Studies of the diversity of life are a pillar of life science at elementary level. In the past, Montessori classrooms used charts that show Linnaean classification – Kingdom, Phylum, Class, etc. Those charts are no longer very useful except in studies of the history of science. Instead, children need an introduction to the Tree of Life, which they can get via a branching diagram aka family tree, evolutionary tree, phylogenetic diagram, or phylogeny. If you need a Tree of Life diagram, you can download one for free at my website.
In early childhood, children sort pictures under labels, beginning with living vs. nonliving, animal vs. plant, and invertebrate vs. vertebrate, for example. Later, they sort pictures under more categories such as classes of vertebrates or phyla of invertebrates. The activity in my new material, Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life, will look somewhat familiar to children, but it has enough differences to make it challenging and interesting.
As Montessori classrooms adapt to the changing world of academic knowledge, one of the first things will be to help children learn the main branches on the Tree of Life. They need an introduction to the Tree of Life to get an overview, and then they are ready to start studying the main branches. Note that I use the terms “clade,” “lineage,” and “branch” to mean more or less the same thing – an ancestor and all of its descendants.
A challenge of Tree of Life classification is that the big branches have little branches, and the branches are not ranked (aren’t a phylum, class, etc). One simply has to know that the vertebrates are a branch of the chordates, for example. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds. Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life will help children and adults learn the main branches as they sort photos of organisms under a set of heading labels. When children have completed the diagrams, they will be able to see that the organisms belong to a number of clades. They will also be more prepared to use phylogenies (branching diagrams) that show the main branches. Older ones may even want to try their hand at drawing a phylogeny based on a diagram they have completed.
Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life covers the vertebrates and the plants. It has a series of lessons, each of which builds on the last to help children learn the clades (branches, lineages). The lessons use images of extant animals (with one exception) and plants, but they tie into some of the history of the clades as well. One really can’t teach about the diversity of life without giving information about the origin of the branches of life.
I’ll start with descriptions of the lessons for the vertebrates in this article and leave the plants for another day. The first lesson shows the earliest branching of the vertebrates, which produced the jawless fish and the vertebrates with jaws. The latter clade, called the gnathostomes, has two branches, the cartilaginous fishes and the bony vertebrates. I have called the second branch the bony vertebrates instead of the bony fishes because it holds more than just fish. It is actually our branch as well.
The bony vertebrates have two branches, the ray-finned fish and the lobe-fins. The latter includes the coelacanth and the lungfish, as well as the tetrapods, the animals with four limbs. I used a picture of a lion to represent the tetrapods so that children could see that ALL the tetrapods belong to that lineage, not just the amphibian-like, first ones to evolve.
The second lesson shows the branches of the tetrapods, and its diagram shows that birds are a branch of the reptiles.
Reptiles, birds, mammals, and eutherian mammals each have another lesson with a diagram. The reptile and mammal lessons come after children have had the tetrapod lesson. The reptile lesson shows that this branch of life divides into the lepidosaurs (“scaly lizards”) and the archosaurs (“ruling lizards”). For the latter, the branches are the crocodilians (crocodiles, alligators, and relatives) and the dinosaurs. The pictures under the dinosaur label are a non-avian dinosaur and an avian dinosaur – a chicken. Yes, the birds are really dinosaurs, and they should be placed under the archosaur label.
Don’t panic at the idea of birds being a branch of the reptiles. We can still teach about those two branches of life separately. The traditional reptile lessons usually give the characteristics of the squamate reptiles – lizards and snakes – or of turtles, which are a world of their own, a sister branch to the archosaurs. Lessons can emphasize the traits that birds and crocodilians share. Studies of birds can note their reptile-like traits such as scaly skin on their legs.
The mammal diagram shows the first two branches as the monotremes and the therians. This omits a lot of mammal history, but the point of these lessons is not the whole history of the organisms. It is about the branches of the currently living ones. The therians are the marsupials and the eutherian mammals, aka placental animals. When you have finished the lesson on the eutherian mammals, children can go back through and make a list of their own branches of life.
I produced this material this spring, and children in a Montessori classroom got to see a prototype just before the schools closed because of the pandemic. The teacher reported that they were very interested in the material, partly because it doesn’t look like all their other materials. By elementary age, children are ready for variety and challenge. Sorting Branches on the Tree of Life supplies both.
I am happy to answer questions you may have about this material. I supply it as a digital download, a file that you can print for yourself. See https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/sorting-branches-on-the-tree-of-life-vertebrates-and-plants
It’s that time of year when the urge to put things in order can strike. You may have a closet with a lot of biology materials that you want to evaluate. Here are my suggestions for things to throw out. You may not want to discard the whole material just because it has flawed content provided it is feasible to fix the problems.
