Spiders! I know, not everyone’s favorite subject. For children, spiders are the stuff of legend. Think of Charlotte’s Web, the itsy-bitsy spider, Miss Spider’s Tea Party, The Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, and Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider.
Spiders are a great subject to spend some time talking about with children because these conversations can clear up a variety of misconceptions and lead to an understanding that is grounded in science.
First, spiders are NOT insects. They are arachnids. They have two main body parts instead of three. They have eight legs instead of six. Spiders do not have wings or antennae. This also means that spiders are not BUGS….
So, you are thinking, we are being overly technical and exacting. Maybe, but good critical thinking assumes making these kinds of distinctions and not misusing terms. Understanding the differences between an arachnid and an insect is the end goal, but just recognizing that differences exist in the numbers of body parts and legs, as well as other features, is a great place to start. Learning to recognize characteristics, making comparisons, and counting are all methods for building knowledge.
Don’t save spiders for Halloween. Maybe their creepiness will inspire your child to explore rather than ignore them. They can be beautiful and fascinating.
What makes spiders distinct from insects?
What do spiders eat?
How long do spiders live?
Where do spiders live?
Are all spiders poisonous?
How do spiders catch their food?
Answers need to be sought, not just provided.
Now for the fun part, or finding a spider to observe.
A live spider will be more interesting to observe than a dead spider, but either will do. If you can capture a spider in a jar, make sure there are some holes in the top so that air can get in. Arachnids need air to survive. You also may want to include sticks or twigs that could provide the scaffolding for a web if your spider chooses to build one. Unless you have a way to provide it with food, after several days of observations be sure to release your spider again because it will need to eat every few days to survive.
Invite observations of spiders with your child describing what she sees. If she needs some help, maybe hint at those characteristics you have already discussed the, or number of legs, number of body parts, the presence/absence of antennae and wings. You can begin these conversations with comments like, “I wonder how many…… it has?”. Be careful when counting legs. There are 8, but spiders also have a pair of appendages called “pedipalpi” that is located near the jaw. These are sense organs, but given pictures I have seen, they can look like front arms/legs.
Also invite observations of the spider’s eyes, other appendages (fangs?), hair, its color or colors. Remember you are guiding, not telling. Try strategies such as saying, “I think that I may see an eye. How about you?”
If you have a live spider, observe its behavior. Does it move or stay in one place? If it moves, is it fast or slow? Does it appear to be watching something? Does it appear to groom or clean itself? A lot will depend on what kind of spider you are observing and its particular way of catching food. Jumping spiders behave quite differently from web-weaving spiders.
Can you find spider webs to look at? There is the iconic spider web with multiple strands woven together in beautiful arrays. These are made by members of the orb-weaving family, the Araneidae. In my utility closet that I cleaned out this morning, there are also spider webs with no discernable shape, just long strands stuck together. Look around for spider webs. They come in all kind of shapes from the classic orb webs to funnel shapes to random “cobwebs” tucked into a corner. You may even be lucky enough to find a spider at the end of a silk strand and can observe its work up close.
Can you tell where the web is coming from (inside the spider’s body, but you may need to clarify that the silk web is not the same as poop)? It is unlikely that you will see them, but spiders have spinnerets or little finger-like appendages that secrete the web and even help control where the silk goes. The spinnerets are located near the end of the abdomen. Here is a picture so your child knows what he is looking for.
The silk is produced in glands in the body, and when it leaves it quickly hardens into threads. Spiders will eat their webs before building a new one, recycling that material. How efficient. I was having trouble thinking of other animals that recycle, but perhaps your child can puzzle over that question for a bit.
Look at any webs you find with a magnifying glass. Count spokes or individual parts of they are distinguishable. Invite your child to sketch or photograph webs. Spider webs are often most visible in the morning if they have collected mist or dew. I read somewhere that filling a sock with cornstarch and holding it over the web, sprinkling the powder on the strands also helps web to stand out against the background.
Can you observe a spider standing on a web and waiting for an insect to get caught? This would be a lucky break if your spider in the jar provided an opportunity to watch this process. Help your child find the language for what he is observing, or that the insects get stuck in the sticky strands of the web. Their efforts to get away cause the web to move and that movement is a signal to the spider that dinner is almost available.
