There is really nothing I like teaching more than science, and specifically zoology. Little people and big people alike are fascinated by the interesting lives of other creatures. We are drawn to their likenesses to us and their unique differences from us and each other. We are fascinated by the bold and bizarre. The angler fish is a fan favorite in our house, it has been for years. And wolverine is just too fun to say repeatedly and with rounded 'r's like 'wolveween wolveween wolveween'. Zoology is fun.
Using the NAMC Zoology book as a starting point I've put together a well rounded curriculum guide to zoology that is accessible and valuable for both the 3-6 age group and the 6-9 age group (heck I think even the two year old in our classroom gets something out of it). This guide can be used as a thorough study used for up to eight weeks in the classroom allowing the child to choose his work each day. Why not just use the NAMC guide as is you say? Because zoology is too much fun to stop there and your children will take to it like little sponges. There are literally zillions of creative, fun activities you can do at home with your kids that are not fun to do in classrooms with 20 kids, see? So here's the first installment of how we are currently studying zoology. These classroom critters take awhile to metamorphose and so do the zoology studies. From distinguishing plants from animals through basic classification and modifications, this intro and use of classroom pets keeps the little cuties interest and motivation high. Oh, and it's loads of fun. Did I say that already?
OK, so... we always want to start a unit of study by piquing the interest of our children with some story telling that gives enough information to fill their little eyes with wonder and their little heads with questions. No good at story telling you say? Poppycock! You have a chance everyday to practice your story telling skills- bedtime. No bedtime routine is complete without a made up story so get to practicing!
These unit stories can be inspired by Jennifer Morgan's three book series, found here. I highly, highly, highly recommend you go buy these books like now. Right now. I think they really embody the cosmic spirit of the Montessori philosophy and that's surely the reason you are homeschooling or sending your child to a Montessori school, right? Yep, that's what I thought. If you aren't sure what the heck I am talking about then you should also read Michael Duffy's Children of the Universe. First. And actually if you have not read Duffy's life changing book you should do that anyways so just go! Go do that!
OK, so, we're good?
Now back to zoology. We've told the story of animals- how exactly they came to live on planet Earth. We've told how they have adapted over millions of years to be perfectly fit for their own unique habitats (okay, okay, I'll post about how to do that next- let's get to ordering these critters because that takes time mamas. Plan for it) and now our children are on fire to learn. First the very basics need to be covered and NAMC does a really nice job presenting the basics- pages 11-20 in the NAMC Zoology manual.
If this is the first time you are teaching this, even if you know your child already knows the differences between plants and animals, etc., you should still teach this section. It can be done in one or two presentations and I promise your child will enjoy this and get something out of it. And heck, here are your vocab words, MRS FERG. If you don't know what MRS FERG is you might learn something as well! If this is not your first time teaching this to your child then move ahead- maybe do a quick review but if your child is under six then teach it again. Ok? Moving on.
Here is where zoology gets really really fun: classroom specimen! Just as Dr. Montessori herself urged educators to use live animals where possible, NAMC recommends using live animals. In a classroom with 20 or so six year olds and an already overwhelmed teacher this is going to be very hard. Lucky for your kids though, you have an empty aquarium laying around or perhaps your neighbor or craigslist does. Add a cheap mesh lid and you have endless learning opportunities. So bring on the insects, the lizards, turtles, the caterpillars, tadpoles, whatever! This is where you shine as a teacher in the Montessori sense, the directress. Make an entire center for these critters. Putting together an irresistible area dedicated to this unit of study is really going to make your job easy and fun.
