Tag Archives: nature corner

Class Pets and Observation

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Low-maintenance, high-impact choices for the homeschool or classroom

 

I am a nature lover (if you haven’t already guessed). I also taught in an urban school district for a long time, and realized that most of my students did not have the same opportunity to work with nature, animals and gardens as I had growing up. So I always included class pets and animals in the set up of my elementary classroom. Many teachers have class pets. In this module, I will share with you the ones that I found to be the least challenging to maintain, while providing the maximum opportunity for observation and scientific study. I am also putting an emphasis on critters that students might not have already been over-exposed to in school (such as the ubiquitous painted lady butterflies that students see in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and on and on).

1. Mealworms

Mealworms are not really a worm, but are the larval form of a grain pest called the darkling beetle. They are an engaging substitute to the aforementioned painted lady butterflies for studying insect life cycles, and require very little in the way of materials or maintenance. Here are the plusses and minuses of using mealworms to study insect life cycles:

Plusses

-Their life cycle is short (a few weeks), so you can observe the changes in the insects while you are studying life cycles in class.
-They are much more durable to handle than the painted ladies (which are definitely a “hands off” insect) — kids can take the mealworms out during all stages and use hand lenses and observation boxes to study them more closely.
-They do not require special food: old-fashioned oatmeal, plus an occasional potato or apple core for moisture.
-They demonstrate complete metamorphosis (egg, larva, pupa, adult).
-They are not sensitive to the temperature and moisture levels of the typical classroom or home.

Minuses

-They are “ickier” for some kids (and adults!) than butterflies, which are cute and pretty.
-Their food can attract other critters that you don’t want (e.g., mice), so you must make sure their bin is securely covered.
-Occasionally, the oats also draw a tiny mite that looks like white dust — not a danger, but they crawl out of the bin and are a little messy (the University of Kentucky link, below, gives tips on treating this harmless issue).
-You will want to plan what to do with the mealworms you raise, as you will need to remove some regularly (see the “Bonus” section, below, for some ideas).

Bonuses

If your school or home has an aquarium, you can regularly cull out some of the mealworms (at any stage) for a clean, no-cost food supplement. Tropical fish love live food, and raising food for the fish can give an additional purpose to raising the mealworms. I had a pet parakeet once who also enjoyed an occasional mealworm snack — he would get very excited! If you happen to have reptiles somewhere in the school, they, too, eat mealworms. Failing these “consumers,” consider selling the mealworms as a class project, to a local bait shop, pet store or to families with tropical fish.

Basic supplies needed

– an initial supply of mealworms (purchase about 100, at a local pet shop or bait shop — try to get a variety of stages, not just fully grown “worms,” so you will not have them all turn to adults at the same time).
– a 5-10 gal. plastic container with a lid (not clear — grain pests prefer dark places). Drill lots of air holes in the lid.
– bedding material (I used old-fashioned oats. Other sources suggest sawdust, leaf litter, etc. However, oats are cleaner, especially if you are then using the mealworms for fish food. Do not use sand — the insects don’t like it).
– occasional potato piece or apple core, for moisture. Replace often, to prevent mold.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture has a web page with some more specifics on constructing a mealworm bin.

2. Crickets

 

People have kept crickets as pets for thousands of years. In the Far East, it was considered good luck to have a cricket in the house, and families would capture a cricket and keep it in an ornate, tiny cage –its singing was considered a blessing on the house. It is the cricket’s singing that makes it an interesting pet to keep and study in the classroom, as you can use the singing of the cricket as a “thermometer” — the higher the temperature, the higher the frequency of the cricket’s “chirps,” and the more active the cricket. I also found that this nocturnal insect would chirp more on overcast days — kind of a nice sound for a classroom. This presents a perfect opportunity to study cause and effect and do some graphing.Plusses-The habits of a cricket can be directly correlated to the light level and temperature of the environment — a nice opportunity for scientific study in the classroom.
-They make a sound that is appealing to little ears.
– Being close relatives of cockroaches and grasshoppers, they require no special foods (rolled oats and an occasional piece of fruit are clean options for their feeding).
– They are not fussy over temperature and moisture levels (although you will want to control moisture so that their bedding doesn’t mold).

