Squirrels and Mice, Oh My!

By the TPS Kindergarten Team (Rachel Adams-Kaplan, Marisa Block, Katie Miller, Jonah Patten, Melissa Roldan-Stills, and Elizabeth Zack) 

Each fall our kindergarteners immerse themselves in a project-based science study. What is the topic of study? Well, that depends on the evidence the children gather about what lives and grows in the Schuylkill Center. After careful observation at our country classroom, the students generate long lists of possible topics, ranging from deer to snakes to ticks. They then learn the fine art of "advocating": each child, if s/he chooses, stands in front of the class and talks about the topic that is most exciting and why. This part of the project helps students begin to speak confidently in front of their peers, helps them learn to keep an open mind when listening to others, and helps them learn how to handle disappointment if their idea is not the one chosen.

After a secret ballot vote, we had two clear winners – the Riddles and Clues groups in Kindergarten B studied mice, and the Detectives and Investigators in Kindergarten A studied squirrels. (The group names derive, of course, from our all-school theme – What Is a Mystery?)

In each classroom, children spent time illustrating and dictating what they thought they already knew about the animals they were studying. Afterwards they compiled a list of questions and spent time talking about how they could find the answers to the questions. What research could they do? The students decided that books are a good resource for research, so we “read the pictures” of some nonfiction books to see what we could learn; we “read the words” of these books as we got further into our research. And, of course, there were read-alouds of wonderful fiction, including Gooseberry Park by Cynthia Rylant, The Mouse Mansion by Karina Schaapman, and A Mouse Called Wolf by Dick King-Smith.

Project work for both kindergarten classes overlapped as they embarked on a discussion of how to classify life: What is alive or not? What is an animal? Which animals are vertebrates/chordate? Which vertebrates are mammals? And, finally, which mammals are classified into rodents?  Both classes hosted an expert from the Academy of Sciences, who led a lesson about rodents. The children learned more about what makes a rodent a rodent, and they met a porcupine, a chinchilla, and a rat – as one kindergartener explained “in person and NOT in their cages.”  They also compared rodent skulls to the skull of a rabbit, which one kindergartener emphatically wanted to make clear “is not a rodent.”

Both kindergarten classes learned about common predators to squirrels and mice – owls. Pairs of children dissected an owl pellet, which is the indigestible material left in the gizzard of an owl; the pellets contain teeth, skulls, claws, and feathers that are too dangerous to pass through the rest of the owl's digestive tract.

The children learned that there are many experts in their own parent community: endocrinologist Ray Soccio shared his experiences using mice in a laboratory setting to help learn more about obesity in humans; medical researcher Stavros Rafail taught us about how mice are helpful to humans and how, in return, scientists take good care of mice; and Trevor Prichett taught us about different predators of mice.  And we learned songs about mice from music teachers and musicians Tatyana Rashkovsky and Chris Gignac.

Once the children became experts themselves, the mouse specialists learned how to be teachers to the “squirrel half” of kindergarten, and vice versa. Teacher prep involved thinking about the best way to represent and share something they learned about their topic. Some children decided to put on a play; others to write a book, compose a song, and create a puppet show; still others made drawings, dioramas, diagrams, and models.  

When our fall science study came to a close, our children were able to add “teacher” to the list of things they have experienced in kindergarten!  Mice and squirrels are now much more to them than cute furry critters. Our students possess knowledge that goes far beyond appearances and have strategies to research any topic that sparks their interest.