Evolution for Children

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Discussion by: Eric Wojciechowski

A couple weeks ago, my five-year-old daughter asked to hear the story of the big rock that fell out of the sky. And when I told her that sixty-five-million-years-ago, it came crashing down into the Yucatan, causing fires followed by extreme cold, killing the dinosaurs, she erupted into a big cry that took my wife ten minutes to settle. My daughter was very concerned as to whether or not we had a smoke alarm in the house. So to Bert Cappelle who posted that his child is distressed about a dying sun, I understand.

I've spent a better part of the afternoon perusing the archives and discussions but haven't found quite what I'm looking for. Perhaps I overlooked it so if this discussion is going on elsewhere, feel free to point out the link. With that said, I have a five and seven-year-old. Both have been asking the orgin questions. I am having a difficult time getting them to understand these adult concepts (Evolution, Big Bang, ELEs, etc) with my adult words. I'm afraid I am not a good communicator of such things to the kids.

Now I've watched the video that Phillip Dettmer directed (http://www.richarddawkins.net/discussions/2013/8/22/video-about-evolution-for-children#) but feel it's above their heads. That video, while of good quality, is still using words and concepts my kids can't grasp. This is due to their age.

While other discussions here have dwelt on how to discuss religion to kids, I'm more interested in how to discuss the Origin questions. When my daughter asks, "Who made the first grass?", I need a ten second answer on her level. What I seek is assistance. Any reading material for a five or seven-year-old would be helpful.

Thank you all in advance,

Eric

22 COMMENTS

  1. I’m new here…as in the last ten minutes, but saw your question and had to comment. I have three kids under ten and bought “A Really Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson. It has helped me tremendously with similar questions. Of course, there is no shortage of critics that comment on his lack of education, as well as the amount of mistakes, but honestly, I am no expert. We are really enjoying the book, I’ve learned a lot as well. It has sparked many new conversations, and that alone is a good thing. Good Luck!

  2. Hi Eric

    Don’t play God :)

    Instead of answering questions why not ask questions & get the kids to find the answers?
    Time to get the kids involved hands-on with the world of how to design & test theories of the world THEMSELVES

    You live in the US so just put – experiments for kids – in the Amazon.com search bar ~ voila !

    For example:- 101 Great Science Experiments by Neil Ardley is a great resource ~ your children will never be out of the kitchen doing weird stuff with water & flour etc

  3. The short answer is “wait”.

    I have a daughter who is 7 next month and a son who is 5. They are busy enjoying being young children. There’s no need to fill their heads with evolution or the world’s five great extinctions… yet.

    I do keep them away from churches and preachers though, in their own best interests!

  4. Keep it simple and suitable for their age and level of understanding. Let them see pictures of Dinosaurs and explain that many kinds of animals died out while others evolved into out modern species.

    As far as the KT impact goes, leave the climate details which are beyound a five year olds comprehension, and tell them that the big slow dinosaurs died in the disaster, while the avian dinosaurs flew away from trouble and live on as our modern birds.

    Young children will get upset about death – particularly the loss of pet hamsters, gerbils etc. but coming to terms with it is part of growing up.

  5. I think that young children struggle with concepts of large stretches of space & time. This probably just takes some accumulated life experience to provide context and scale. But kids are naturally curious (something that some adults outgrew), and so I think that ages 5 and 7 are a fine time to interact with them on these big questions. When I was about 4 my father and I would stargaze, and he would try to impress on me the vastness of space. I loved those conversations, but did have a few nightmares about incredibly huge balls of rock falling toward me. I guess that’s just part of being a kid and working it all out. I’m afraid I have no recommendations of prepared teaching materials. Two years ago I bought Richard Dawkins’ “The Magic of Reality” for my 7 year old nephew, and I very much liked the way the book presented things. But I haven’t succeeded in interesting him in it. Maybe I need to get the iPad app to get him to pay attention.