Minuses

– In your house, there are few things so annoying as a chirping cricket that finds its way into your home while you’re trying to sleep. So you will want to put the critter somewhere where it won’t annoy sleepers, and make sure it doesn’t escape.
– Crickets are content as herbivores (veggie eaters) in captivity, but are omnivores in the wild. If they are unhappy with what you feed them, they will eat each other. I never had this problem, as my kids contributed snack waste (apple cores and the like) to the cause.

Bonuses

As with mealworms, crickets are often raised as food for other pets. So if you have more than one cricket, and you end up with a bunch, you can feed them to tropical fish, reptiles, tarantulas and other school pets. Pet stores often dust mealworms and crickets with an nutrient enrichment powder, or feed them special food, to make them more nutritious to the critters that eat them (a process called “gut-loading”).

Basic supplies needed

-an old aquarium (I used a 5-gal tank that had developed a leak — didn’t matter for a cricket terrarium); cover it with a tight-fitting screen (the tank lid may not be sufficient, as the crickets can escape through the lighting cuts);
-bedding materials (wood chips, a layer of sand, anything clean);
-a small, shallow dish with cotton balls that you can soak for water source — a MUST if you want to encourage breeding;
-a food source (rolled oats, an occasional piece of fruit or vegetable;
-hiding places (an inverted egg carton or a paper towel tube will suffice).

I didn’t include a lamp, although some do. I found that my crickets chirped on very overcast days, which was a treat when we were stuck inside on a rainy day.

The Amateur Entomological Society has a fact sheet on care of crickets as pets, with links to a book on rearing crickets in the classroom.

3. Apple Snails

Apple snails are the largest freshwater snails on earth. Their size and the ease with which they are kept make them a very popular aquarium pet. They are a low-care alternative to an aquarium, if you’d like to have an aquatic pet in your classroom. They are active, and kids can see the trails they make as they clean the algae from the glass. As the snails glide across the glass, students can observe the undulations of their “foot”, and observe their rasping mouth parts — very cool.Plusses-They are algae-eaters, so they will clean the glass of their aquarium, and you won’t have to.
-They are adapted to variable environmental conditions;
-They are easily fed (on occasional piece of spinach or romaine lettuce, plus the algae on the tank glass).
-Lighting needs are strictly for viewing purposes — the snails don’t care.
-They will lay eggs (just above the water line) and multiply in a typical aquarium.

Minuses

-You cannot include live plants as tank decor, unless you are ok with replacing them regularly, as the snails will eat them. Otherwise, use plastic plants.
-You cannot include any other tank mates with snails. Snails are good fish food: even the smallest fish will snack on your snails. You may end up with empty shells and fat fish.
-As with any other aquatic pet, even a goldfish, periodic water changes are important to keep your snails happy and to keep your classroom smelling fresh.

IMPORTANT!!!

Apple snails have become an exotic pest in many states. They were once brought to the United States as potential food snails for the escargot industry, and pet snails also have been released into ponds, lakes and streams by hobbyists in past decades. Their size (some species can grow to 6″ in diameter in the wild) and their lack of natural predators makes them a danger to the ecosystem in which they are released. Do not ever release your snails into the natural world! If you decide to get rid of them, give them to a pet store.

Basic supplies needed

-A small (10-gal) aquarium, with hood, lights, gravel, filtration and a small heater;
-Occasional feedings of romaine lettuce or spinach.
-Start with 5-10 snails for a 10-gal tank.

See The Apple Snail Website for more info.

 

Unusual Class Pets

And now for something completely different!

 

The above module lists some potential class pets that can be purchased at most bait shops or pet stores. But there are are a number of other critters that are easily kept as pets, if you happen upon them. Here are some that I have kept successfully as an elementary teacher and homeschool mom.

