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Kindergarteners Learn Characteristics of Living Things in Aquarium Science Class

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Education | Volunteering

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


In the middle of the Science Classroom lay a colorful rug divided into squares, each intended to be a place for a kindergartener to sit for Aquarium Science Class at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in downtown Long Beach. The Aquarium, which has had a partnership with the school since it first opened a few years ago, and as a component of this pairing, Aquarium educators conduct science lessons for children from kindergarten through fifth grade on a monthly basis.

(As you may remember from a previous blog, I help out in the kindergarten classes whenever possible, and I always enjoy my time there immensely, as I did on this particular Friday morning.

The rug, new this year, was a hit with the children, who rushed to get seats on squares of their favorite colors. Until last year, the children sat on dull-colored individual carpet squares (well, they were rectangles, actually) that were a pain in the neck to put out and then put away, since they’re actually pretty heavy when you stack a few on top of each other, and we always had to straighten them in between classes. This rug simply rolls up and stored above some cabinets, totally out of the way for when Room 18 is used for other purposes.

Its colorful nature is what makes the rug so appealing. Maximo told me he really liked their bright nature, adding that the green was his favorite, after which he plopped down on a verdant square. The bold colors of the rows, in order from one end to the other, are blue, green, orange, and red.

Throughout each 25-minute science lesson, the children were their usual attentive selves, obviously interested in everything they were learning about the characteristics of things that are alive. Emily took them through a variety of exercises to push home the point that living things all have certain characteristics and help the children remember what they are.

As I look back on each class, all I can say is that it is so true that children are such little sponges.

Emily, who started teaching this class this year, began each lesson by asking the children if they had enjoyed a field trip to the Aquarium that the kindergarten classes took earlier in the week and, of course, they responded in a resounding and exuberant chorus of “yes!” In one class, a little one excitedly added, “I saw you (there)” as Emily nodded her head and indicated that she remembered the encounter.

During the first two sessions, Emily read Clark, the Toothless Shark, a story about a shark born without teeth. Clark befriends a frightened squid that is running from a large ray, and the squid takes refuge in Clark’s mouth. To repay him for his help, the squid enlists the aid of four mermaids to fish for gold coins in a sunken treasure so they can make false teeth for Clark. Everyone lives happily ever after.

“Is this a true story?” “No.” “Why not?” “Sharks don’t talk, fishes don’t talk, mermaids don’t talk,” they replied. Mermaids? Do they know something I don’t? Gee, maybe I need to get to the beach more often!

Somehow, the time allotted for the class just wasn’t long enough to get through the entire lesson plan, even though it seemed to be enough in the same class last year. Oddly, nothing seemed different to me between this year’s session and the one we had last year. After two tries to include the book, Emily opted to refrain from reading it for the rest of the day. That’s too bad, because it’s a cute story, which was intended to be a starting point from which to discuss real and pretend and then segue into alive and not alive. Luckily, the lesson still could be taught without the book.

It was great to see all eyes always glued on Emily as she asked questions, applauded the right responses, gently explained why wrong answers were incorrect, and provided them when they were not forthcoming.

Early in the lesson, Emily asked for examples of the types of things that are alive. “Fish, are they alive,” she queried. “Yes,” came the replies. “Are these rocks alive,” she continued, this time picking up some shiny rocks and holding them in her palm. “They don’t breathe do they,” she asked, as she placed her ear to the rocks, pretending to listen for signs of respiratory function.

On the board at the front of the classroom, Emily had written out the words “living” and “non-living,” with above them in parentheses, the words “alive” and “not alive.” The children read the words aloud, then spelled them, shouting out each letter as Emily pointed to it.

Determining the characteristics that all living things have in common came next. In most of the classes the children readily agreed to that all living things grow, breathe, eat, drink, move, have babies, and need shelter of some sort. In two classes, however, sharp little youngsters added that all living things need rest, something that we didn’t’ think about as part of the lesson.

