Phylogenies for Four-Year-Olds

photo 2 (18)This summer marks a second year of trying our own version of summer camp at home, rather than spend hundreds of dollars each week for our kids to attend theme camps.  Each day is filled with fun, low-cost or free adventures, hands-on projects, and learning about science, history, and art.  We intersperse each day with plenty of free play and add an hour of “relaxation time” after lunch so I get a break too!  A lot of Stroller Hikers have asked for more information on what we’re doing, so we’ll post about them and link them to the curriculum page of Stroller Hikes.

One of the hardest things to teach in my AP Biology Classes (college-level biology for advanced high school students) is the construction, interpretation, and controversy of the phylogeny.  Phylogenies have to do with human judgment about how we classify things, typically living organisms in biology, but classification certainly has applications to non-living fields as well, more currently in taxonomy design in computer science (a Silicon Valley favorite).  Students struggle with the ever-creative way of classifying, battling their natural tendency to want to know the single right answer.  It comes back to what I know is hard for all of my students: taking creative risks with logical bases.

photo 1 (18)At the foundational level, a phylogeny can be like a family tree.  So we began by playing “One of these is not like the other,” starting with a classic Sesame Street episode with characters Susan and Kermit the Frog.  I told the kids they would watch and it should be fun and easy, so they really enjoyed our little walk down (my) memory lane.  After the show, I pulled out some harder examples for them, which included a series of stuffed critters from Holly’s room, and some jewelry from my collection of homemade goodies from my kids.  I was really impressed with what a super job the kids did telling me which of my set of 5 items did not belong and why.  Because classification is so controversial, it was a treat to watch the kids realize why this was the case, without having me overtly teach them this.  For a group of 4 bears and a horse, one kid chose the horse as not belonging, but another chose a smooth blue bear because everyone else was fuzzy and brown, and another chose the puppet as being different, as all other critters were whole stuffed animals.

It was ever so easy to then jump to the next level and construct a phylogeny.  We all agreed on one thing that was different – say, the horse – then we began our “family tree” – horse on one branch, and bears on the other.  Then we picked the puppet as being different from the other bears, and split the bear branch in two – puppets on one branch, non-puppets on the other.  We continued, pulling out the smooth bear from the remaining 2 fuzzies.  Then finally we separated the last two over one of their physical features.  Our first phylogeny was complete.

I was amazed how simple the kids took this process to be.  My high school students never found this to be so clear.  Alas, the relaxing summer provides time for insight.  Still, could my little 4- and 8-year-old students apply their knowledge to new contexts?  I told them to collect 5 items, each, and build their phylogenies, coming up with yes/no questions (e.g. “Is it fuzzy?”) to split each branch.

Eager as ever, the kids teamed up and ran about, secretly planning their phylogenies (it helps that I was offering prizes for the most detail-oriented, easiest-to-create, and trickiest).  Fifteen minutes later, the kids were back with piles of stuff and sly grins.  They felt clever and wanted to see if others could complete the phylogenies that had prepared in secret, when presented with their items.  One group won for most detail-oriented, building a phylogeny of LEGO pieces.  Another built a phylogeny of kitchen utensils.  There was a phylogeny of hair accessories.  And finally, for trickiest, there was a phylogeny of furniture.  Free time was well deserved and I made a mental note to write down how I had taught this – success could be had by my AP Biology students, too!  I plan to try this also in my Introductory Computer Science classes this year, as well, when I teach about inheritance, a feature of Java Language.

