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Everyday Play with Fish

by Sukie Jackson

Our Classroom Pet Is A Fish

Max nose-to-nose with the hall fish tank

Max nose-to-nose with the hall fish tank

Our classroom pet is a fish. A Double Funnel Male Beta to be more specific.  In preparation for teaching children about our classroom pet, I learned about a beta fish’s upturned mouth (all the better for eating off the water’s surface!). I read the description of the “veil tail” and thought that children would appreciate this rhyming name.  I discovered that these territorial fish that originated in Thailand eat bloodworms and brine shrimp. I couldn’t wait to introduce our pet fish to the class.

And then I read Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard’s description of a twenty-five cent goldfish “Ellery” in the book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Dillard’s description beautifully illustrates  what can be learned by careful observation. If only I had paid careful attention to the actual fish, rather than study about it!

“This Ellery cost me twenty-five cents. He is a deep red-orange, darker than most gold fish. He steers short distances mainly with his slender, red lateral fins; they seem to provide impetus for going backward, up, or down. It took me a few days to discover his ventral fins; they are completely transparent and all but invisible–dream fins. He also has a short anal fin, and a tail that is deeply notched and perfectly transparent at the two tapered tips. He can extend his mouth, so that it looks like length of pipe; he can shift the angle of his eyes in his head so he can look before and behind himself, instead of simply out to his side. His belly, what there is of it, is white ventrally, and a patch of this white extends up his sides–the variegated Ellery. When he opens his gill slits, he shows a thin crescent of silver where the flap overlapped–as though all his brightness were sunburn.”

Children are natural scientists. Making observations, describing the natural world  in terms of observable characteristics and properties, recording observations by drawing and asking questions are all age appropriate activities that contribute to a young child’s development. Teachers and parents both can support a child’s curiosities about the natural world in the following ways.

  • Encourage and provide time for observation. (A former Ruth Washburn parent told me about the very “Ruth Washburn thing” she did with her elementary age daughter Grace. She let her stay home from school the day that a doe was born in the family’s backyard to simply observe. Later they created a homemade book about the experience.).
  • Listen and/or take notes as children verbalize their observations and questions.
  • Provide drawing materials (clipboard, paper, crayons, pencil).
  • Enhance observations by providing vocabulary as needed (words like “gill,” “ fin” or “transparent”).
  • Make available tools such as a ruler, magnifying glass and camera.
  • Provide non-fiction books and make available technology for research and investigations.
  • Encourage children to share observations.

I’m sure our four and five-year-old children’s observations of our classroom beta fish won’t be quite like Annie Dillard’s account but they will be original and observation-based. And much more appropriate than being “taught” anything from me, their teacher.How do you support your child’s natural curiosities? Let us know in the comments below.

Thank you Annie Dillard!

Sincerely, Sukie Jackson  Older 4s teacher.