers.

Don’t worry about these attractive plants being poisonous. That myth has been debunked. The sap of this plant, like other members of the euphorbia family, is irritating to skin and eyes, but the plant is no great hazard in the classroom. They are no more than a mild irritant to cats and dogs. People that have an allergy to natural latex rubber could have an allergic reaction to the sap, as natural rubber comes from another member of the euphorbia family, the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis.

I have written a booklet for children that shows how poinsettias are grown and gives the botanical details of their bracts and flowers. It is available as a print-it-yourself file on the Big Picture Science website. I took the photos a few years ago at a small greenhouse near Conifer, Colorado. In order to trigger the plants to form flowers, they must have a dark period at night. Even a little light exposure will stop the production of buds. The greenhouse I visited was well away from the pollution of city lights.

The length of the darkness increases as days become shorter in the fall, and that is what triggers poinsettias to flower. In their native climate in Mexico and Central America, the length of darkness is only about 13 hours maximum, so flowering doesn’t require a long period of darkness. The darkness needs to be complete, however.

The brightly colored bracts are modified leaves. The flowers are in the yellow, cup-like structures in the center of the bracts. They have no petals, and children will be able to see the flowers’ details more clearly with a magnifying glass. My booklet, The Story of Poinsettias at TaTonka Farms, will help you figure out the puzzle of the flowers' structure. 


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?

Must-have book: Buried Sunlight October 04 2014, 0 Comments

The fourth volume of the Sunlight series from Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm is out, and I consider it a must-have book for elementary classrooms. The title is Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth. It has the same wonderful illustration style as the previous titles in this series (My Light; Living Sunlight; and Ocean Sunlight). The story is vital for children to know. The basics of the carbon cycle are here, as well as a quick overview of the history of Earth and the fact that there are natural cycles of warming and cooling. The big problem is stated clearly – the RATE at which we are burning fossil fuels and changing the Earth’s climate.

The story is presented at a good level for younger elementary children, and the notes at the back give supplementary information for those who want more information. Be sure to read and discuss the notes with older children. It will help them think about the issues raised in the book.

Perhaps the importance of this story was highlighted for me by a 2014 report from the World Wildlife Fund. Its Living Planet Report tells that vertebrate wildlife numbers have been cut in half since 1970. During the same time period, the human population roughly doubled. Animals in the tropics suffered higher losses than animals in temperate areas. Conservation areas had much smaller losses, but even they showed declines. The report notes that people are using 1.5 planets worth of resources each year. This means that it would take 1.5 years to replenish the trees we cut, the fish we harvest, and for the biosphere to absorb the carbon dioxide we emit in one year. Clearly we need changes in the way we live on the Earth. Those changes can start with children, and in many cases, they must start with younger people. It is too easy for older ones of us to keep doing what we have always done and to deny that it is a problem.

Looking for microbes - or at least information about them? September 21 2014, 0 Comments

Recently I needed to find some good websites on bacteria to pass them onto a person that needed basic information. I thought it would be easy, but I found that there was plenty of technical information, but not that much for the beginner. I was in a better position to appreciate the book, Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies and Emily Sutton.

This new book is aimed at 4-7 year-olds, children who can handle learning a bit about things they can’t see, but still need very simple information that ties into their world. It is an excellent introduction to microbes, and it gets my stamp of approval for presenting all sorts of microbes and many of their vital roles in the biosphere. Too often children’s books emphasize the “germs” aspect of microbes without telling why the tiniest life is important for all life.

Overall the information is good, and the artwork makes the story work. The illustrations are attractive and interesting, so that even those who aren’t totally following the story will be engaged. The part on bacteria dividing is a bit deceiving, as E. coli (Escherichia coli) can divide every 20 minutes under ideal laboratory conditions, but that rate is very rare in natural conditions. Some bacteria may take hours or even days or longer to divide. Still the E. coli example illustrates the way bacteria grow and makes it understandable.

Some of my other favorites for introducing elementary children to microbes are the website, Microbe Zoo ( ), Betsy Dexter Dyer’s Field Guide to Bacteria, and Jeanette Farrell’s book, Invisible Allies: Microbes that Shape Our Lives. The latter is upper elementary to middle school level.

For the adult general reader, The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes by Nicholas P. Money is great. The writing is engaging, and the stories are amazing. The reader learns of the smallest eye in the world, the many microbes that are known only via their DNA, and the variety of eukaryotic microbes. All sorts of environments are considered, from extreme temperatures to the human body. There are stories in this book that could be shared with elementary or middle school children. It could be a good study for high school advanced biology.

Meanwhile, I recommend that you present bacteria and archaea, discard the Kingdom Monera, and help children learn about all the vital roles of microbes, not just the germs.