photo 3 (17)My main motivation for having the kids explore phylogenies and classification was to have them do some biological sampling, noticing differences between organisms just like a biologist would.  Our object of collection and observation would be pill bugs (roly polies or isopods).  We watched a Carolina Biological YouTube video about them, before we left, so the kids would get some exposure to the critters and what they liked to live in.  Pill bugs are abundant, particularly where it is slightly damp and dark, as in leaf litter and rotting wood.  We hiked to Serra Park to collect pill bugs.  Immediately upon arriving, I gathered the kids around, then showed them how to lift up the grass along the edge of the lawn and scoop up the leaf litter and loose soil, to look for the little silver balls.  We immediately found several dozen pill bugs.  The older kids, in their excitement, could not wait to find more, unfortunately shaking each of their bug boxes so as to lose two before gaining one more.  By lunch, I had 5 in my bug box, a couple of other kids had 2 or 3, but others had none (they kept losing anything they found).  We picnicked, then looked around the creek in the park (dry this summer, but full of shady spots), for more bugs.  Eerily, we found none.  Wandering back to the oak-tree-shaded part of the park, there were plenty wherever I looked, but beneath the part of the park shaded by redwoods, there were none to be seen.  I recalled to the kids that termites and carpenter ants don’t like redwood, so perhaps pill bugs had the same aversion.  Redwood continues to be a prized building material, for just this reason – while most other woods are easily riddled with tracks and rot in older homes, redwood panels often go untouched.  It was a neat observation, and one that Max and I may come back to later, when we’re thinking about Science Fair projects for the Spring.

After finding many more pill bugs in the oak grove, we headed home.  The kids were delighted to lose less bugs on the return hike home, and hopefully their little bug boxes and inhabitants were well received at home.

photo 4 (17)To end that day, we made wind socks, an easy draw, cut, and sew project to precede our visit to the gusty beach the next day.  One boy made three and was thrilled to be able to sew the last one by himself, after my coaching during the first two, on my sewing machine.

Santa Cruz is a fantastic city, and while we visit several times per year, we have yet to go to the Beach Boardwalk.  Having half of a dozen kids with me made the boardwalk even less appealing, so we drove to our favorite place – Seabright Beach.  Every time we arrive at Seabright, the Natural History Museum across the street is closed, but this time I made a point of arriving later in the morning.  Not only could we avoid some of the common summer fog, but we could check out this little gem.  The Santa Cruz Natural History Museum has a whole lot going for it.  We’d scrambled up, across, and down the whale sculpture in front of it plenty of times.  But now, we could venture indoors as well.  The museum has a lot of little half-rooms, each with their own theme and interactive display.  There were archeology specimens in a big sand table with brushes and spades, to tempt the budding archeologist.  Stuffed formerly-alive animals beneath glass and a beneath-plexiglass bee hive was exciting for little naturalists.  And the beachside museum even had a small touch tank with anemones, kelp, and sea stars.  A favorite corner for the kids was one devoted to Native American crafts, including a simple game that the kids immediately partook in, adopting another boy whose family was also visiting the museum.  I highly recommend this stop, which is just across the street from the museum, so is an easy addendum to a beach trip.  Added to all of the kid-friendly fun inside was the bonus that admission for all of the kids is free; I was the only one who had to pay, and even that admission was inexpensive.

photo 1 (19)After playing at the museum, we crossed the street with all of our beach gear (each kid carrying a bundle), and set up next to an abandoned pit in the sand, and several yards from the surf.  I brought picnic goodies for everyone, but the boys quickly became so enraptured in sand play, that the sandwiches, carrots, and grapes became overlooked.  Another boy joined our group (a half dozen boys are magnetic), adding a yellow excavator to the cavalcade of construction equipment.  We finished our beach stay by collecting “precious” stones, shells, beach glass, and kelp from the beach.  It was interesting to see what the kids thought was precious, but whenever I offered up something I found pretty, they bounded over to get something for their little baggies.

On our way out of town, we visited Marianne’s Ice Cream, a local favorite.  Marianne’s even accommodated our no-dairy kid, and easily became a favorite feature of the day.

photo 5 (12)Back home later that afternoon, and early the next day, the kids placed their finds from the beach along the borders of wooden picture frames.  My kids have partaken in this activity more times than I remember, and it was neat to see they were so excited to partake, now that new people were doing this common craft.  I ordered photos to be printed at the local drugstore, to fill those frames; photos of each kid having fun during our impromptu summer camp.  When the pictures were not yet ready, we stopped over at the local carwash to wash all of the sand and dirt off of the car, from our summer of adventures.  I was pleased to watch the kids getting along better than ever, perhaps realizing that the end to their summer adventures was near.  They happily took turns riding a 1960s-era mechanical horse at 1 cent per ride, before my car emerged, shiny and new looking.

– Debbie (Founder, StrollerHikes)

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