If your spider guest is not willing to show off these talents, then here are some videos that you and your child can watch. Again, the goal is to find language to describe these events and ask questions that will extend exploration and growing understanding.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KiAp6L1U1t4 (the visuals on these are not that good as the spider is moving, but your child will get the idea).
Compare and Contrast
Spiders belong to the class Arachnida. Also included in this class are scorpions, ticks, mite, and daddy long legs. In contrast, all the different kinds of insects (bees, butterflies, beetles, and termites etc.) belong in the class Insecta.
Here are some photos to get your child started in understanding the variations of members of the class Arachnida. If you can print these and use them for sorting or classifying based on special characteristics it can be a fun and useful exercise for encouraging close and thoughtful observations.
Pictures of spiders can also be classified. Color is an obvious characteristic, but see what your child thinks is important. There are over 45,700 species of spiders worldwide, but not in Antarctica, so there is no shortage of variations. Here are some photos you can choose from. http://www.spiders.us/pictures/
We always recommend printing these and pasting on to cardstock so that they can be easily sorted and compared and travel with you.
There are also some good books on spiders for children that may serve the same purpose. That is, don’t merely look at the pictures, but ask how the spiders are different or similar. Making comparisons require deeper observations.
In addition to comparing different types of spiders, add some pictures of other insects and make comparisons. Construct a comparison table. Make a list of body parts and features with one column for insects and one column for spiders.
Not all of the silk produced by a spider is the same. There is silk for webs, silk to protect eggs, and silk to wrap prey. There is “sticky” silk and “fluffy” silk. Spider silk is known for its strength and elasticity, or ability to withstand force without breaking. If you have a web, can you feel the silk? Can you detect the stickiness?
Spinning silk is not unique to spiders. The larval stage of various orders of insects also spins silk in order to make their cocoons or nests. Most notably are a type of caterpillar commonly referred to as a “silkworm” which eventually grow (metamorphose) into moths. The silk used to make fine clothing traditionally comes from these types of insect caterpillars and not spiders.
Spiders can be both prey and predators. Most spiders eat other spiders or insects such as flies, mosquitos, moths, and ants. Some larger spiders will eat tadpoles and lizards. Larger spiders also have been known to ensnare birds and bats. Spiders are carnivores. What other animals have you talked about that are described as carnivores? One fascinating avenue to explore is all the different ways and strategies different kinds of spiders hunt and catch their food. Did you know there are even a group of hunting spiders that live near fresh water and catch small fish? Some actually can throw their web material like a lasso to catch prey. Some build tunnels with trap doors. The range of hunting strategies is impressive indeed.
To be effective hunters many spiders have developed color schemes and patterns that allow them to be well camouflaged. Can your child think of other animals that use camouflage?
This next description may not be appropriate if your child is squeamish. For some other children, the following descriptions may be just the thing to get and keep them interested in this topic. Spiders have small mouths and cannot eat their captives. So what can they do? Remember that the prey is paralyzed by venom from fangs and then wrapped in silk. Spiders can inject their prey with digestive fluids to help break tissue down. Once the prey starts to liquefy, the spider can drink or suck it in. Alternatively, the spider can spread these fluids over the prey with the same result. If a spider captures a prey it does not want to eat, it simply cuts the threads it is attached to and lets it drop out of the web.
Other spiders eat spiders and this is probably their most common predator. They also have to be on the lookout for other predators, such as dragonflies and certain varieties of wasps. In some cultures like Cambodia and Venezuela people even eat roasted tarantulas and consider them a delicacy! Yum!! Thus humans are predators too.
Compare the shapes of spider webs. There are several common shapes, or the iconic orb shape (with spokes or like large wheels), sheet web, triangle, cobweb and funnel web. Here are some photos of the different kinds that can be examined, or printed and compared. Can you find examples of any of these web shapes in your home or yard? Don’t forget that spiders also use their silk to get around or escape from prey. That is, you may find a spider at the end of a single strand, dangling from a branch. These single threads are referred to as draglines.
