Taxonomy Part Two: Classifying Marine Life at Shedd Aquarium


Last week, Elliot and I spent a significant amount of time at the Field Museum discussing carnivores/omnivores/herbivores. We talked about fur, feathers, scales, beaks, and teeth. This week, we continued in this concept at Shedd Aquarium.

Elliot has been to Shedd many times, but this was the first time we built our visit around taxonomy. We began upstairs, where the tanks are smaller and have a more narrow focus. We saw frogs and toads and, hearkening to our recent trip to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, discussed again that they are amphibians. This was immediately contrasted with the snakes and turtles located nearby. Those, we quickly established, are reptiles.

But what about fish? I challenged Elliot to tell me how and why he knew a fish was a fish when he saw it. Pretty quickly, he decided that the dead giveaway features were gills and scales. We went straight to the Caribbean Reef feature and looked at the skates, rays, and sharks. I asked if those were fish, even though they had skin instead of scales. Elliot looked pensive for a moment, then nodded.

“They live in the water,” he said, “and they breathe with their gills.”


We moved on to the Oceanarium, where there were two new taxonomical categories to explore. We laughed at the sea otters’ adorable playing and eating for a while, and then I rather off-handedly mentioned that they had fur instead of scales, and that they were breathing air. Were they fish?

“No,” said Elliot confidently. “They’re mammals.”

What about the belugas and the dolphins? Those were quickly determined to be mammals, too – specifically ones that use blowholes to breathe their air. What about the penguins? No, Elliot assured me. Those are birds.

“Even though they can’t fly?” I asked. “Even though they spend so much time in the water?” Elliot nodded, his palms pressed to the glass as he grinned at a penguin zooming through the water before him.

“They have feathers and beaks,” he said. He was doing so well with all of this that I decided not to delve too far into the nuance of mollusks and echinoderms when Elliot explored the limpets, snails, and sea stars. It was enough, after so much brow-furrowing categorization, to simply stick our hands into the water and touch the ocean right here in Chicago.



What is Old is New Again: Continuously Revisiting Content at the Field Museum

Since I volunteer as a docent at the Field Museum in Chicago, Elliot has visited dozens of times. He goes with enough regularity that he knows his way around (almost better than I do, and I’m supposed to tell people where stuff is). The repetition of visits, though, hardly means each outing feels like Groundhog Day. On the contrary, each visit feels positively fresh. How is this possible? By revisiting the same content as Elliot’s comprehension and knowledge develops, he sees the same artifacts through new eyes.


Today, we focused most of our visit on carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores. We talked about tooth shape, about how basically anything with antlers is a herbivore, how all the big cats are carnivores. Halfway through the enormous halls of taxidermied animals, a pattern clicked.

“This one eats meat,” Elliot said assuredly, pointing to a leopard. I asked him how he knew. He gestured vaguely at the leopard, looked at me like I was rather dim, and said patiently, “Because the lion and the cheetah eat meat. And it has sharp teeth.”
The last time Elliot spent a demonstrable period of time in front of the leopard’s case, he stood there for five minutes and counted the spots. One to ten, over and over, until he got bored and moved on. This time, it was about sharp teeth and big cats. We’ve grown up a bit in these past few months.


Upstairs with the dinosaurs, it was a similar story. Six months ago, the fact that Elliot knew at all what a trilobite was served as its own impressive anecdote. Now he stands over the round case full of trilobite fossils and exclaims, “There are so many different ones!” He examines the large model arthropod in the forest environment and declares it to be the “friend” of the trilobite in the water. He studies the teeth of wooly mammoths and mastodons and says they’re “different kinds of bumpy” because the animals “ate different plants.” How very recently it was that he first learned what a mastodon even was.

Seeing the same fossils, the same skeletons, and the same fur over and over again might seem a bit gruesome at first glance. Why perseverate so much over the corpses of animals with a small child? But to Elliot’s brain, the museum preserves the materials so that his understanding of them can evolve (much more efficiently, it should be noted, than protoceratops evolved into triceratops). A year ago, they were just animals. Just dinosaurs. Six months ago, we could differentiate a bit, and that was great. Now we discuss eating habits, sleeping habits. We examine skin and fur and scales and teeth.


I can’t wait to see how much deeper his comprehension grows with more time. With more reading at home, more connections forged, I know that even the dioramas celebrating their centennials will seem fresh. What is old is new again.


The Devil’s in the Details at the Nature Museum


Today we visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, which is located near the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. We were able to see their special exhibit on frogs before it ends later this month. The frog exhibit led to the theme of the day: nuanced difference in taxonomy.

Elliot was rather surprised to learn that what we refer to as toads are, indeed, frogs. This triggered such a profound existential crisis that we wound up spending a solid half hour going from frog to toad to frog again describing and observing the differences between them. By the end of it, Elliot was very confident that all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. He now knows that the creatures we call frogs have damp skin and spend most of their time in or near water (“Frogs are wet and like to be by water all the time!”). Toads, by contrast, have “dry, bumpy skin and like to be away from the water more.”


