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!


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Torturing My Dad With Flies

My sister and I were obnoxiously good children for the most part.  There was the occasional hiccough, but for the most part we did as we were told, were quiet and respectful, and we were both super excited about learning new things.  Seriously, we were the biggest goody two shoes on the planet!  We had our little acts of rebellion, but when I think about them now, I’m always shocked at how innocent they were.  My dad always claimed to be scared of moose (he’s not really), so we would run around the house with our hands on our heads (our antlers!) screaming “Moose!  Mooooooose!” as our dad ran away “in terror:”

Moose gameWe thought this was HIL-AR-IOUS!  I also figured out that there was no Santa when I was about 5 years old and told my sister (I had irrefutable proof!), but we pretended to believe in Santa for several more years to “trick Mom and Dad!”  He he!  We were so sneaky!  And my dad had this little song, a campfire song that we learned on one of those children’s sing-along cassettes, that he claimed he had to dance to every time he heard it.  We’d sing it over and over and over to make him dance.  And over and over and over…  He probably regretted that one.

three fliesThere was one thing we did that was actually a little mean though.  My dad had this personal vendetta against particular insects and spiders in his home.  When we lived in Arizona, we had a lot of black widows  around our house.  He was worried that his young girls were going to get bitten (and honestly, he was right to be worried – we NEVER looked before we put our hands in/on/under things!), so he’d go on a weekly seek and destroy mission in our yard.  When we moved to Colorado, he became rather obsessed with flies, stalking through the house with the fly swatter in hand and a crazy glint in his eye as he tracked and killed the many, many flies that ended up in the house.  (I can’t confirm or deny it, but two people under the age of 10 may have left the back door open all the time, leading to the eventual formation of my dad’s classic summer phrase: “Close the door!  You’re letting the flies in!”)  We had this enormous vaulted ceiling in our living room, so sometimes the flies would buzz around his head and then settle just out of reach above him.  It drove him nuts!  And my sister and I used this to our advantage!

On the upper floor of our house, we had this completely useless little room that had no door and half a wall on two sides.  You could look out over the top of the half walls into the living room and dining room.  It just so happened that my dad spent a few hours each day reading the newspaper in his chair in the living room, and his chair was right below you if you looked out over the half wall:

Looking over the half wallMy sister and I had our bedrooms on the upper floor of the house, so we spent a lot of time up there looking over the edge.  Eventually, we came up with the most brilliant form of torture ever using the half wall and our dad’s hatred of flies: fly torture.

Fly torture was pretty simple.  First, we’d draw flies on little squares of paper.  These were the “flies” of fly torture.  Then we’d punch a little hole in the top of the paper, slide some thread through the hole, and tie it at the top.  Then it was a simple matter of lowering the “flies” over the wall, unwinding thread from the spools, onto our unsuspecting father below:

When they landed on his head, we’d jerk the threads up and down, mimicking a fly crawling around on his hair.  Sometimes we’d lower them down next to his head and then jerk the thread over so that the “fly” would smack into his cheek or temple, similarly to how the flies would occasionally bump into him as they meandered about the house.  In either case, he’d raise a hand up to swat the “fly” away, so we’d pull the thread up a bit to make him think he’d scared it off.  When he went back to reading, we’d lower the “flies” back down and do it again.  Every time he’d swat it away.  We did it over and over, stifling our laughter as we watched our dad mindlessly swat at our flies.  It was unbelievably difficult to keep the laughter in and I’m still not sure how we managed.

It took our dad about 15 minutes to realize what was going on.  I think he eventually grabbed the thread on one of the flies and then looked up and saw us standing there, arms draped over the wall with incriminating spools of thread in our hands.  We nearly died laughing!  Our dad thought it was hilarious that we’d come up with this activity on our own, so we deemed it a huge success.