 

Stag Beetles

Gargantuan beetles with menacing pincers (but that are actually vegetarians). Keep them singly, as the males will fight. I have found them commonly in the lawn, mid-summer. I usually keep them only a short time. Keeping Adult Stag Beetles gives information on the care and feeding of stag beetle pets.

Garden Snails
Garden snails, and their ickier cousins, the slugs, are easy to keep as pets. They feed happily on a leaf of lettuce or carrot top, and lay lots of eggs, which hatch into the tiniest snails. Look for snails in the garden in the summer, when the plants are still covered with dew. Slugs can be trapped by putting a board flat on the ground in the evening — slugs hide underneath it, come morning, and can be plucked up. See Keeping Snails and Slugs as Pets for lots more information.

Ant Lions

Remember that scene outside Jabba the Hut’s palace, where Star Wars characters kept tumbling into the big pits of those sand creatures? Well, ant lions are like miniature versions of those beasts. They are much more common than you think, and you’ve probably passed them by many a time, unawares. The ant lion lives underground in sandy soil (I have found them in cracks in pavement or driveways, at the edges of paved roads and the sandy sides of parking lots). They dig a pit in the sand (see the link for photos), and wait for hapless ants to crawl down in, then their humongous jaws spring up and snatch the creature into its mouth. I kept about ten of them in an old 10-gallon aquarium, in a bed of sand. My 3rd graders used to bring insects in from recess and feed the ant lions before we settled in for read-aloud. Fun, in kind of a macabre way. The Ant Lion Den has lots of great information for your kids to use for research on this very cool class pet.

Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches
The last critter on my class pet list can’t be found on a hike (unless you live on Madagascar!), but can be purchased at a local pet shop. I got mine from a teacher-friend, whose own pets gave birth. For a moment, disregard the last part of this creature’s name, and its value as a class pet: like its pesky cousin, it is easy to feed (I fed mine a handful of dry cat food, plus the odd snack waste, such as apple cores and baby carrots). They conserve water from their food, like the household pest, but a shallow bowl with water-soaked cotton balls will be necessary if you want yours to give birth. Unlike the household version that skitters under the refrigerator when you turn on the lights, the Madagascar hissing cockroach moves slowly, and doesn’t breed prolifically. Unlike the large, tropical roaches you find in Florida, this kind is wingless — if your container has a secure lid, your pets will stay put. This roach gets its name from its habit of forcing air quickly through its spiracles (the breathing holes on an insect’s abdomen) when alarmed, causing would-be predators to drop the roach. It’s very cool — I found, however, that mine got used to handling, and it took a lot to startle them. Your colleagues will be creeped out, but your kids will love them. Read more on this Madagascar hissing cockroach fact sheet.

 

Critter Catchers and Bug Houses

Exo Terra Glass Terrarium, 12 by 12 by 12-Inch

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Exo Terra Glass Turtle Terrarium

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Exo Terra High Glass Terrarium, 36 by 18 by 36-Inch

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Other Observation Activities

And what NOT to keep as pets…

 

There are some things that people insist on keeping, that I would discourage:Ants. Ant farms (either that you build or kits) rarely last, as there is not usually a queen. It is better to head outdoors and watch them on the playground than to try to build a colony in the classroom.Goldfish. These fish are easy to keep, and can grow to enormous size in a tank the size of a coffee cup. However, they foul the water more than many other kinds of fish. Unless you are willing to really keep an aquarium, leave these alone. If you want an aquarium, choose guppies for your tank — cleaner, and they make lots of babies.

Painted lady butterflies. There. I said it. Don’t raise painted ladies in your classroom. Why? Not because they aren’t pretty (they are). Not because butterflies don’t teach kids important scientific ideas (they do). But simply because they are ALWAYS RAISED IN CLASSROOMS! I am worrying that kids in the city think they are the only kind of butterfly that God created. I HAVE raised caterpillars with kids for many years — we find them outdoors, and find the food that they were eating. We identify them, then we watch them through their life cycle. For fun, find one of the giant silk moth caterpillars: Io moths, Luna moths, Cecropias, etc. These caterpillars are huge, and you must keep the cocoons in the refrigerator over the winter, until they emerge in June.