In the animal kingdom materials, if you find anything that has the phylum Coelenterata, please remove that name or cover it. Biologists haven’t used it for more than 30 years. That phylum was split into two others when biologists discovered that it held two unrelated groups. The two lineages are called phylum Cnidaria (anemones, corals, and jellyfish) and phylum Ctenophora (comb jellies). It is likely that you can cover over “Coelenterata” and add the label “Cnidaria.” Just make sure that you don’t have comb jellies in with your cnidarians.
Another no-no for the animal kingdom is showing protozoa along with the animals. This goes back to the two-kingdom idea of classification, and biologists and biology textbooks haven’t grouped protozoans with animals in more than 40 years.
If you find a chart that is labeled “Non-Chordates,” change the title to “Invertebrates.” Maybe “non-Chordate” was useful in the past, but biologists use “invertebrate” far more often. I searched books on Amazon.com using “non-chordates,” and I got six titles, all published outside the US. I searched “invertebrates,” and got over 6000 titles. A non-chordate chart isn’t likely to show current information, so it is time to recycle it or at least recycle the images and add new text.
The relationships between the phyla of animals solidified about 15 years ago. In biology, classification has morphed into systematics, which all about relationships and shared common ancestry. The details of this would take several blogs so I will simply say that the arthropods are related to the nematodes, and the mollusks are related to the annelids. Arthropods were once grouped with annelids, but that is no longer considered valid. Can you add something to your animal kingdom chart that shows which phyla are closely related? See my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected, for help if your animal kingdom chart needs a redo. https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/frontpage/products/kingdoms-of-life-connected-second-edition. It is also available as an ebook (pdf).
Dig back into the cobwebs in the botany section of your closet. If your chart of the plant has club mosses separated from the fern clade – whisk ferns, horsetails, and ferns – you have a good representation of life’s diversity. The chart from InPrint for Children is a good example. https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/montessori-botany-materials/products/plant-kingdom-chart . Another mark of a current material – it should use the term “eudicots” instead of “dicots.” If your chart has phylum names, it is quite possible that many of the names are obsolete. Many botanists no longer use phyla or division names. Instead, they use lineage names, and sometimes a common name is all you need. I have a graduate level botany textbook that uses no phylum/division names.
If your plant kingdom chart has fungi or bacteria on it, the time has come to do some serious pruning. Those two have to go to their own charts. If the image of a fungus appears on a plant kingdom chart, that’s what children will remember even if you say that it doesn’t belong there. The fungus kingdom is a sister to the animal kingdom. In nature, fungi and plants are partners, but on classification charts, they shouldn’t hang around together.
If you have a Five Kingdoms chart, file it under the history of biology. It should NOT be the first thing children see as they study the diversity of life. The Tree of Life is the place to start.
How about your timeline of life? This is a difficult material to do well, and there are many bad attempts out there. Does your timeline show several red lines coming together (converging)? That’s the traditional style, but lineages do not converge (fuse together); they diverge (split apart). Maybe you could salvage the images and redo the timeline without the misleading lines. Check the dates for the fossils because there are several in the wrong place on the older timelines.
Does your timeline of life have photos of extant animals or plants in prehistoric times? This gives a very wrong impression. I’ve seen a timeline that had “First marsupial” and a picture of a kangaroo. This is just like saying “First eutherian (placental) mammal” and showing a picture of a horse. Both the kangaroo and the horse evolved within the last few million years. They are both adapted to live on grasslands and open shrub lands, where resources are spread out, and there is little cover from predators. Therefore both are good at moving quickly over long distances. Neither one of them belongs in the Mesozoic Era on a timeline of life. Mesozoic mammals were much smaller and less specialized.
Does your timeline have the five major extinctions? And does it have ice ages in the right places? The older charts used ice to symbolize all extinctions, although that wasn’t the cause in most of them. The five major extinctions come at the end of the Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Triassic, and Cretaceous Periods. They are such important shapers of life that they are essential to a good timeline.
If all this correcting sounds like too much to do, remember that you are doing it for the children. They need current information and a foundation that they can use in their future studies. There is no point in giving them science “information” that they will never see outside a Montessori classroom.
In my last post, I took readers on an imaginary tour of nesting boxes for the plant kingdom. These materials are traditionally called Chinese boxes, but I prefer to use “nesting boxes.” Children explore the structure and major lineages of a kingdom of life with this material. Nesting boxes work well for showing the lineages of the animal kingdom provided the content reflects current knowledge.
Here’s an imaginary tour of nesting boxes for the animal kingdom as it is defined today. I believe firmly that we should be giving children terms that they will see in their further studies, not terms that are historical and that do not appear in modern textbooks.
To start our tour, picture a large red box labeled “Animal Kingdom.” We remove the lid, and inside there is a small box that is labeled “Phylum Porifera, the sponges.” This group was once called the Parazoa, but this term has fallen out of favor, and I recommend these animals be called the sponges. Once thought to be several separate lineages, they are now placed on one lineage, Porifera (“the pore-bearers”).
