Science related activities and school curriculums for young children commonly cover life science topics related to animals. Most children tend to be naturally fascinated by animals of all sorts and these lessons capitalize on their deep interest. Plus conversations about animals open up opportunities to explore several basic tenets of biology. The goal of lessons about animals is helping children understand the characteristics and structures of living things, how they live, and how things interact with each other (including us humans) and their environments.
When talking about animals, when you have a chance, suggest consideration of the following ideas as these are common threads in the National Standards for Life Sciences:
- Adaptation – changes in behaviors, structures, and even physiology to ensure survival
- Life cycles – from first signs of life, maturing and eventually dying
- Genetics – plants and animals resemble their parents
- What makes something alive versus not alive (think rocks).
For these topics, see the Guiding Curiosity activities on adaptation, insects, and other animals.
Related to these topics is an easy distinction that it is worth helping your child understand. This distinction is helpful to establish across animal species and their interactions with environments: is an animal is wild or domesticated. In some cases, a species of animal, such as a pig, could be both wild and domesticated, but which one will determine what the animal looks like or it’s characteristics.
How do you decide if an animal is wild or domesticated?
What about the animal or its behavior contributed to your decision?
How do wild animals get their food?
How do domesticated animals get their food?
How do wild animals get shelter?
How do humans interact with wild versus domesticated animals?
What does it mean to go extinct?
If you and your child are taking a walk or driving in the car and see an animal, ask: “Is it wild or domesticated (or not wild)? The term “pet” might help, but animals raised in agricultural environments are domesticated but they are not pets. Or you can ask: “What wild animals live in your neighborhood?” “How can you tell that there are wild animals in your neighborhood?”
“Of the people you know, what kind of pets do they have?”
Before you explain the difference between wild and not wild, begin to get a sense of your child’s understanding of these concepts. Depending on how he responds, ask why did he describe the animal as wild or a pet?
I frequently recommend in these activities that you collect pictures of animals for observations, comparisons, and categorization. These pictures can be cut out of magazines, older field guides or other books, or found online. If you have a collection of photographs or illustrations of animals, here is a chance to examine them all together. Hopefully, you have a collection of images or ask your child to collect a variety of photos for this activity. For this activity please also include pictures of pets!
A large collection of photographs is ideal but could prove overwhelming initially. Start with a handful and invite your child to sort those photos into piles of wild animals and domesticated animals. See if he eventually figures out that some of those animals might be both. We have cats as pets, but there are also numerous feral cats in many areas. Most birds your child will be familiar with are wild; however, some varieties of birds are also kept as pets. Some, like egg-laying chickens or fancy pigeons, are even domesticated. So the task may not be clear-cut (as in life and science).
Alternatively, you can sort photographs into two piles of wild versus domesticated animals. Invite your child to examine the animals in the two separate piles you created. What characteristics do those animals in either of those piles have in common? How do the animals in the two piles differ? See if your child can figure out the differences between the wild and domesticated animals.
If you want to take this exercise a step further, you can think of these two piles as a Venn diagram. What do all the animals, regardless of grouping as wild or domesticated, need to survive (air, water shelter)? That is the overlap, now how do their characteristics differ? What conditions do the wild/not wild animals need to survive? Writing this out or creating lists, with your help, may make the similarities and differences more concrete than merely discussing them.
Many animals have wild or domesticated counterparts that you can explore with your child, such as dogs and wolves, pigs and boars, sheep and longhorn sheep and even fancy rabbits and their wild cousins.
Sorting and categorizing photos can be an activity that is repeated after additional photographs have been added or after you have a discussion of the categories. As I argue throughout this blog, knowledge building requires repeated exposure.
If you don’t have photographs, make lists of animals that are wild, clearly not wild or that can be both.
What is important is that you inspire thinking about the differences, or what makes an animal wild versus domesticated. Usually, the answer to that question is what role we as humans play in an animal’s life. Do we feed them or care for the animal, versus are they on their own when it comes to survival?
Even this distinction is not always straightforward. For example, sometimes we keep wild animals in captivity for our own purposes. Use this opportunity to discuss some of the animals you might see in a circus. Even though some lions, bears, and elephants can be taught to do a few tricks with enough training, they are nonetheless still wild animals and not truly domesticated. The same goes for large marine mammals like walruses, porpoises and killer whales or many animals you might see in a zoo or amusement park. Another example would be modern aquaculture like salmon farming. Although we feed these fish, control their environment by raising them in pens and eventually harvest them for food, given the chance these farm-raised salmon could fend for themselves perfectly well in the wild.