Birds, rabbits, and other large pets. I have had all of these, and they are delightful. But I also had to pack them up on the weekends when it was hot, on holidays, and over summer vacation. They became my household pets when they weren’t in the classroom. OR you have to entrust them to kids and their families for vacations. PLUS if you have an allergic or asthmatic child one year, you will need to get rid of your class pets (which happened to me one year — it was sad). If you really want them, go for it, but there are simpler ways to teach pet ownership to kids.

Click here for more ideas to practice the science process skill of observation.

For ideas on how nature study and observation can fit into a complete curriculum unit, see How to Teach Everything: Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo.

 

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The Nature Corner: An Invitation to Observe

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Invitations…

Invitations are hands on, rich learning opportunities that are designed to connect with students’ background knowledge and interest and deepen their knowledge about a topic.

By carefully selecting the materials to put in the invitation, a teacher can guide a student to coming to an important conclusion, lead the student toward a skill goal, or create a burning question that compels a student to want to learn more.

When designing an invitation, remember that the root word of “invitation” is invite. That means, the materials engage and draw in the students, to lead them to the big learning that you desire. However, because invitations are open-ended, we also must be prepared for divergent responses to the materials in the center — there is not a “right” answer to the work. You might place a bucket of seashells in the sensory table, and sorting buckets, but one little guy might create a story about the little creature who lived in one whelk shell.

Safariology: My Bug Box (with four magnifying/sorting compartments, tweezers and activity book). $10.98 at HearthSong.

Designing Your Invitation

Here are the considerations when designing the invitation in your nature center:

  • What’s my learning goal?
  • What do I want my students to focus on?
  • What materials will lead them to this focus?
  • How will the students show what they know?

So, what do you put in a nature center that invites students to observe? Read below for ideas for a botany nature corner:

Focus on… Color and Details

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Flowers with lots of color and details, such as bugleweed, butterfly weed or lantana
  • Art materials that create fine details: pencils (regular and colored), fine-tip markers, skinny paint brushes and watercolors
  • Sketch journals

Focus on… Looking Closely

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Flowers or plant material with fine details, such as lichens, Queen Anne’s lace, or goldenrod
  • Hand lenses, viewing boxes, stereoscopes and magnifying glasses
  • Very sharp pencils
  • Notebooking pages with frames and lined areas for journaling

Focus on… Looking Inside

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Seed pods or structures that can be cut or pried open, such as milkweed pods, black locust or honeylocust pods, or insect galls
  • Plastic, disposable knives and child scissors, tweezers
  • Plastic trays or small cutting boards
  • Pencils and blank copy paper, folded in half (labeled “Outside” and “Inside”)

Focus on… Order and Sequence

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Plant material with flowers and seed heads in various stages of maturation, such as red clover, dandelions, or wild roses
  • Art supplies: colored pencils, fine-tip black markers
  • Notebooking pages with multiple frames to show sequence, or Flow Maps

Focus on… Describing with Adjectives

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Any interesting natural objects, such as wildflowers, seashells, mosses or other items
  • Writing tools: pencils, erasers
  • Copies of paper for making Bubble Maps, concept webs, or an Observation Page (“I Notice… I Wonder…”)

Focus on… Similarities and Differences

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Plant materials that are very similar, such as several types of grass seed heads, flowers from different goldenrod species, or acorns from different species of oak
  • Writing tools: pencils, erasers
  • Blank paper for making Double Bubble Maps or  Venn diagrams

Focus on… Whole and Parts

Photo credit: (c) 2012 Kim M. Bennett

  • Large flower/seed heads that can be dissected with hands, such as sunflower heads or small ears of ornamental corn
  • Tweezers and sorting containers
  • Copies of Brace Maps or blank paper to create them

 

For more examples and information on invitations and nature centers:

For more ideas on observations and nature study:

 

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