Monday, May 9, 2011

Nature Observations With Young Children

Last week we found a dead bumblebee in our screened porch. Being the nature girl I am, I prevented my husband from sweeping it out. I wanted to handle it and get a closer look. I'm always watching those big, fat insects as they lumber by. I remember my dad, who studied as an aeronautical engineer, telling me that bumblebees should not be able to fly- their bodies are too fat and their wings too small. Yet, somehow they do! I figured the dead one offered me a chance to see their body parts up close in way I am unable to do when they are flying. I left the bee on the table in the porch.

When my husband and I came home from being out a few days later, my daughter (age 5 1/2) ran up to me to tell me she had drawn the bumblebee. She couldn't wait to show me her work. She told me my mother had helped her spell some of the words.

Here's what she did:

(Please note that I do not present this as an example of what all 5 1/2 year olds should be able to do. Quite the opposite, in fact. Developmentally approprate work varies WIDELY. In other words, your child's writing and drawings may seem less or more developed than my daughter's. That's perfectly normal. Take your child/students from where they are).

I let her tell me all about her work. She told me about her drawing and read me her labels. She also read the sentence she wrote on the lines below the drawing, "We found a dead bee." Then we had a conversation about her work.

My first question was, "How many wings does it have?" She looked at the insect, said "4," then grabbed a pencil to alter her drawing that only showed 2 (She added the lines that divide the triangular shaped wings).

Next I said, "I see you put two eyes right here in the front where the eyes are on the bee. I can see them on here (I pointed to them on the bee). My son (Age 9) who was nearby listening said, "Can I see?" We all looked closely at the two black eyes on it's head.

To my surprise, she didn't draw a smiley face on the bee, which is very common with young children. They add human-like characteristics to the animals they observe. I'm not certain she had really seen the two eyes- she may have simply drawn them on as children her age tend to do. That's why I drew her attention to them as if I were noticing them because of her drawing. If I were here teacher, rather than her parent, I would have probed deeper to dig into her understanding. In this case, I didn't want a fun exchange with my daughter to become too teacher-like.

Finally, I asked, "How many legs does it have? She quickly said, "6." I asked if she wanted to add two more legs to her drawing. She said, "no" because she would have to erase all of the legs and start again to make it look right. I let it go at this point. If I were her teacher, I would have gently encouraged her to make corrections so the other scientists in our classroom would have the correct information. As her mom, I let it go but made a mental note to count the number of legs on other insects we examine together this summer.

I share this story as an example of a way that you might help the kids in your life pay closer attention to nature. You don't need any specialized training to ask children this kind of probing questions. You don't need to know all the answers. You can learn with your children/students. You could  count the wings and legs and observe the eyes together. This approach works with all kinds of natural items- insects, birds, mammals, trees/ plants, even rocks and fossils. Simply look closely and talk or write about what you observe. Count, measure, compare, and describe in detail.

Once you have some direct experiences, then you might consult a field guide or other children's book. In fact, I recommend The Bumblebee Queen April Pulley Sayre if you find yourself exploring bumble bees.

Warning: Once you start noticing details in nature with your children or students, they will notice and share details all the time. My kids share something with me at least once a day. Sometimes this will happen when you're occupied with other responsibilities, like maybe cooking dinner or using the bathroom. Or perhaps you'll be teaching a math lesson and your students will interrupt you to describe the ant trucking through your classroom or the birds outside your window. Prepare yourself for these instances. How will you handle them? Obviously, scolding children and directing them to get back to their Math assignments is counterproductive to encourging future observations. So what will you do? 

Please share your suggestions.  How will you handle these kinds of interruptions?


  1. I love this post! I run a short program in a community garden once a week, and I definitely do this with the kids. Today I had them noticing the way the flowers on the strawberry plants had started to turn into berries in the past week, and going on a scavenger hunt to find plants by how they smelled. Who knows what details we'll focus on next week?

  2. Thanks, Sarah. I love community gardens! Since you're a relatively new reader, you might like to go back to some of my posts from last year- many of them were about gardening with children.

    This one focuses on gardening when you don't have a yard: