The Devil’s in the Details at the Nature Museum

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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.”

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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.

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2 thoughts on “The Devil’s in the Details at the Nature Museum

  1. This post made me smile as I remembered my youngest daughter’s interest in animals that are, as she put it, “kind of the same but different, like frogs and toads.” She went on to compare and contrast other pairs of animals, creating, in essence, her own unit study.

    Like

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