What goes on a plant kingdom chart? December 27 2018, 0 Comments

Like its counterpart, the animal kingdom chart, all Montessori elementary classrooms need a plant kingdom chart. A current version of this chart will have the same elements as a traditional one, but the groups will not have the same labels or arrangement as they have had in decades past. DNA studies and phylogenetic systematics have changed the look of the plant kingdom, and our charts need to reflect this. It is hard to find a solid consensus among botanists on the “right” names, but that is no excuse for giving names that we know are obsolete.

I’ve listed my recommendations for contents of a current plant kingdom chart below. The names that I think are most important are in boldface type. The other names may also be useful. Ask yourself, “Will elementary children be able to use this name to find information that they can read and understand?” If you do a search using the name, do you find information that you can use and understand? If not, consider dropping the more technical name and using the common name for the lineage, the one I emphasize below. The terms on charts for children should be useful for understanding the diversity of life AND for finding further information.

Plant Kingdom (land plants, embryophytes)

Bryophytes (nonvascular plants)

                Liverworts (Phylum Marchantiophyta)

                Mosses (Phylum Bryophyta)

 Hornworts (Phylum Anthoceratophyta)

Vascular Plants or Tracheophytes

                Lycophytes or club mosses and relatives (Phylum Lycophyta)

                Euphyllophytes, the “true-leaf” plants

                       Fern clade or Monilophytes (Class Polypodiopsida)

                                  Whisk ferns and relatives

                                   Equisetums or horsetails

                                   Ferns or leptosporangiate ferns or true ferns

                       Seed plants or Spermatophytes


                                                   Cycads (Phylum Cycadophyta)

                                                   Ginkgo (Phylum Ginkgophyta)

                                                   Gnetophytes (Phylum Gnetophyta)

       Conifers (Phylum Pinophyta)

                                     Angiosperms or flowering plants (Phylum Magnoliophyta)

                                                                Basal angiosperms





For a beginner’s chart, I start the plant kingdom with the land plants, the embryophytes. It is acceptable to add the green algae because they are closely related to embryophytes, but it is clearer if children learn about land plants first, and then add their relatives. Advanced students are ready for a chart of the Viridiplantae (green plants), which includes the green algae lineages and the land plants. It is important for children to understand that land plants and green algae share a common ancestor.

Don’t feel bad about leaving off phylum/division names. While the animal kingdom phyla have been rearranged by DNA studies, they have kept their names. Plant kingdom phyla or divisions, whichever you wish to call them, aren’t as useful anymore. In fact, I have a widely-used, advanced textbook for plant systematics that uses no phylum/division names at all. Instead, it simply uses names with no ranks for the major lineages, such as lycophytes, euphyllophytes, seed plants, and angiosperms. It still uses orders, families, genera, and species, the Linnaean ranks that botanists continue to use for plants.  

There has been a big change that centers on the ferns. An older scheme had four phyla, Psilophyta, Lycophyta, Sphenophyta, and Pterophyta or Pteridophyta. These groups, often called “ferns and fern allies,” were considered more or less equal, but now we know that the lycophytes are a separate lineage from the other three. The fern clade, now considered by some to be a phylum, has three groups once considered separate phyla – the whisk ferns, horsetails, and the true ferns.

I see no reason to put notably out-of-date information on a plant kingdom chart. I especially encourage you to remove any images that are no longer considered plants. If you still have a mushroom on your plant kingdom chart, children are going to associate fungi with plants, even if you tell them that we know now that fungi are closely related to the animal kingdom and not at all close to plants. The visual impression that a chart gives to children is powerful, and it is important to get it as close to current as we can.

Change seems to come slowly in the general knowledge of plant systematics. I did an Internet search for plant kingdom charts and classification, and I found an amazing range of information from very old to current. Some websites even use the terms “cryptogams” and “phanerogams,” which came into use about 1860. Botanists haven’t used them in academic publications for at least 40 years. It is not that they are “wrong,” but they describe a superficial view that botanists had over a century ago. Our knowledge has grown, and there are better ways of expressing the differences among plant groups.

The flowering plants are currently divided into several lineages. I listed the main ones above, basal angiosperms, magnoliids, monocots, and eudicots. Botanists no longer use only the monocot and dicot subgroups, although these are still common in field guides and older publications. The flowering plants make up about 90% of the plant kingdom, and their orders have been defined in the last two or three decades using DNA studies. They deserve their own chart of orders and families.

My plant kingdom chart from my Tree of Life shows the lineages and their relationships. The plant kingdom chart from InPrint for Children gives children more practice with the categories.    

Here are some quick ways to check the information on a plant kingdom chart for your classroom. If the chart shows a row of evenly spaced boxes, it isn’t giving children all the information they need. Bryophytes need to be grouped together and somehow spaced apart from the tracheophytes. Lycophytes should be separated from other spore-producing plants. If the club mosses, whisk ferns, true ferns, and horsetails are all grouped together and perhaps called “fern allies” or “pteridophytes,” that’s obsolete. There should be something to show that the club mosses are a different lineage from the three branches of the fern clade, and if possible, that ferns are more closely related to seed plants. If the term “dicots” or “dicotyledons” appears instead of “eudicots,” then that needs to change. Eudicots (“true dicots”) are the old dicots minus the magnoliids and the basal lineages such as water lilies.

The same criteria for illustrations on a kingdom chart apply to animals and plants. Can you see the important structural features that enable children to recognize the lineage? For example, can you see a fern’s fiddleheads or its sori? Can you see the sporophytes of the bryophyte lineages? Sporophytes need to be visible and described in the text. The reproductive structures and foliage of the gymnosperms help children tell the difference between those lineages. Flower illustrations should clearly show stamens and pistils. Consider showing a fruit as well because fruits are unique to the flowering plants.

In the text for the chart, give children a range of examples whenever this is possible. Children, like much of our society, are less likely to be familiar with plants than they are with animals. They may be surprised to learn that grasses, maples, and oak trees are flowering plants.

Enjoy opening children’s eyes to the diversity of plants! For more information about the plant kingdom and its members, see my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected.

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.”

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

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.