Friday 5: Things I Think About When Teaching Kids About Bugs

I love my job, but one of the very best parts is getting to teach kids on a semi-regular basis.  There are many ways that I do this, but recently I’ve been presenting information at a cart out on the floor of the museum where I work or teaching classes of elementary students who come out to the museum’s field station for field trips.  Regardless, there are several things I try to keep in mind.  I thought they might be of use to some of you, or maybe you might like to take a look into my odd little brain and see how I think, so here they are:

IMG_00611. Children don’t like to be treated like children.

One of the best compliments I got recently was being told that a class of 4th graders liked the lesson I taught them because I treated them like adults and not like kids.  In my experience, kids love to have fun and they do genuinely act like kids most of the time.  However, they don’t like to be spoken down to and they don’t like being treated like they’re stupid because they’re not.  I expect the kids I work with to act as maturely as they can for their age and in return I don’t treat them like babies.  It seems to work well, at least most of the time.

IMG_47952. Understand the level of vocabulary the kids have and adapt your language to meet that level.

I feel it bears repeating: kids aren’t stupid.  They’re just less experienced than older people.  That means that they (usually) don’t understand things at the same level that adults do and that you need to adapt how you explain things so that they understand.  I personally believe that you can teach almost anyone anything if you explain it in the right language.  That doesn’t mean that you need to “dumb it down,” just that you need to choose your words carefully so that the kids are sure to understand.  Yes, you can try to teach kids big words and use them as you teach, but I find that it’s much more successful for me to adapt to their level of vocabulary than the other way around.  If I’m going to teach kids big words, I only use a few, three at the very most (I usually stick to one or none), and then repeat them over and over and over again so the kids get them by the time we’re done.  Even then, I wonder how long they remember…

IMG_48763.  Be prepared for anything.

It’s hard to really be prepared for anything, but I’ve seen kids do amazingly shocking things that I never would have expected them to do.  I try to mentally prepare myself for crazy things, and roll with them as much as I can when those crazy things happen.  I do, however, answer all of those little deeply probing personal questions kids like to ask.  I think I do it because I like watching the parents cringe and fret over their children when they ask horribly personal, insulting, and/or inappropriate questions.  :)

IMG_98834. If you love what you do, let it show!

By now, you have probably figured out that I like bugs.  (Are any of you out there thinking, “Wait… The Dragonfly Woman likes insects?   Why didn’t I know about this before?!”)  Kids pick up on your enthusiasm and can get super excited about the subject if you show them how excited you are about it.  I bounce up and down a lot on my toes as I walk.  I talk loudly and excitedly.  I wave my hands all over everywhere.  I just can’t hide the fact that I think insects are the most amazing things on the planet.  Kids respond SO well to that sort of energy and enthusiasm.  Plus, when I invariably smack my hand into a book or a wall or something mid-wild gesticulation, they think it is hilarious.  Yep, adults acting like giddy little kids – kids can get behind that.

IMG_48065. Don’t force a kid to have an experience they’re uncomfortable with, ever.

Let me tell you a story about my childhood that illustrates why I think this is so important.  I had a nasty experience with electricity when I was 8 or 9 (I was essentially electrocuted by a vacuum cleaner).  Because of it, I absolutely dreaded the yearly presentation by the power company aimed at teaching kids how dangerous power lines are.  Retired electrical line workers would bring in this little diorama of a neighborhood, plug it into the wall, ramp up the voltage, and run 50,000 volts through the diorama’s power lines.  Then they’d show you what would happen if you were stupid enough to touch a power line by touching this little plastic doll to a kite string dangling off the lines.  The doll would melt.  One time it caught on fire.  Giant arcs of electricity shots out of that horrendous thing.  It was TORTUROUS to me.  I started having nightmares about being electrocuted after the third of six times I saw that presentation.  I still have those nightmares.  I know that damned electrified diorama is largely to blame.  So, having had this experience, I am hyperaware of the fact that some kids are really scared of insects.  I am respectful of that.  I can try to make a child feel more comfortable about the animal by explaining as much as I can about it, but if he/she doesn’t ever want to touch/hold it, that’s their choice.  Never, ever, ever make a kid have an experience that they think is scary or overly gross or otherwise disturbing.  Giving them a few gentle nudges to help them overcome their fears is one thing.  Shoving a large insect in their face and ridiculing them for not wanting to get near it…  That is completely unacceptable and you might scar them for life.

