The Living World, part 1 Plant features, animal features, classification, and what is ‘living’ anyway?

The week following our wonderful Halloween party, we started our course on The Living World.

The younger group, meeting at 10 am, started by sorting natural objects into those of plant origin vs animal origin. We have done this in classes before. I think in the future I would have far more objects to sort, and try not to ‘lead’ the ensuing discussions quite so much.

plant or animal

I had accidentally included a rock, which ended up in one of the boxes because the children thought maybe it had a fossil in it, but we then decided it should have its own box for things that are natural but not living.

We talked about plant features and animal features and I provided some cards which the children also sorted into boxes. I asked them if they could think about special features of plants that animals don’t have. We started to talk about food but I didn’t tell them the ‘answer’. I said I’d love them to think about it and I’d ask them again in a few weeks.

parts of animals or plants

We talked about how although plants don’t have legs to move around, they can control the growth of their roots and their stems so they grow towards water, or towards the sun. So, in a way, they can ‘move’. (This is called a tropism, e.g. moving towards the light is called phototropism.) The children also came up with plenty of examples of animals that can move, but don’t have legs, or that can only move a small amount. (An organism that cannot move around is called sessile, as opposed to motile. This applies to quite a few marine organisms.)

I provided some cards with pictures of different minibeasts and facts about them, and they tried to work out how to sort them into groups. It was interesting that the children focussed in on lifespan. I am so used to biologists using external features as criteria for classification that I really didn’t expect the children to focus in on lifespan and I didn’t have a good reason for why we don’t do that!

minibeasts fact cards

We talked about going on bushwalks (in preparation for next week) and I asked them what they should think about in terms of being sensible and being protected from the weather or other dangers in the environment.

Towards the end, one child asked if I’d prepared anything for them to make. I had prepared some printouts for a Life Science lapbook. Those children who wanted to, took some pictures that they could sort into two columns: Plant Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. In future weeks we can add to this and it will provide a record of some of the work the children have been doing.


The next class, at 11:15, ranged in age from 6 years to 10 years but we were trying to focus on KS2 work. I provided some cards with pictures and the children had to sort them into living or not living. Based on their sorting, we tried to list the criteria for being ‘living’. There was some discussion about whether specialised cells, such as a red blood cell, were living or not. We decided they were not. Cells from multicellular organisms need first to be joined together to form organs and then several organs are part of a whole organism. Only the complete organism can grow, feed, move and reproduce (which were the criteria they had come up with, so far, to define living).animals

cells or body partsnatural but not living

Do plants eat food? There was some discussion about whether plants needed ‘food’ or not. I decided this warranted a debate, so I asked the group to physically split into two, depending on whether they thought that plants had food or whether they didn’t. I asked them to try to persuade the people from the other group to join their group. I can’t remember where I got this idea from, but I like the physicality and having to actually move across the room if you change your mind. I also think it’s a great way to try to get the children to really think about their reasons for taking one side or the other.

During this mini debate, we discussed how plants get their energy from the sun, and even threw up the term ‘photosynthesis’.  At some point in the class we also talked about viruses needing to appropriate the DNA replication facilities of other cells, and hence not being counted as truly ‘living’.

As I mentioned above, the children ended up with about four criteria for being ‘living’ but I think we will return to that another week and see if these criteria are sufficient to define ‘life’.

The older group also did the classification activity with minibeasts, and I introduced them to the idea of levels of classification – domain, kingdom, etc. all the way down to genus and species.

Next week is our mini bush walk, so I told them to start to think about how living things depend on each other for survival. We didn’t have time to do a food web activity but we can do this after going on our excursion.

There was a lot of talking in these classes! I liked the sorting activities but I think in future years I will try to provide more hands-on activities. Some children love debate and discussion, but many children don’t like being asked direct questions and would prefer to absorb information and reflect on it themselves. I do try to provide opportunities for different children to learn about science, so there will be some fine-tuning of these classes if I offer them again.

Nevertheless, I think all the children had fun and I was really looking forward to the next class in this series – our bush walk.