    }}}}

  6. As a homeschooler parent, more of an unschooler, of three I got lots of these questions. [Link to user’s blog removed by moderator and remainder of post edited accordingly.]

    We home schooled our kids until finances and desire required otherwise. Since I am more of an unschooler (unregimented homeschooling) I had to be able to answer hard questions quickly. While disliking memes and jingoes I do go with Richard Feynman (Surely Your Joking…) and Daniel Dennett (Intuition Pumps) on being able to make a decent quick summary and being able to make an argument that can be followed by an uneducated audience. It gets sticky with a 5-tyear old.

    When my daughter asks, “Who made the first grass?”, I need a ten second answer on her level.

    I got a few of these and it was touchy as my spouse disallowed overt abuse of religion other than my disallowing church attendance after relatives were using it to their advantage. Here are possible answers.

    Grass wasn’t made by anyone. Millions of years ago, plants kind of like grass changed and became what looks like the grass here. See how these tall Pampas grasses are like our lawn grass but different.”
    “Grass evolved from other plants. I am not sure which ones they evolved from. Grasses do well in more dry and flat areas. So I would guess as an area changed from wet to dry some plants were able to survive and do well and their kids were able to live better than other plants because they had changed, evolved.

    Jim n

    • In reply to #6 by jimnewman:

      Grass wasn’t made by anyone. Millions of years ago, plants kind of like grass changed and became what looks like the grass here. See how these tall Pampas grasses are like our lawn grass but different.” “Grass evolved from other plants. I am not sure which ones they evolved from. Grasses do well in more dry and flat areas. So I would guess as an area changed from wet to dry some plants were able to survive and do well and their kids were able to live better than other plants because they had changed, evolved.

      You are getting far too comlicated here.

      All you need is “Grass is not made – it grows”. We’ll get some seeds and watch it. If you want to be more educational, get different types of grass seed! (Hay seed, fine lawn seed etc) – or have a look at the different types of grass on lawns, ornamental garden grasses, pond edges, fields, and in hedgerows.

      5 year olds need concrete examples and activities, not complex explanations with big words and big numbers.

  7. Thanks to all who contributed to this. Lots of good ideas. Due to the lack of material for this age group, as a writer, I’m going to take a crack at writing my own. Maybe a series. One: Big bang. Two: How the Earth came to be. Three: How life came to be. Etc. I think kids would eat this stuff up if it was also entertaining.

    I think incorporating Michael Fishers’ idea of asking questions to be a good addition. Maybe at the end of each chapter, have some experiments or further questions to engage the child. Questions to get the kids to think logically.

    All I’ll need is to peruse children’s literature to see how authors communicate with this age group and a good illustrator. Anyone a good illustrator?

    • In reply to #8 by Eric Wojciechowski:

      Thanks to all who contributed to this. Lots of good ideas. Due to the lack of material for this age group, as a writer, I’m going to take a crack at writing my own. Maybe a series. One: Big bang. Two: How the Earth came to be.

      For help on #2, see Brian Cox’s BBC programmes, especially this one.

      The episode I refer to has the familiar spiral of water down the plughole, tornadoes, and the rings of Saturn, all engaged to explain the way the solar system, sun and planets, formed from an amorphous cloud of gas and dust. All entertainingly presented with great enthusiasm by Prof Cox. Amazing what gravity and the conservation of angular momentum can do given the opportunity.

    • In reply to #8 by Eric Wojciechowski:

      Thanks to all who contributed to this. Lots of good ideas. Due to the lack of material for this age group, as a writer, I’m going to take a crack at writing my own.

      This would be a very good thing to do. A collaborative effort from folks here would be wonderful. I’m sure there must be an illustrator nearby. Anyone?

    • In reply to #8 by Eric Wojciechowski:

      Thanks to all who contributed to this. Lots of good ideas. Due to the lack of material for this age group, as a writer, I’m going to take a crack at writing my own. Maybe a series. One: Big bang. Two: How the Earth came to be. Three: How life came to be. Etc. I think kids would eat this stuff up if it was also entertaining.

