On teaching life cycles of living things

The changes living organisms go through fascinate us (and sometimes freak us out) even if we’ve seen the process before. Early childhood educators especially feel this because every day we come to work we are fascinated by the development and growth in the children we work with.

Three groups of frog eggs in a pond.

Frog eggs in a pond.

In the spring, seasonal changes in plants and animals happen at a speed even a preschooler has the patience to observe. Seeds sprout into seedlings within a few days, the flower that was a bud yesterday is now in full bloom, and animals of all kinds are preparing the way for their young by building nests, and finding the appropriate location—pond or leaf—to lay their eggs. 

What part of these changes in plants and animals is important for children to learn about? How should we support children’s learning about the changes that we think are important?

Child points to where a bird might be building a nest.

Pointing to a possible bird nest.

Noticing, observing over time, documenting and describing, and communicating the observations and what they mean is the work of scientists and are part of the NGSS practices of science and engineering. Children do this work too when they first comment on a bird with a beak full of grass flying into a bush. And follow up by peering into the bush (but only once so as not to disturb the birds), and later, after listening to the constant cheeping coming from the bush, tell you they think baby birds have hatched from a nest in the bush.

Child's finger holding up a caterpillar in front of their drawing of the insect.

Child’s drawing of the observed caterpillar.

Children may measure the growth of bean plants, and search under logs for (non-stinging) ants that appear as the weather warms. They may look in identification books to find out what their discovered caterpillar eats so they can care for it as it matures, pupates, and eventually emerges as an adult butterfly or moth. Describing observations and what they mean develops children’s understanding of both the living organism and the practices of science. They learn that organisms may change in shape as well as size as they grow, an idea they can relate to their own lives and to other organisms.


Frog life cycle poster and information.

Frog life cycle poster.

By supporting children’s investigations into these kinds of changes we are helping them understand the nature of science as well as gain information about particular organisms. Some changes in living organisms may not be available for first hand observations. If children do not have access to a natural area, such as a pond where frogs lay their eggs, should we teach them about frogs, the structure of their bodies and their life cycle? 

What experiences will be most meaningful for them and most memorable? What will teach them the most about the needs of living organisms—the sight of ants hurrying away, carrying eggs, when their nest is disturbed or a reading a book about ants? All children should have access to both first hand observation experiences and informational resources.

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