“What do you do when you are thirsty,” Emily asked one group of children, to get them to come up with the drinking characteristic, and a boy replied, “I go to the kitchen, I open the refrigerator, I get the juice and a cup, and I drink the juice.” I’m glad he explained how that’s done! I wasn’t sure. Silly me! LOL!

When Emily asked another group what all living things have in common, one boy responded that “they eat food, and spaghetti.” I guess we know what food is his favorite!

Early in each lesson, Emily passed out laminated photographs for the children to stick up on the board under the appropriate category of living or non-living. Included were pictures of various animals, a very popular bee they all referred to as a bumble bee (I guess that alliteration makes it more fun to say than just a simple “bee”), a bedroom, a desk, a curtain-festooned window, a cactus in bloom, and a toy robot.

In about half of the cases, the children put their pictures in the right places, but making a decision about the cactus was a bit thorny for a few of the children, who placed it in the wrong place. The cactus, Emily noted, may look like it just sits there like a rock, but actually it grows—hence moves–and needs water, nutrients, and so forth. The toy robot, also confused some of the children, who thought it was a living thing because it can move. After reiterating the characteristics that all living things have in common, the children always ultimately agreed that the robot is not alive.

Likewise, determining whether other types of plants are alive was a bit problematic as well, with the children pondering more than anything about whether they reproduce. “Do you ever see flowers, fruit, seeds? The seeds make new plants,” Emily explained.

“Are we all alive,” Emily asked, always eliciting giggles from the little ones. It’s cute how the kids in every class thought this was a humorous question.

At one point, Emily told the children that they were going to be scientists, so they should don their scientist hats. We all pretended to put on hats, and one boy got into the fantasy so much so that he made sure he put on a very large-brimmed hat. It was so cute to watch. Kids love to pretend at this age!

Emily explained a new word—hypothesis—to the children, then had them repeat it after her as they read it from the board, after which they spelled it aloud. She then extended her arm out horizontally, a stuffed penguin in her hand, and asked the scientists to give her their hypotheses of what would happen if she were to let go. All agreed that the penguin would fall, which of course it did, and they smiled collectively, proud to have come up with the right answer.

The scientists next were to determine, by asking questions, whether books, plants, and bunny rabbits are alive or non-living things. The questions, of course, were asking whether each of these is able to breathe, eat, grow, drink, move, and have babies, in which case, of course, it is alive.

The hit of the day was Seesaw, an 8-year-old brown bunny that its owner, one of the kindergarten teachers, has owned since it was really young, when she fed it with a little baby bottle.

The children loved Seesaw, and all agreed that the she had all of the characteristics of a living thing. Much as with the bunny, figuring out that the book was not living was a pretty straightforward exercise for all the children.

Despite the previous discussion about plants when the children put their photos on the board, all the students had some difficulty determining whether the plant was a living thing. After a lot of thinking about each question, the children in each class finally determined that plants, too, are alive.

By the end of the class session, while I won’t say that all the children fully grasped the difference between things alive and not alive—so many at this age are still deep into pretending–most of them seemed to get it.

We’ll see. Maybe it will come up in next month’s science lesson, which actually is next week, when we’ll be learning about body parts (How many arms do we have?). I’ll be there, provided that all things go as planned.

Happy March to you all! May the ides be good to you!

Kindergarteners Learn Characteristics of Living Things in Aquarium Science Class
Children learned a new big word during this recent Aquarium science lesson. Hypothesis is a sort of guess of what we will learn about something, the children were told, then came up with their hypotheses of whether bunnies, books, and plants are living or non-living things. Emily drew their answers on the board.  | Josie Cabiglio
Kindergarteners Learn Characteristics of Living Things in Aquarium Science Class
Kindergarteners gather around a plant to answer questions about its characteristics in order to determine whether plants are alive. Plants were a bit difficult for the children to classify, but ultimately they agreed that they possess all the characteristics of living things.  | Josie Cabiglio

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