Suddenly something clicked, and Elliot experienced an abrupt and profound need to seek out similar differences. Turtles vs. tortoises (more wet and dry stuff here, along with discussions about webbed feet and shell shape). Salamanders vs. lizards (wow; wet and dry is really the theme of the day so far). Butterflies vs. moths presented some issues as we learned that nobody can quite agree on the differences. Elliot finally decided that moths have “fuzzy antennae and a fuzzy body,” and that was enough detail for him.

Ultimately, it’s not at all important to me that my three-year-old be able to identify morphological differences between commonly-confused animals. That being said, it was exciting to see him looking for and identifying nitty-gritty details of animals’ bodies. In searching for the differences between animals, he wound up peering through glass with wide eyes to proudly declare that he was looking at a turtle, and that he knew by the webbed feet.

The important skill here is not fact-banking, but observation. So often, we show children an animal, they give it a surface-level once-over, declare it cute or slimy or cool or scary, and that’s that. Because we took our time and were focused on finding differences today, Elliot was able to be far more observational. We moved slowly – far more slowly than one might expect a three-year-old surrounded by reptiles, insects, and amphibians to move. We looked at eyes, at scales, at skin. We saw and spoke of opposite pairings like bumpy and smooth, wet and dry, wide and narrow, and more.

If you asked Elliot what the best part of the day was, he would tell you that he liked seeing the frogs. And he did. He did like seeing the frogs. Maybe he’s not even aware of the way he practiced observing and describing, or how proud I was of his attention span and focus. It doesn’t matter. On the way home, I asked him which frog was his absolute favorite.

“My favorite frog was the Fowler’s Toad,” he declared. “It has spots. The Leopard Frog has spots, too. But it’s wet and likes the water a lot. So it isn’t a toad.”

Mission accomplished.

One Small Step: Seeing the Moon Landing in Unexpected Places

Adler Planetarium here in Chicago is one of Elliot’s happy places. I don’t think his grin fades from the moment we walk in the door until we leave. He loves everything about Adler. One of the parts he loves the very best is the exhibit on the moon landing. He’ll tell you all about how “the capsule got hot, hot, hot when it was coming back to Earth, and it went splash in the ocean!” (There’s a real Gemini capsule on display). He’ll rush to the area with the Mission Control consoles and “call Neil Armstrong.” And he’ll stand right in front of the 60s-era TV set that plays a minute of the moon landing footage on a loop. He’ll tell you what’s happening, and he’ll wave to Walter Cronkite.


All of this is adorable, of course, and it’s fantastic that Elliot already understands that people worked very hard to send astronauts into space so they could step foot on the moon. But I’m always most amazed with the connections he makes, and that’s why I was lost halfway between laughter and open-mouthed shock the last time we were in Disney World.

In Epcot, there’s a ride called Spaceship Earth… or, as I’ve affectionately referred to it for the last twenty-odd years, “The Big Ball.” It’s the giant geodesic dome that smacks you in the face when you enter the park, and it basically tells the history of human communication. Sounds dull, is actually super interesting. Elliot loves the ride, but when we last rode it in October, he fixated on something that might otherwise seem like a small detail.

museumschooling 5.jpg

The picture above is a scene on the ride, where a family in an apartment whose interior design I covet is watching the moon landing on TV. Yes, it’s the same footage as that shown in Adler Planetarium. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at all, then, when Elliot rather failed at the “hands and arms inside the vehicle” thing to frantically point and leap toward the small TV set.

“There’s Neil Armstrong and he’s walking down the ladder and he’s stepping on the moon and there’s Walter Cronkite telling you, and hiiiiiiiii, Walter Cronkite! They’re watching Neil! Neil Armstrong!”

The enthusiasm was adorable, infectious, and just this side of alarming. But I realized something when this phenomenon happened for the fourth time (he really likes the ride). Visits to museums are great on their own, but they’re even greater when they serve as the foundation to a more holistic understanding of everything around us. I love that Elliot can recognize telescopes wherever he sees them. He should! He’s been through Adler’s telescope exhibit countless times. I love that he can watch Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson and point out galaxies, asteroids, Saturn, and the Horsehead Nebula. He should be able to do that after having the content reinforced so many times at Adler.

But the best way, as a mom, that I’ve ever seen him take Adler’s content and make a cool connection to it was when he saw that family on Spaceship Earth. He saw the NASA side of the moon landing at Adler, then he saw a family in their apartment watching it at Disney World. And that’s one giant leap for comprehension.

Screen Time and Canvas Time: Using Film and TV to Your Advantage in Museumschooling

We aren’t screen time police in this family. Elliot doesn’t spend his days with his face glued to any screens, and we’re certainly mindful in what we allow him to watch, but he definitely does watch stuff. Never did I think that a cartoon he enjoys, though, would earn him wide-eyed gazes of wonder at an art museum.

