Spiders, ants, bees, cockroaches, cicada killers, house centipedes, and roly-polies are among the many small animals children may encounter at home or at school presenting moments to learn about the diversity of living organisms if the moment is calm enough. If the moment is not calm, returning to the subject at a later time will prepare children to learn from future encounters.
Frequent walking field trips and abundant play time outdoors with sightings of small animals teaches children more about these animals’ behavior than instruction sharing others’ experiences. To prevent stings and bites, we caution children to observe but don’t touch bees or spiders and to watch where they walk to avoid ant and yellowjacket nests. To support children’s comfort with small animals we point out their curious body structures and beauty.
Keeping a container of small animals such as local roly-polies, earthworms, or non-native Tenebrio beetles in the classroom so children can observe these “critters” up close and care for them is one way to help them build understanding. When contained in empty baby food boxes or specially made “bug boxes” both the small animal and the concerned child are safe. The small animal is safe from being dropped or squished, and the concerned child (or adult) is safe from fear that the animal might “get on” them.
Children should be discouraged from trying to hold the fast-moving House Centipede because it can bite but we can satisfy their curiosity about this many-legged animal by capturing it in a container for close up viewing.
Outdoors, removing wasp nests in play areas before they get large removes the real hazard of getting stung by aggressive wasps, and tilling sand if non-aggressive cicada killers nest there reduces encounters with large insects going about their own business.
State extension services are a great source of information about living organisms of all kinds. Check with the entomology department of a nearby university for events and information about your local small animals. The Mark Trail comic strip by James Allen is another source of information about nature.
Preschool teacher and author Marie Faust Evitt helps children appreciate the amazing body structure of spiders when they search for spiders and other small animals, and then build a BIG model of a spider and its web. See their work on the Thinking BIG Learning BIG Facebook page. What kinds of questions might your children have about web structures?