Along with the little Porifera box, there is a much larger box that takes up most of the animal kingdom box. It is labeled “Eumetazoa, the true animals.” We lift the lid, and inside there are two small boxes labeled “Phylum Ctenophora, the comb jellies” and “Phylum Cnidaria, the stingers.” A large box labeled “Bilateria” takes up most of the remaining space, and it holds the animals with bilateral symmetry.
Cnidarians include the sea anemones, corals, and jellyfish. The comb jellies include sea gooseberries and sea walnuts. These two phyla were previously placed in a single phylum. That phylum, Coelenterata, is obsolete and should not appear in current animal kingdom classification studies. Our small red boxes are labeled “Phylum Cnidaria, the stingers,” and “Phylum Ctenophora, the comb-bearers,” and “Coelenterata” is not here at all.
The big box labeled “Bilateria, animals with bilateral symmetry” contains two boxes, which are labeled Protostomes (“mouth first”) and Deuterostomes (“mouth second”). These names reflect a difference in the development of the fertilized egg in these two lineages. The deuterostome box takes up about 1/3 of the space. We look inside it, and we find two boxes, one labeled “Phylum Echinodermata, the spiny skins,” and the other “Phylum Chordata, the corded ones.” The echinoderm box has the sea urchins, sea stars, and sea cucumbers inside. The chordate box has its three subphyla inside, the lancelets, the tunicates, and the vertebrates. Note that chordates are not the same as vertebrates! I’ve seen them mistakenly equated in Montessori materials. (If you find the term “non-chordate” in your materials, it would be best to change it to “invertebrate.”)
The protostome box has two boxes inside, one labeled “Spiralia” or “Lophotrochozoa” and one labeled “Ecdysozoa.” The Spiralia box has the rotifers, the flatworms, the mollusks, and the annelids (segmented worms). This box also has the name Lophotrochozoa although some biologists use this cumbersome term for only a part of the Spiralia. The term Spiralia could change so check again in a few years to see the current story. The Spiralia are named for the pattern of cells in the early embryos of most species.
“Lophotrochozoa” is still used for the Spiralia lineage in many college textbooks, but this could to change by the time elementary children reach college age. I have adopted “Spiralia” because of biologists’ support for it, and it is easier to spell and say. My book, Kingdoms of Life Connected, still has “Lophotrochozoa” because when I reprinted it last year, the term “Spiralia” was not yet shown in Wikipedia (usually a good source for the latest phylogeny). I hope biologists have settled on the name by the time I print the book again.
The ecdysozoa are the molting animals. They shed their whole outer covering at once. This is the most successful animal lineage in terms of numbers of species and numbers of individuals. The Phylum Arthropoda, the jointed feet, and the Phylum Nematoda, the roundworms, are the two main phyla in this box. Tardigrades and velvet worms could also go here if space allows and if you want to get that level of detail.
If any of your animal kingdom materials include “protozoa,” please remove them and study them with the eukaryotic supergroups (protists). They do not belong in the animal kingdom. If your nesting boxes for animals have protozoa, the best time to change this was about 40 years ago. The second best time is now.
I’ve presented a basic look at the animal kingdom here. If you would like further information on the animal kingdom or the lineages I gave in this article, please see my book, Kingdoms of Life Connected. https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/kingdoms-of-life-connected-second-edition (printed) and https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/kingdoms-of-life-connected-ebook-1 (pdf).
If you want to evaluate an animal kingdom chart, look for the groupings I gave for the nesting boxes. The nematodes should be grouped with the arthropods. The echinoderms should be grouped with the chordates. This is because biologists group organisms according to their shared ancestors, not just how they look. The chart from InPrint for Children places related phyla next to each other. See https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/animal-kingdom-chart.
My photo card set for the animal kingdom - https://big-picture-science.myshopify.com/collections/biology/products/zoology-photo-cards-set-1-major-phyla-of-the-animal-kingdom – gives you high quality images of representative animals across the kingdom. They could be used in or alongside a nesting box material.
Happy explorations of the animal kingdom,
PS. I am putting my reply here to two comments below. I'm sorry I don't have pictures of this imaginary material for you, Gail. I, too, am a visual learner. I think Cindy's idea of referring to the animal kingdom diagram from my Tree of Life chart might help. Yes, the lids on the boxes would be like a node on the evolutionary tree (phylogeny). The reason that there isn't a box for the Radiata is that they don't seem to share a common ancestor other than the one for all animals. If they did share a more recent ancestor, they might still be in Coelenterata. They have a similar organization, although the ctenophores are described as biradially symmetrical. They have a combination of radial and bilateral symmetry. The cnidarians are genuinely radially symmetrical. These two phyla came from separate experiments by early animal life. This is different than the the two phyla shown in the Ecdysozoa. They shared a common ancestor - at least there evidence for this in their genomes.
Thank you for sending your questions and comments. Please feel free to ask further questions.
Maria Montessori didn’t give guidance on updates. Why would she see the need to do this? The biology taught in her lifetime hardly changed.
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)
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.
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.