Amazon and Netflix have some good quality kids’ programming these days, and one of them that Elliot likes is called Creative Galaxy. The show takes place in an animated universe apparently liberated entirely from the laws of thermodynamics, but that’s okay, because there’s a whole planet for painting. On this painting planet, kids learn about various techniques and famous artists (whose artwork ostensibly transcends time and space). In the very first episode of the show, we see this:

homschooling 3.jpg

Here Arty (the main character) is learning about the technique of pointillism used by Seurat. You may recognize the painting behind him as A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. Anyone who’s seen Ferris Bueller’s Day Off knows that this painting is permanently housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, and thus can probably tell where this post is going.

Yes, Elliot loves Creative Galaxy, and he loves pointillism. He loves it so much that he does it with markers until their poor little foam tips collapse. On our last trip to the Art Institute, he was enjoying the main staircase, the rows of stained glass and the bronze sculptures when… gasp. There it was.

He was drawn to it like a moth to light, walking with the slow steps and folded hands he’s learned to use in an art museum. Eyed by wary security staff who seemed certain this small child was about to put a fist through a Monet, Elliot made his way steadily to A Sunday on La Grande Jatte. It’s huge, and so when he sat on the floor in front of it, legs neatly folded, he looked tinier than ever.

“Pointillism,” he breathed, as though praying to the icon before him. Suddenly the security guard who had seemed skeptical of him upon entrance to the room was engaging him in conversation. Elliot informed the guard that the painting had been done by a man named Seurat, that he had used pointillism to do it (“Like this – dot, dot, dot, dot, dot, dot”). The whole painting was made of dots, Elliot told everyone around him and some people three rooms over. It was all dots, all pointillism, all by Seurat.

In another section of the museum, we came to Paul Gauguin’s masterful paintings of Tahiti. Elliot had already seen the new Disney film Moana (which takes place in Polynesia) several times, and I knew he loved it. I was still somewhat surprised when he excitedly declared, “That looks like Moana’s home” when he saw Gauguin’s Why Are You Angry?

museumschooling 4.jpg

On this trip to the Art Institute, I learned several things:

  1. No matter how many times your kid has been to an art museum, if they’re young enough, everyone will remain convinced they’ve come to destroy a masterpiece.
  2. Not all screen time is useful, but some of it is very helpful in making connections.
  3. Sometimes the best thing to do in an art museum with a small child is to merely follow and listen as their brains piece together what they know, what they observe, and what they find interesting. Chiming in from time to time with new information for them is great, but I was most fascinated just to watch Elliot’s gears spin.

“The Tesla Coil is Scary!” -Allaying Fears of Magnificent Machinery at MSI


One of my favorite places to visit with Elliot is The Museum of Science and Industry here in Chicago. They’re extraordinarily friendly to homeschoolers, even offering special labs and classes for homeschooled students. There’s so much to see and do that I find it best to try and focus visits a little. This time around, we certainly made our regular detours to the model trains, the baby chicks, and the farm exhibit. However, we spent much more time than usual in the Science Storms area of the museum.

Elliot and I have been casually discussing the most basic physics terms recently. Gravity, he knows, is what keeps his feet on the ground. There’s just enough of it here on Earth, less on the Moon, none way out in space. He knows that if he drops a toy, it’s gravity that pulls it to the floor. We’ve discussed acceleration a bit; Elliot knows that when something goes faster and faster, it’s accelerating. He knows that cars do it, that he does it when he runs. He may only be a preschooler, but he’s got a good foundation for some of these terms. And he definitely knows what lightning is.

That doesn’t mean his face looked any less terrified when the twenty-foot Tesla Coil at MSI went off on our last visit. More startled by its jolting light and sound than usual, Elliot gazed upward and declared, “The Tesla Coil is scary!” I patted his back and we found a bench. The conversation that followed went something like this.

Me: Do you know why the Tesla Coil makes so much light and sound?

Elliot: It makes scary lightning!

Me: Lightning can startle us and feel a little scary. It sure can. That Tesla Coil was named after the man who first made it. He was a scientist named Nikola Tesla.

Elliot: Nikola Tesla?

Me: Yup. Do you remember how it is that we can turn on lights and use the TV? What makes them work?

Elliot: Uhhh… oh. Electricity.

Me: That’s right. And the Tesla Coil is one way to make electricity. Let’s go have a closer look. Somethings things aren’t as scary when we know more about them.

We went upstairs to the place where more information is available about the Tesla Coil. Of course, most of it is far too advanced for Elliot’s present level of understanding. Resonant transformer circuits use science a bit beyond the comprehension level of a preschooler. What Elliot did find out is that the Tesla Coil produces “lots of voltage” and that power is what creates the bright lightning and the loud sound. We sat on the benches and watched as the next cycle of the Tesla Coil filled the space with buzzing, vibrating electric wonder.

This time, Elliot didn’t complain about being scared. He grinned and he said, “That’s Nikola’s Tesla Coil making lightning!”

Sometimes things aren’t as scary when we know more about them.