Acknowledgements: I took the sorting idea from Bernie Nebel’s Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding, although I am sure he is not the originator of the idea as it is used in classrooms and science groups all over the world. I created my own cards with plant features and animal features. The Life Science lapbook was created by me but in future classes I will include material from one of the ‘speedy lapbook’ templates created by homeschool bits. The minibeasts classification activity came from the Hamilton Trust, via TES connect. (There are so many free resources on TES that I only go there when I have a specific activity in mind, otherwise I can waste time searching through everything. I prefer the UK TES site to the Australian one.)

If any of your children want to explore these ideas further, I found some downloadable worksheets from the Sea Life Centre. I think I will be using these with my marine-biologist in waiting. There’s also the Wellcome Trust’s Tree of Life interactive and video, neither of which I have explored properly, but they both look fantastic.

Tree of Life

Working it out

Things are going well with Nurture Learning. I stopped doing science with Drama King and his friend on Mondays, but I feel lost without a current project (and many in the pipeline) so I started a group on Friday afternoons instead.

The Friday group started when I realised I wanted to ‘do’ science with Reptile Boy, so why not invite his friends round too? It has turned into more of a homeschooling science group, with a lovely family from Manly coming along with three children aged from 4 to 8 years old, although a couple of Reptile Boy’s friends from pre-school still attend as well.

Last term for ‘life science’, we did activities including:

  • sorting found items into living or biological, non-living, and human-made;
  • differences between, and features of, plants and animals;
  • a nature walk with creatures or plants to look out for

I think in future years I would not do this unit in the winter term! We missed quite a few sessions due to illness (various families) or just tiredness (on my part) and, besides, spring seems like a better season to study life and growth.

Over the holidays I ordered a few Creature Kits from Butterfly Skye. This term, one family will be watching their stick insect grow and hopefully lay eggs, and another family are watching beetle larvae which will pupate and then metamorphosise into beetles. Our family ordered antlions, which were not so successful, and so we are waiting for replacements… Next week the group is doing a bush walk in Kur-rin-gai Wildflower Garden, and I am sure we will all learn a lot from the rangers.

This term we are also learning about Earth and Space science. We started off with a walk around the solar system (copyright Guy Ottewell), using everyday objects to represent the Sun and the planets, and positioning them along Manly Beach to show how far the planets are from the Sun and each other. The exercise was probably not appropriate for the younger children, but certainly taught me about the vast scales involved in astronomy and space science. We have been learning about gravity, day and night, and the seasons, and the older children will be preparing presentations about one planet each before we move on to learning about rocks and minerals (one of my favourite subjects to cover, with children or adults, because it is so hands-on).

I was using a framework from Bernie Nebel’s Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding (BFSU), and I still like the way he approaches teaching science, but I have ended up modifying my approach significantly since last term. He plans a lot of discussion, and yet several of the younger children learn far better when they can make something with their hands as well as talking and listening.

I think the new structure of my classes will be to start with a hands-on activity, and a challenge (e.g. for Gravity, I challenged them to build a structure that stood up, and one that fell down, and to explain to me why this happened). Following the challenge I will read them a story that illustrates some key scientific concepts, and then we can move on to paper-based activities (drawing, writing, or cutting and pasting) for those who want to do them. Those who don’t, can play. The discussion can happen during all of these activities, including the play, and hopefully afterwards with parents, carers and friends.

I feel very pleased with today’s session, which followed this kind of approach. The younger children loved being the Earth or the Sun, and moving around or shining a torch on the globe. I read a great story about telling time without a clock. Then Reptile Boy rushed outside to look at his shadow again (because we did this last week) so we drew around shadows with chalk, to compare them with his shadow later on in the day.

Then the younger children played while I challenged the older children to identify the true reason for the seasons, and the myth. (Many people think the seasons occur because of distance from the Sun, whereas it is really due to axial tilt.)

I have been struggling a little with working out what my role is in the group, and how I can be the ‘expert’ while still encouraging the children to move towards self-directed learning, which is my goal. I think I have worked out an approach that I feel comfortable with. I had great feedback from today’s session and I hope I carry on delivering sessions that engage and inspire all the children.