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My last post described a concept that is the foundation of the physical sciences, or materials and their properties. Similar core concepts are advanced in relation to studying the life sciences. For example, in discussions of plants or animals, or our bodies and our health, it is typical to ask what something, say a beak or a tail, looks like, or what is its form. But an important follow-up question is what does it do? That is, what is its function or how does its shape impact how it works?

To explore form and function lets focus on feet. Babies are interested in their own feet, touching them, pulling them towards their mouths. Now that your child is older, her feet are more familiar and it may be that what shoes she is wearing is a more important topic of conversation, than “How many piggies went to market.” But, should you capture her taking a look at her toes, or overhear her comment on the size of someone else’s feet, jump in and open the door to exploring the fascinating world of feet. Studying one’s own feet or another member of the family’s, including pets, is a good place to start. First invite her to consider all the different shapes of feet, both human, animal, and insect. Once she understands that there is variation in what feet look like (form), consider why a foot has certain characteristics (function).

Although you have feet in your own family to look at for this activity, finding images of animal feet on-line or in books will greatly enhance learning about feet, their forms, and functions.

 Questions

What does a human foot look like or what is it made of?

How many toes can you see?

What is an arch, a heel, the ball of the foot?

Do people’s feet look different?

How do they look different?

Can you feel muscle or tendons?

What are the nails for?

Now, what does a dog’s foot or paw look like? A cat’s paw? A duck’s foot? A kangaroo’s? A chimpanzee’s? A horse’s hoof? An ant’s? A bee’s? A lizard’s? A seal’s? An elephant’s?

The preceding questions all focus on form, or what a foot, paw or hoof looks like. Next, encourage questions about why the shape of those feet is helpful in performing certain activities. These questions focus on function.

What does your foot help you do? What is our big toe for, or why is it bigger than the other toes? Why do animals have feet that look different than yours?

Why does a polar bear have large soft pads? Why does an eagle have large claws called talons? Why are some ant’s feet sticky? How do seals’ flippers work and why do they have one? What is a flipper better for, walking or swimming?

What activities or actions would the shape of a foot influence? Think, run, walk, scratch, preen or clean, jump, paddle, swim, climb, perch or cling, catch and kill, dig, build, and stay warm. For birds, their feet serve as the primary take-off accelerator, propelling them into the air.

 Observe

Take a close look at feet, inviting your child to examine his own feet and those of others. What does he see? Mostly skin, but think about the shape of the foot. Suggest drawing or tracing feet as an exercise that heightens observation. Examine nails, feel tendons as feet flex or bend, or look for callouses. Smell… (up to you and your child? Consider smelling after a bath and you have dried off).

If you have a cat or dog or another pet that will allow a close examination of its feet, count toes, pads, and claws. Use a magnifying glass to take a really close look. Try to find a hidden toe or the one that is part of the way up the leg.

Feel for bones in your feet. There are 26 of them! If you can find a picture with the bones of a foot, see if you can feel for the various bones. Some are very small and may not be detectable. Feel the joints in your toes where the bones connect. What do the joints enable your foot to do?

 Compare and Contrast

Finding photographs of animal feet or tracks online, printing them, and placing them on index cards will allow for any number of categorization possibilities. Pictures can also be cut out of magazines. Your child can sort these cards by the number of toes, the distribution of those toes (all in front, some in front and some in the back), or the visibility or length of the nails.

You can suggest starting with comparing bird feet for some simplicity. Most birds have 4 toes with three facing forward and 1 pointing backward. Other birds have 3 forward-facing toes. The big surprise is the Ostrich. As big as they are they only have two toes! You will definitely want to include a picture of an ostrich’s foot in your collection of photos as they are very distinct.

Next look for variations among the feet of animals in other groups, such as lizards, frogs, bears, or beetles. Pick animals that your child has shown interest in.

How are animal feet like ours? How are they different?

Different animals use different parts of their feet for getting around. Some animals walk on their entire foot, while some walk on their toenails or hooves. A third group walks on their toes. Can you tell by looking at these photos? Here is the breakdown:

  • Primates, including humans, bears, raccoons, rodents, rabbits, and kangaroos walk on the entire sole of their foot.
  • Horses, cattle, donkeys, reindeer, zebras and deer walk on their toes, or hooves. Hooves are made of keratin that is the same material that our toenails and hair are made of. Hooves can be solid like a horse’s or cloven or split into two or three sections.
  • Birds, cats, dogs, wolves, hippopotami, and elephants walk on their toes. These latter animals tend to move quickly “springing” off their toes. Elephants don’t exactly “spring” off their toes, but they do walk on their tiptoes. Interestingly, despite their size and weight, they barely leave footprints. Elephants can sense the approach of other animals through vibrations in the ground.

You can invite your child to also consider other functions of an animal’s foot. Which feet are made for paddling or moving through water? Which feet are made for digging or clinging to a branch or prey?

In some cases, a foot may be designed for multiple purposes. A polar bear’s foot is covered in hair for warmth and to grip ice and snow. Their long claws work to assist when pulling themselves up on ice or digging snow caves, but these sharp claws are also used for attacking prey or fighting off other bears. A polar bear’s front paws are slightly webbed for swimming, and their large pads balance their weight on the ice making it easy to traverse without falling through! Many different forms serving different functions.

Collect and categorize shoes, if Mom or Dad says this is okay. Shoes can be sorted by size, color, or when they are used (work, play, dress-up).

 Measure

If you can find a good image of various animal feet or tracks on-line count the number of toes. Keep a list and create a pie chart of the percent of animals with one, two, three, four, five, six or more toes.

Measure big toes or second toes in your family. Who has the longest or smallest big or second toe? This may be easiest to do on the bottom of the toe where a clear crease can be found and can be used as the start point and then measure to the tip.

 Experiment

Decide what would a perfect foot look like. Can it help you run, jump, swim, fly, draw, or scratch? Draw the perfect foot or use pipe cleaners, cardboard, tin foil, paper, modeling clay, or other materials to design a perfect foot. What animal feet did you use as inspiration?

 Elaborate

How can we keep our feet healthy and strong? Discuss various options.

Many animals have specialized feet allowing them to walk on the ceiling or climb. Explore these specialized feet. Frogs feet produce a sticky mucus. Flies have sticky hairs on their feet. Ladybugs have suckers. Geckos have special adaptations that allow their feet to cling to almost any surface.

Look up how different cultures around the world or through history think about feet. Here are some examples of interesting cultural perspectives on feet:

  • In the Middle Ages, people were afraid to be seen barefoot. Women going barefoot were thought of as obscene!
  • Historically, the Chinese used to bind women’s feet preventing growth and essentially crippling them. This practice was most common among the wealthy and was associated with a certain status. The stunted foot was associated with beauty or excellence.
  • The use of feet in dance choreography varies widely. Of course, you are thinking of the pointed toe common to ballet, but feet at various angles are also common. See for example dancers from Southeast Asia whose feet are turned outward and the leg is slightly bent at the knee.
  • The role of feet in sports, or specifically soccer and gymnastics, can be discussed.
  • I always find feet in works of art, specifically sculpture, to be interesting. Sometimes feet seem overly large relative to the rest of the body. If you are in a museum, spend a day looking at the depiction of feet in paintings, sculpture, and photography to see interesting variations.

Find a book on dinosaur tracks.

Explore animal tracks in the mud around a stream or pond, on a beach or in the snow.

Does a clam, snail, or scallop have a foot?

How about starfish and octopi? Do they have arms or feet or both?

Explore the difference between bipeds and quadrupeds.

Glossary

Keratin

Form and function

Adaptation

Hooves