Here is a great option for ladybugs. We have personally used this with great success. Watching the larvae hang and metamorphose right before our eyes was really cool. Be sure to get the matching life cycle models too. We used this tadpole kit but trust me and use your extra aquarium for these critters, they need space. Here's a really cool praying mantis kit. We were lucky enough to catch the entire hatching process. Waiting four weeks to hatch was well worth it. Very, very cool. With a little research you can find larval butterfly plants and eggs or caterpillars in your own yard or in a neighbor's yard. Milkweed usually has eggs on it, get out in the yard and watch the butterflies, sometimes you'll notice that they are actually laying eggs on your plants! Bring them inside to watch the entire process. We initially bought the Insectlore kit and have used the mesh enclosure countless times to watch captured caterpillars do their thing again and again. This really never gets old. Really never.
Be creative with this. Any kind of live specimen can be a really rich learning experience if done right. Find out what your children are most interested in. Do they love butterflies? Do you already have a pet guinea pig? Whatever critters you decide to study just make sure you prepare yourself really well. Teach yourself all about them- a quick google search should be sufficient but make sure you know about the creature's natural habitat and life cycle. Also important is how the animal is connected to man. People in certain parts of the world eat guinea pigs!! Your children will want to know where and why and this is all good for them to know. Teach them! It will give them a better world view. (Yes, we can and will cross zoology and cultural geography if we can!)
Set aside a small area in your classroom or home for this unit of study. This area should be prepared with a small tray with nomenclature cards. Montessori Printshop and Montessori For Everyone are two of my favorite sources for nomenclature cards. In the rare case you cannot find what you are looking for there you can and should make your own. Make sure you learn how to present nomenclature cards and to conduct a three period lesson- NAMC has the full instructions included at the begining of every manual. That three period lesson should always be on your brain! Life cycle nomenclature cards or models should also be available for study. Pair the models with labels and tah-dah! you've got another matching exercise for the shelf. These models are also great for when the children would really like to handle their classroom pets but cannot, as in the case of tadpoles.
A few carefully chosen books should also be put in this area. The Montessori teacher should be very picky about he books she provides. At least one book should be very simple. So simple that the beginning reader can read it himself and the photographs so beautiful and clear that the children not yet reading will be drawn to picking it up just to look at the photos.
Another work to place on the shelves are journals. Language and art activities can be tied into this without your highly motivated kiddos even knowing. I love Barebooks for this. Get the blank cover ones because they really fit in better with the Montessori philosophy. We aren't trying to dazzle and distract, the details in the curriculum are enough to hold their attention. Always trust that! The children will love writing and drawing in these books documenting what they are seeing in their own way. They will love the memento this becomes, they can share it with visitors, showing them how amazing it was to watch tadpoles turn into frogs! or praying mantises dangle out of their egg sack. Yes, really. I promise.
For my reluctant-to-draw because he's a 'perfectionist not sure of his drawing abilities' kid I used this book: Art Smart. Maybe there are others in the series. I haven't looked yet.
BUT....The last but most important part of studying zoology for the 6-9 age group is the cosmic aspect where we learn how this creature came to be what it is today and where it entered our universe's history. Your children are searching to answer the question of who they are and why they are here. The only way to help them answer that question for themselves is to tell them the stories of as many things within our reaches as we can. We can study the body of the ladybug, it's diet and habits and our children will be interested and busy. But they will forget- just as you and I have forgotten (and that is exactly why we delight in relearning these things many years later). But if we can answer these two questions: who is the ladybug?- how did it become what it is today? What helped share it into that? and why is it here?- what role does it fill?- on a much deeper level we are giving this young mind one more piece to his own puzzle- the one that will ultimately tell him who he is and why he is here in the universe with this ladybug. And ultimately, ultimately, I hope this will bring our children real satisfaction and real love in their lives.
My son, six years old asked in sheer wonder, "So you mean that when we look at the stars we are really looking back at ourselves?" After hearing Jennifer Morgan's The Big Bang. Can't wait to hear what he thinks of it next time I read it.
My daughter (four years old) said thoughtfully after hearing Jennifer Morgan's third book in the Universe Tells our Evolution Story series:
"The Universe is in us and we are in the Universe..... so we love the Universe like we love ourselves."
Deep, right? Awesomeness. The reason I home school.