Friday, January 27, 2012

The Animals Have It All Covered – Classifying Animals by Body Coverings

I used to work in a zoo and one of the things that we really tried to teach children was how to recognize the basic types of animals that they see on a regular basis.  I apologize that this isn’t a fun and flashy experiment, but to my way of thinking it is really important for helping children to understand the world around them.  By being able to group organisms together, children can begin to transfer the things they learned from one animal to other similar animals. I've done the following lesson with large groups, small groups, and my own children.

Today we are going to work on the easiest method for children to classify vertebrate (animals with a spinal cord) animals – by their body coverings.  Children as young as two can learn to tell the difference between mammals, birds and reptiles and that is the goal for this lesson, to make the lesson more fun and engaging it helps to have examples of the body coverings to touch and observe.  For our purposes and for the safety of animals, fake furs and scales are preferred as well as domestic feathers.  Better yet if you would like to see the real thing visit a living history museum, zoo, or nature center.
This animal is a reptile because it has scutes. (Alligator)
Photo by Rob from Athens, GA 
This animal is a bird because it has
feathers (Small Green Barbet) Photo by L. Shyamal

This animal is a mammal because it has hair. 
(Big Eared Townsend Bat.)
Parent Background Guide   Vertebrates (class chordata)  are animals like us.  They are complex, have cells and organs, and have a spinal chord.  The main groups of class chordate are the jawless fishes (lampreys and hagfish), cartilaginous fishes (sharks and rays), bony fishes (all the other ones), amphibians (frogs, salamanders and newts), mammals (animals with fur), birds (animals with feathers), and reptiles (animals with scales or scutes).  Scutes are the boney scales on turtles and crocodilians.   We will be concentration on the 3 land animals in this lesson.  The chart below shows the basics:
This week’s activity
Realistic toy animals with appropriate body coverings  or
Raid your closet, retail stores, of the local thrift store for items with (preferably fake):
Scales (snake or crocodile skin purse or shoe ??)
A book of animal pictures.

Discovery time: Let your children touch samples of the fur, feathers, and scales.  Ask them to tell you how they feel – bumpy, soft, scratchy, smooth, warm . . . .   This is a great time to  practice using descriptive words.    Have your children contrast how the body covering look different and start practicing the words mammal, bird, and reptile.  Next look at the animal book and let them try to guess which group each appropriate animal fits into.    
Tying it together:  The fun part of this exercise isn’t really during the first teaching lesson, what we loved is looking at books, TV shows, and the zoo and naming each animal as we found it.  Doing this consistently reinforced the ideas for my kids that scales were for reptiles, feathers were for birds, and fur or hair was for mammals.   After we had those things down, we were able to add other facts about each group.  Now whenever, my children see an animal they know something about it even if they don’t know the animals name.  It makes them feel good that they a basic understanding of every animal they see, and makes them want to know even more.  

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