One insight as to what makes certain animals truly domesticated is when humans get involved in selective breeding and the cultivating of special characteristics or traits that give rise to many different varieties of the same species. Take dogs for example (Canis lupus familiaris). Thirty to forty thousand years ago they began as semi-domesticated wolves (Canis lupus) but now are represented through hundreds of different and unique breeds that breed true. Two Cocker Spaniel parents always make Cocker Spaniel puppies. Chihuahuas, German Shepherds and St. Bernards are all varieties of the same species; however, each has unique outward physical characteristics. The same can be said for different breeds of horses, house cats, rabbits, sheep, horses, chickens, and pigeons to name a few. Now think back to the circus example. Over the years has man bred many varieties of lions, tigers or killer whales? Some people may choose to keep baby alligators as pets but even growing up in a bathtub won’t make them domesticated.
Although we may not feed or provide shelter for wild animals directly, we still impact their survival. Can you find ways to explore this topic with your child? What do we humans do that makes a difference in the life of a wild animal? Can you invite your child to brainstorm about this and generate the following possibilities?
Consider the following list of our activities affecting animals:
- We hunt and fish for wild animals.
- We hunt, fish or kill animals that another animal needs for survival,
- We introduce chemicals in their environments that are harmful,
- We build houses, cut down forests, or plow fields where those animals live, limiting their habitats
You can also explore what those animals do for us. How might those wild animals in our neighborhoods benefit us? (Eat insects, control pests such as rodents, and spread seeds). What don’t we like about those wild animals in our neighborhoods (they chew on things, threaten our pets, or they consume other animals that could help us)?
Related concepts that perhaps your child is ready to consider are threatened or extinct species. Young children hear these terms, especially extinction. The most common reference is that the dinosaurs went extinct, but there are several species of animals that have disappeared in recent history from our planet, and many more that are seriously threatened. If a child has an interest in animals, these topics can be difficult emotionally to consider, but should not be ignored.
Perhaps start with an example of an animal population in your yard. How many birds visit the birdfeeder in your backyard? Count the number of visitors over several minutes.
If the birds disappeared altogether, ceasing to exist and never returning to the feeder so there are no more, this is extinction (at least in your yard). How many birds did you count and what happens to that number if they go extinct?
If the birds visiting your feeder were reduced by half, and then half again, with very few remaining, that would closely reflect the idea of an endangered or threatened animal.
I would not recommend doing any of the following, so hands-on experimentation is impossible here. However, it could be a valuable exercise to hypothesize what the consequences of these actions might be as a means of understanding the wild/not wild distinction.
What would happen if you stopped feeding a pet?
What would happen if you did not get the appropriate vaccinations for a pet?
What would happen if you left a pet outside during a cold winter night?
What would a happen to birds or squirrels if you cut down the trees in your yard?
What happens to fish and other marine life when you throw plastics into the ocean?
Be sure that your child has some understanding of the concepts of wild versus domesticated. Perhaps ask if he can name two wild animals and two domesticated animals.
Visit the library and find books on wild animals or domesticated animals. Remember that many animals can be both, but the wild and domesticated species may not look similar.
Another concept to explore is evolution. The domestication of farm animals and specifically the selective breeding of pigeons into many different fancy varieties was one of the seminal observations that led Darwin to eventually come up with his famous theory describing incremental changes in a species through multiple generations over time. Darwin kept fancy pigeons as a hobby, was keenly observant and had a curious mind.
Often we capture and tame wild animals, such as lions, bears or orcas. People usually do this for our own entertainment. Is it fair to the animal? Can you steer this conversation so that your child develops a respect for wild animals? Perhaps she will conclude that it is okay to capture and tame a wild animal, but the thinking process of developing that argument is what you are encouraging.
Your child is probably familiar with what a veterinarian is. She may even want to be one when she grows up. If not, take some time to explain what vets do. If your child is familiar with a veterinarian, it is most likely a vet trained to work with domestic animals. There are actually vets trained to work with small versus large domestic animals. The former group treats cats, dogs, and other animals we keep as pets in our home. The latter group treats farm animals, or cows, pigs, and horses. Yet another group of vets is trained to treat wild animals. If you have an aspiring vet in your household, expand her horizons by discussing these options.
Enjoy watching videos together of animals in the wild. There are amazing nature photographers who have captured animals in their natural habitats, helping us understand how these animals live and survive. Forget cartoons for a bit. Expose children to the real things in all their splendor.