No snail is too slimy or snake too slithery for Amy O'Donnell to handle without hesitation. "A lot of teachers want kids to wear rubber gloves, but that gives kids the message that a cricket is dirty, or that a decomposing log is diseased. It puts up a boundary. I just stick my hands into the earth and show them that, in fact, touching is an incredible opportunity." Of course, some things like small plants and insects are too delicate to touch, and some insects may bite or sting. The best way to observe delicate organisms is to place them gently inside an observation jar. But Amy, an Education Department liaison between the American Museum of Natural History and P.S. 111 in midtown Manhattan, firmly believes that the best way to learn life science is by going out and observing living creatures in their environment.
|Tips from Amy O'Donnell on environmentally sound field trips:|
"There are insects, microorganisms and plants everywherein cracks in the sidewalk or in the crevices of city trees," she points out. "Just the other day I found the tiny little cocoon of a bagworm hanging on a bush in the parking lot of a strip mall." Amy feels that the best way to introduce the concept of stewardship to young children is to "start where you live, with hands-on experience. The concept that the world is imperiled is too weighty," she maintains. "Kids will be fascinated with rain forests in due course, but in order to be inspired to save living things, you first have to be fascinated by them. Instead of learning about disappearing poison dart frogs that you' re never going to see in the wild, I like to make an adventure of finding a millipede under a stone in the park. The challenge is to see each creature, even the common pigeon, as one with needs that have to be respected."A Study of Rotten Log and Pond Communities
Amy uses Museum resources to make connections between science and social studies for her students at P.S. 111. This year, the first grade students are studying their community, so Amy has them comparing human communities to the communities of organisms found in ponds and in rotting logs. "What kinds of organisms live there? How are the members of the community connected?" she asks. Ideally, such a study begins in the wild, just as biologists' fieldwork forms a basis for their research, but the next best thing is to prepare an observation lab in your classroom. Before setting up a tank in the classroom, Amy' s first graders came to the Museum to look at dioramas, terrariums, and aquariums. Tanks in the Museum' s Natural Science Center contain local organisms like bullfrogs, garter snakes, spring peepers, ladybugs, and snapping turtles that gave the students a preview of the diversity of organisms they' ll be studying.
During the visit, Amy discusses the role of observation in science. "We talk about how tapping on the glass or moving fast will scare the animals and change their behavior. We want the animals to feel comfortable so we can observe their natural behaviors." She talk about how each member of the community has specific needs and therefore occupies different niches in the community.Making Special Guests Feel at Home
The next step is to bring this new knowledge of the environment and behavior back to the classroom. Looking at each creature' s living requirements enables the kids to create an appropriate habitat, "to make sure that our classroom is welcoming to that creature," as Amy puts it. "We consider them guests and we call them guests, because the classroom is our environment, not theirs, and we want them to be comfortable. Seeing something as a guest means that you start to look closely and respect it, and it' s a special privilege to be able to watch and learn from them."
There' s a group discussion of the rules for handling the animals. "There' s a right way to pick up a snail," Amy points out, "lotion or soap on your hand can irritate it." The kids also talk about what' s involved in keeping the inhabitants of the tank healthy. "In nature, nutrients are recycled, like rain and sunlight; things move in and out. Someone needs to pour water over the logs and spray the sides, because snails need the humidity and bess bugs need the wood to be wet in order to break it down. If you have a small pond for frogs, the water needs to be changed and left out in advance for several days so the chlorine can gas off. You need to put crickets in to feed the frogs, and clean the frog poop off the leaves. As a class, once we figure out the necessary tasks, we come up with a job list and schedule so that each student plays a part."Look Hard and in Many Ways
Once the tanks' inhabitants have settled in, Amy puts them to use. The rotting log she brought into the P.S. 111 classroom happened to contain a stowaway salamander that emerged the next day, so Amy had the kids do a study that involved a motion map, with dots to indicate where the salamander moved. "Different animals move in different ways," she comments. "Put them in clear containers and some creatures will crawl along the bottom of a plastic cup, while other try to climb up the sides. It' s a way to focus their looking." Next came a study of the salamander's physical features; students observe the physical structure of each organism' s movement and body structure the way a scientist does.
|And a few general suggestions from Lora Martinez:|
"These observations help us when we group organisms and learn about their physical adaptations. The closer they look at the body and the behaviors of that particular organism, the more they end up caring for it, especially if the teacher is really excited," she continues. "You celebrate the things that a frog or salamander or bess bug can do that are specific to that creature." Language matters. It helps kids identify with natural phenomena, even transforms the mundane into the miraculous. As Amy says, "It's amazing that we can follow a snail by the trail of mucus he leaves, which becomes, after a while, a beautiful, glistening, opalescent path."
Lora Martinez, a fourth grade teacher at P.S. 111 who works with Amy, points out that "it's easy for city kids to miss out on how amazing nature can be. These small, practical classroom experiences help kids learn to see how precious these animals are. In later years you can give them a bigger picture of what' s going on in society and how they can work to preserve our parks and community gardens."A Colleague Studies Hermit Crabs
Last year Lora's fourth grade class did a hermit crab study. "We started out with seven, and we' re down to fiveand one also switched shells!" she reports. First the class intensively studied the needs of both land and marine hermit crabs, using books, pictures, and lots of specimens from the Museum. To make it easier to identify and study the crabs, the class gave them names after specific attributes the kids had observed, to make the names more scientific. "One is named Liberty because she always tried to get free; we named another Cyclone because it walked around in circles." Lora then created a paper reproduction of the tank on the class bulletin board. "I cut out the big thingsthe tank itself, and the branches that go all the way up to the topand then the kids drew pictures of the hermit crabs from various points of view." A piece of yarn led from each crab's favorite spot in the paper tank to the kids' drawings and descriptions of each animal, so that the tank was not covered up and the connection between organism and observation was clear.
One of the best ways to learn about life science is to observe and care for living creatures.
Once kids learn why and how to create a hospitable environment, they carry those values with them into the outside world. "They walk quietly, and they don' t stomp on ants. They understand that if they walk off the path and pack down the dirt, the plants and little organisms living in the soil won' t be able to get as much oxygen or water," Amy observes. "They understand that their behavior has an impact. Living things become cherished, especially after kids have tended them."