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.
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.
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 (http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/dlc-me/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.