Families in nature
         When I brought lily bulbs to my class for planting in pots, our study took a
turn I hadn’t quite anticipated. (Maybe you’ve noticed that this happens a lot
with kids!)

         I expected to talk about the needs of plants and what the flowers would
look like as they grew. We did that. But before we got into that, I had the bulbs in
a metal tray, the children gathered around, and I asked them, What are these?

         Nobody knew that they were lily bulbs, but lots of kids thought that they
were onions. This made me recall my own surprise when I had learned, many
years ago, that the lily and onion are members of the same family.

         “How can the onion and lily be in the same family?” the kids wanted to
know. We talked about family characteristics and tried to relate the topic to
things that are similar among people in their own families.

         In order to get the point across in a broader way, we talked about the
way other types of animals have similar features: wolves, dogs, and coyotes
have similarities amongst themselves the way cougars, cats, lions, and tigers do.
Mice, rats, hamsters, and guinea pigs have similarities. These are observations
that most of the kids had already made. We got into the characteristics that are
shared by all mammals, and some kids expressed surprise that whales were
mammals and not fish.

         The kids enjoyed looking for similarities among other groups of animals.
Some were motivated to learn terms that cover several related animals, such as
primates, marsupials, reptiles, felines, canines. 
         This led to other words that, while not referring to families of animals or
plants, do refer to characteristics that are shared by groups of animals:
carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, warm-blooded, cold-blooded, nocturnal,

         Children are looking for ways to make sense in their world. Pointing out
these similarities and putting groups of animals or plants in the same “family” for
children or finding other ways to group them is a sorting-out process that helps
them to come to this understanding. 

         This column has been incorporated into Teach Your Children Well: A Teacher’s Advice for Parents.

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