Ways to Teach Kids About Animals and Biology at Home

Two Detroit teachers share their awesome ideas to help kids learn about animals, wildlife and natural science in real life.

From identifying wildlife in your own backyard to chumming with your pets, there’s so much parents can do with kids to inspire an interest in creatures. So, to get the experimenting started, we asked two Detroit educators for a few fun tips.

Kathleen O’Connor is a 6-7 teacher at University Prep Science and Math Middle School, where she’s got a grant for classroom pets. And Kisha McKee leads a 7-8 classroom at Dixon Educational Learning Academy, a public school – plus she teaches science and math to K-3 kids with DAPCEP on Saturdays.

Scavenger hunt. Whether searching for common birds like robins or cardinals or pinpointing insects or plants, there are many Detroit-area critters to add to your to-find list. “Try to take pictures so the kids can identify them and research them on the computer,” McKee says. “Even in your backyard, there are a lot of different species.”

Go microscopic. Taking a close peek at a drop of pond water is a great way to get kids thinking about animals on a smaller scale. “Even if you can’t afford a gigantic expensive microscope, you can buy little magnifiers that you can put stuff in and you can see the small microorganisms that live in the water,” says McKee.

Read up. Try the magazine National Geographic Kids, O’Connor says. “That’s an excellent resource if you’re looking to learn about animals and the wider scope of things.” For younger children, any of the Sleeping Bear Press (based in Ann Arbor) books about Michigan are awesome: O’Connor is a fan of The Legend of the Loon.

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Get a pet. It teaches kids responsibility – and is a great chance to learn about that critter up-close, McKee says. “Even if (it’s) just a goldfish, having something to take care of and appreciate will help them understand the needs of animals and living things, like habitat, food, shelter and water. That sparks a lot of interest in animals.”

Build a birdfeeder. This craft lures birds and allows for problem solving. “Birdfeeders are great for birds, but little creatures like squirrels and chipmunks also love them,” O’Connor says. “Challenge the kids to design one that feeds the birds” but keeps others out. Experiment with different types of birdseed, too, and see what each one attracts.

Compost. “Start a small compost in the backyard that the children can take care of and identify what things can and cannot go in,” McKee says. “(You can) also collect worms to put in the compost and then use the compost for a flower bed.”

Become a citizen scientist. “There are a lot of reptiles that are in danger in the state of Michigan because of habitat encroachment,” O’Connor explains. Programs host events where families can help count turtles, salamanders and more. “Kids have a great time with it,” she adds. “There’s nothing better than counting frogs in the mud!”

Take a hike. Simply strolling the Detroit River or visiting Milliken State Park and Harbor (link to article about Milliken!) can be a great way to learn about local wildlife, McKee says. “Scientists use their observation skills a lot, so (identifying animals) hones in on (kids’) observation skills, and that can feed into school.”

Visit a shelter. Volunteering at a local animal shelter is a great way to tend to pets without the full responsibility of owning one. “When you care for an animal, you learn a little more about it,” O’Connor says. “Why does your dog turn around three times before he lays down? Why does a cat sharpen their claws?”

Get crafty. Projects provide a great creative learning outlet, O’Connor adds. A great example? Turn the life cycle of a butterfly into art using different materials. “You can usually use rice for the eggs, you can use soap pieces for the caterpillars, and then you can use cotton balls for the cocoon. Then you can have them draw a butterfly.”

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