Spiders lay eggs. What other animals lay eggs? Spiders can lay between 10 and 1,500 eggs. Compare this to how many eggs other animals can lay. When the spiderlings emerge, they look like adult spiders, only smaller.
Compare a spider’s life cycle with other animals you have talked about. How is it similar or different? Here is a worksheet you can print to help understand that life cycle.
Spiders can’t fly because they don’t have wings; however, some types of baby spiders use their silk in a very creative way. These spiderlings climb to the top of some tall grass or the end of a twig, point their abdomens upward and spin enough silk into the wind so that the breeze catches it and carries them away to their new home. This dispersal method is called “ballooning”.
Count how many eyes you can see on your spider. Most have 8, some have six, and there are some types of ground-dwelling spiders that have no eyes. Just because they have lots of eyes does not mean they have good vision. Web-spinning spiders navigate their way around largely through touch. Spiders who hunt their prey on the ground, in contrast, have very good eyesight. This would include the wolf spider. Those spiders that stalk their prey on the ground, do not build webs.
The largest known spider is the Goliath Bird-eating Tarantula. It can have a leg span of 10 inches across. Find a ruler and show just how large this critter is.
See it for yourself: http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/weirdest-goliath-spider (sorry about the commercial).
Most spiders live only about a year, from egg to adulthood. But female tarantulas have been known to live up to 20 years! If you are thinking of getting one as a pet, keep in mind that you may have to feed it for a long time to come!
Ask friends and family members how afraid they are of spiders. Depending on your child’s age, you can have a response scale that is limited, or from 1 – 3 (not at all, somewhat, or very). Or you can have a response scale with more variation in reactions or 1 – 5 (not at all, maybe a little, somewhat, moderately afraid, terrified). Invite your child to ask a number of people to choose a response, keeping track of how they answer. Then figure out a way to graph these answers. You and your child could create a pie chart, with the percentage of respondents answering 1 – 5. Or create a bar chart, with numbers answering in each category.
Spiders are amazing engineers. With yarn and sticks, can you build your own spider web? Another option is to dip strands of yarn in glue. Take those sticky threads and lay them on wax paper in the shape of your web. Allow the glue to dry, and peel the web off of the wax paper. Voila, your own web creation! I have also seen recommendations of using cooked, cooled, wet spaghetti for creating webs.
If you have a captive spider, please do not plan to keep it for too long as it will survive better on its own in the wild. But for a short time, maybe try an experiment to determine what food it likes best. Capture and feed to your spider live ants, cockroaches, flies, or other insects you can capture and wrangle into the jar. Try a dead fly or cockroach. What is the spider’s reaction? Does it like a little hamburger, bacon, or chicken fat? Does it respond differently to live versus dead offerings (spiders like their food alive and its movement alerts them to an upcoming meal)? Observe your spider’s response to these various food offerings. Since most all spiders are carnivores of one type or another, don’t expect a positive response from any vegetarian offerings.
In the animal kingdom, the class spiders belong to is called Arachnida. This scientific name comes for the Greek word for spider or Arachne. In Greek mythology, Arachne was a Greek maiden who challenged the goddess Athena to a spinning contest. Guess who won. Arachne was not the winner and was turned into a spider for challenging a goddess and questioning her abilities.
Why are black widow spiders called widows in the first place? The typical black widow spider we all know so well is the female of the species. The male of the species is much smaller than the female and if he is successful after a short and dangerous courtship on her web, the honeymoon is over and 9 times out of 10 he ends up as a hearty meal.
Discuss spider bites. The most venomous spiders in the United States are listed by state here:
Help your child recognize these spiders in order to avoid being bitten.
Here is some more information on those spiders and symptoms if bitten:
Try not to scare a child from exploring her surroundings, but provide reminders of where these spiders live such as in woodpiles, in decomposing stumps or logs, under stones, in boxes and piles in a garage, or in burrows underground. Encourage vigilance as a precaution but with a little care (and perhaps parental supervision to start with) exploring these spaces to observe spiders in their natural habitats can be a rewarding experience.
http://www.spiderzrule.com/spiderweb.htm This website was mentioned above, but be sure to scroll down and check out the uses of spider silk throughout history. This is really fascinating stuff. Can your child think of possible uses for spider silk?