So those are the things I like to keep tucked away in the back of my mind.  Anyone else have some great suggestions to add?  I know a lot of you work with kids, so I welcome any further suggestions and/or insights into working with kids!


Unless otherwise stated, all text, images, and video are copyright © C. L. Goforth

19 thoughts on “Friday 5: Things I Think About When Teaching Kids About Bugs

  1. When I’m teaching kids about snakes, and it’s time to line up and touch the snake, and some kids don’t want to, I explain that that’s OK – everyone has something that they’re scared of – and I ask the kids who don’t want to touch it to stand next to me while the other kids do. I’ve never had a kid leave without touching the snake.

    • That’s a great way to approach the scared kids! I have had similar experiences and find that most kids are willing to touch the bugs if I let the scared ones go last, after seeing everyone else doing it without getting hurt. Being able to see that does wonders! (And I’m terrified of snakes, but I’ll happily touch one – so long as someone else is holding it.)

  2. Spot-on advice! In my experience, absolutely correct; leaving time for questions (often from out of left field) also has a place … be prepared to confess that you don’t know – children respect this attitude “I don’t know YET!” I try to say.

    • I agree – giving them an opportunity to ask questions is definitely an important part of working with kids! Of course, that often devolves into “This one time, I…” storytelling, but those can be fun too. I especially like the little stories that are so incredibly simple that you think there just has to be more, the ones that are just some simple statement of fact like, “This one time, I went to Disneyland…” You keep waiting, thinking there’s going to be some story attached to that statement and then it never comes. Kids are great like that!

  3. I like your first two points. For the last couple years I’ve worked primarily with teenagers, but when I was working with school groups of primarily 4th-7th graders, I did find that it was possible to explain pretty high-level ecological concepts to them if you did it right, including succession and even how natural selection and speciation work.

  4. Introducing middle school kids to river bugs is a total blast. There are invariably the girls who are “too cool” to touch one or who get grossed out by them, but I literally jump into the stream and immediately work with the ones who are already into it, then I find the ones who are lingering on the sideslines and find ways to get them involved — whether it’s counting or sorting the little wiggly wonders, or sketching them in a nature journal. And I always find at least one kid who discovers something I haven’t seen before — you’re so right, they are almost shocked when I start hopping around with excitement. It galvanizes them to see someone so enthusiastic about a subject. The kid who asks great questions gets to help me sort through some layman-friendly ID books that I bring along; I love to say “Great question (or observation)! Let’s look that up, because I don’t know the answer yet!” Showing them where to get information is by far more imporant than being the source of information myself.

  5. I work run an environmental education program for a conservation district. Last year I did classroom programs for over 5000 students on a wide range of topics. The students find it hilarious when I imitate the ridiculous behaviors of animals, especially curious white-tailed deer and male red-winged blackbirds calling for mates.

    I have also found that students love to use big scientific words and terms; it makes them feel like they have been let in on a secret. For example when filling out a diagram of photosynthesis with 3rd graders, the students always want to us the chemical symbols for carbon dioxide, oxygen, and sugar.

    As far as not wanting to touch things. I run across very few squeamish students in younger grades, it only seems to be at about 5th grade that girls stop wanting to touch things and get their hands dirty. Up until that age, the girls are often more willing to get elbow deep in pond water or soil than the boys. I always try to enforce the idea that you can still be a “girly” girl and be an awesome scientist too.