We waited a month or so, then we did it again.  It took our dad a little less time to realize what was going on, but enough that we were still pleased with ourselves.  Another month went by and we did it again.  Then again.  And again.  We did it over and over, even improving our fly design to avoid detection as long as possible.  Eventually, I noticed that every time a fly landed on our dad’s head, he’d look up to see if my sister and I were above him with our thread.  We actually conditioned our dad!  It took a few years for him to go back to mindlessly swatting at flies without looking up for us too.

So that’s fly torture, the only good thing that ever came of that stupid little room with the half walls in our house in Colorado.  Fly torture worked because we’d watched our dad struggle against the flies we let in the house by leaving the back door open and we knew how he’d respond.  We’d also seen enough flies to know how they moved and could mimic their motions to some extent with our paper flies.  It was a rather mean thing to do, at least after the first few times when our dad still thought it was cute and funny.  But we loved it, and now it’s one of my favorite childhood memories.

The moral of the story is this: Pay attention to insect behavior!  You never know when it will come in handy.  :)


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Friday 5: Giant Water Bugs, As Depicted by 7 Year Olds

When I TAed for the Insect Discovery program at my university last semester, the kids worked their way through 4 stations and then got back together as a group to do drawings of insects at the end.  I posted some of my favorite drawings of imaginary insects the kids came up with several months ago, but some of the kids also did really excellent drawings of real insects they’d seen at the stations.  We used a water bug at one of the stations and the kids were fascinated by them, so they ended up in the drawings the kids did from time to time.  Today, I give you my five favorite giant water bug drawings done by 7-year-olds.  Prepare for total cuteness!


We would often attempt to feed the giant water bugs with the kids, so most of the drawings included the food we gave them, mealworms.  This lovely drawing includes a rather fanciful habitat (oddly enough, we do not use pink and purple rocks in the bottom of our containers), but it does include two mealworms for the water bug to eat when it’s ready for a snack.  They’re conveniently floating above the water so that they won’t drown before the water bug has a chance to eat them.  Pretty considerate, don’t you think?


This gem of a drawing shows the water bug AND his food in the water, but take a look at the jaws on this one!  Apparently we didn’t do such a great job of explaining the piercing-sucking mouthpart to this kid’s group…  This water bug is clearly about to rip the mealworm on the right side of the page to shreds before it devours it:

The kids were supposed to write down or include in their drawings where the bug lived, what it ate, and how it protected itself.  This one ‘bits” to “btat it,” which in adult English likely translates to “it bites to protect itself.”  It’s useful to be able to read 7-year-old when you look through Insect Discovery drawings.  :)


In the next drawing, a cockroach-centipede looking giant water bug is about to attack his helpless prey, the mealworm at the right.  The mealworm is apparently sentient and cries out for help, but as there’s nothing in the drawing except the water bug and the mealworm, I fear he is about to meet his demise.

Poor little mealworm…


This drawing came with a thank you letter, one in a pile of 25 or 30 that a teacher made her kids write after their visit.  He claims the water bug was his favorite insect, and I believe him because this is really a pretty good drawing for a kid to do a week or two after he saw the water bug!

We’ll ignore the taxonomic mistake (it’s a bug, not a wattr bettl, or “water beetle” in adult English) for now and give the kid a break.  Not exactly sure what the bubbles coming out of the bug’s mouth are though.  Most of the preceptors teaching the kids discussed how water bugs collect oxygen at their back ends and pull it into an air space under their wings.  I know they did because when I asked the kids about their water bug drawings, they’d usually say something like, “They breathe through their butts!”  Not entirely true, but close enough.  :)


And last, I give you my favorite of the water bug drawings:

This kid clearly got the message that the water bugs can eat impressive things, including vertebrates like fish.  The drawing is spot on, with the water bug in a perfect sit-and-wait predator pose, aquatic plants drifting serenely in the water nearby, food about to swim toward it.  In essence: awesome!  I love this drawing.


Really, is there anything cuter than looking at drawings by young children?  Browsing through the drawings and talking to the kids as they drew them was one of the best parts of the entire Insect Discovery experience.  I hope the incoming TA thinks so too!


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