Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Teaching Biomimicry to Young Kids

I have young kids preschool and kindergarten age, and one of my favorite things to do is to show them what I do by going outside.  On a recent day in late fall, we went into our backyard and went on a critter search.  Squirrels are abundant in my backyard because of the leftover food in the garden as well as the large maple tree which dominates our small lot.  So we set about investigating and learning about the squirrels.
Squirrels and their Amazing Tails
Children learn by doing, so at first we acted like squirrels.  We brought our hands up into claws and pretended to eat an acorn.  We hopped around on two feet simultaneously.  We wiggled our rear ends.  We talked about what they ate – acorns, ideally.  In our yard, birdseed, strawberries, pumpkins, the bulbs I had planted for spring (grrr) and really anything left in the garden that we didn’t harvest.  Then we talked about what eats them – dogs and coyotes came to mind, although our dog is much too old to do more than bark at them.  Then we pretended to be a squirrel and a coyote, a glorified game of tag, which they loved!  After all that exertion and thinking, we went back inside to do a little research and drawing.  I researched, my oldest drew a squirrel from a picture, and my youngest drank hot cocoa (Chicago is cold in November!). 

We learned that squirrels (specifically, tree squirrels such as the eastern gray squirrel, introduced from the UK) climb trees and can hang from almost any vertical surface using sharp claws and swiveling ankle joints.  Their ankle joints can swivel so that feet are backwards to hold them on a tree – all they need is for the bark to be rough enough to hook its claws. 

We thought about the squirrel tails and what they are used for.  We assumed for balance and insulation – and we were right!  Squirrels use their tales for balance when climbing and jumping from tree to tree.  We also thought about the coats we were wearing outside and how those furry tails would be a nice blanket.  My training in architecture came out and I drew for my oldest how the squirrel fur traps air between the strands, forming a blanket of air that helps keep the squirrel warm.  We found out that squirrels also use it as a sunshade in the summer – just like the shades we see on houses and the parasols that people sometimes use.  We also found out that squirrels use their tails for communication.  When alarmed, they flick their tales (we see this when our dog is outside), when tails are fluffy, they feel aggressive; and when tails are waving, they are approaching a mate in the spring. 

Each of this we see from our kitchen door and we are thankful to our squirrel friends for helping us understand how they stay warm, balance, and talk to each other!


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