    The biggest thing that I have learned about working with kids is that the number one question asked by all kids about any animal is “Will this bite/eat a person?”

    • I agree that kids like learning the big words (love the idea of you letting them in on a secret!), but I try to gauge the level class before I start throwing out the biggies. Some classes respond well (especially 3rd or 4th grade and up), but some aren’t quite there yet and I never want to talk over the kids’ heads. And the age at which you’ve noticed that kids become squeamish agrees with my own observations. In that regard, it might help that I’m a woman and stick my hands in dirty water and pull bugs out to show people. I let things crawl on me, and I let everyone know when they should give something a little extra respect because they have a painful bite. Sometimes seeing me do that will convince the girls that it’s okay to get in the pond and get a little dirty too. Granted, I haven’t ever claimed to be girly either…

      Have you ever noticed that before 4th grade or so that it seems that the boys are more squeamish than the girls? I wonder if there’s some sort of macho thing that kicks in with boys right about the same time that it become unacceptable for the girls to want to get wet and muddy and play with insects. I’ve encountered FAR more very squeamish boys than girls in the younger grades, but that switches somewhere around the end of third grade.

      • I don’t work with students younger than 3rd grade very often, but at that level there seems to be about an even number of squeamish boys and girls. The number is very high, but a lost of the students that I work with are from the country and are used to playing outside in nature.

        I usually think squeamishness about bugs/dirt/germs/etc. is an issue of nurturing. Occasionally I do public programs where parents and children are present. If mom is freaked out by bugs, dirt, snakes, etc. then their kid will be too – especially in front of mom. If you take mom out of the equation some of those same kids will get elbow deep in the muck in no time flat.

        On other occasions I think nurturing has nothing to do with squeamishness. I have had the opportunity to work with quite a few groups of siblings, including twins and triplets. In some families there is just that one kid (usually a boy, sometimes a girl) who does not want to get dirty and just finds nature gross even when their parents and siblings love everything about the muck and mire.

  6. I noticed that nearly all kids, even the most scared ones, eventually touched our big-headed, round-eyed lime green Chrysina beyeri (we really need a memorable short English name). But the next step for all the kids was to then turn around and teach their even more reluctant parents to touch and hold the beetle, literally beaming with pride …

    • beyeri DOES need a common name! I have always called them the green and purple beetles, so it needs to be something better than that… :)

      I wonder if the fact that kids are wiling to touch/hold the byeri has might be because so very many southern Arizonans grew up playing with June bugs? Nearly every kid I’ve ever talked to from Tucson has told me that they have ‘flown” June beetles by tying threads around their legs. They’re a lovely, safe little beetle that people have a lot of personal experience with and fond memories of as kids. I know the byeri aren’t even in the same genus as the mutabilis, but they’re both largish green scarabs. They might be lumped in the same sort of “safe” category in people’s minds?

      And I love the observation that the parents are even more reluctant! So very true!

  7. Thanks for this! I need to work on explaining things to kids. I tend to get tripped up on the “treat like adults but with smaller vocabulary” part – I think grad school tends to train you to use as many big science words as possible, and then I get in trouble when my audience doesn’t know “phenology.”

    • True! Grad school is horrible like that – and by the time you reach academia it becomes even worse! However, I think you can use those big words so long as you define them simply and repeat the definition over and over again, maybe even every time you use a word like phenology. I’ve gotten to the point where I automatically define the big words as I go, so that I say things like “This citizen science project focuses on the phenology, the study of how climatic conditions and seasonal changes impact the cycles of plants and animals, of several different species.” (That’s probably an overly simplistic definition, but I’ve found that it works for a lot of people.) If you say something like that over and over again, you can usually get the big words across, at least to older kids. The really little guys… Well, they have a hard time understanding the very idea of science, so you need to keep things REALLY simple. I generally leave out the big words entirely with them if I can.

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