      If you are looking for materials and topics for 5 to 7year-olds, here is the English Schools Key-stage 1 science curriculum, which shows subject areas taught to this age-group in English schools.

      http://www.lancsngfl.ac.uk/curriculum/science/download/file/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20Natioanl%20Curriculum%20for%20Key%20Stage%201.pdf

      You need to zoom it up to make the text readable!

      This is what is legally required to be taught. It is up to individual schools what books and materials they use or how they achieve this. – There are books and materials commercially available.

      OFSTED Inspectors, will however identify failures and publish reports.

    • My wife has a phd in English and education for that age group. Her doctorate was in using multimodal text to engage children and research shows this to the best format to engage them and keep them interested. Would be great to get involved in something like that for me but you would need to liaise with her so she could send you the right links/ papers and stuff from her doctorate In reply to #8 by Eric Wojciechowski:

      Thanks to all who contributed to this. Lots of good ideas. Due to the lack of material for this age group, as a writer, I’m going to take a crack at writing my own. Maybe a series. One: Big bang. Two: How the Earth came to be. Three: How life came to be. Etc. I think kids would eat this stuff up if…

  8. Maybe you should first ask them to explain what exactly they want to know and meanwhile consider the most important points. For example the fact that we (mammals) survived and why it happened. Or the fact that many dinosaurs were very big, lots of them -carnivorous, so it is better that they are gone…..Or the structure of the solar system that prevents big rocks falling on our heads all the time. And, please, don’t tell about other mass extinctions or possibility of very big erruption in the Yellowstone that may happen sometime, nobody knows when. Smoke detectors is a good thing to discuss, so is the behavior in case of fire, flood, snowstorm or whatever (if the child is ready), but evolution first of all is not about dying, but about surviving.

  9. There are no “10-second” answers worth a grain of salt.

    “THE” dinosaurs were not wiped out 65 million years ago, some of them (e.g., the birds) are still with us today, but dozens of species of dinosaurs and other animals and plants were wiped out at regular intervals – roughly about 13.11 million years – throughout the existence of life on earth. To work out this figure it takes pulling the dates of orogenies, upheavals, and other geological events out of the available data, then determining the intervals by working out a Standard Deviation of the Mean approaching as close to zero as possible. This takes more than 10 seconds.

    The sun will not “die” in a few billion years time, but when its hydrogen fuel is nearly exhausted it will expand slowly and willl roast the inner planets, but its mass shall remain almost the same as it is now.

    Sorry, but there are no quick and easy answers to complex phenomena.

  10. Five is very young. Pace yourself – you have at least ten years.

    I know it sounds very new age, but getting kids interested in subjects like science means starting by getting them engaged. Look at what the schools do at the age of five – they try to build bridges, connections, between the developing mind’s psychology and lesson plans. In many ways this (it seems to me) can be summarized as: Moving from play to learning.

    I am no expert, what little I learned was from having two long-term girlfriends, and a best mate for about five years, who were all teachers of young kids. Plus, I brought up a daughter who turned out very well. I know, I was hardly likely to say anything else – but seriously she’s great.

    The real experts will tell you not to teach. Ask them about teaching enough and eventually they will become frustrated – they’ll ask: What is teaching? Why is teaching a verb?

    The bottom line (I was told repeatedly) is that we all learn at our own pace and we learn when we’re engaged with the subject at hand. If we feel loved, well fed, healthy, fit, comfortable, secure and happy then we have plenty of time to be engaged.

    The rest is just throwing things in the kid’s way and hoping they pick them up and run with them. One caveat: If you show interest, they will too. All children seem pre-programmed to listen to adults they trust. Ask your own questions, out loud, in language they’ll understand. It doesn’t matter if you don’t answer the question – open questions you can come back to time and again.

    Remember the KISS principle. Choosing a good school, at each level, is very important – and supporting that school doubly so, really get involved. Most teachers, in most of the World, are massively over-worked and are always happy to get structured, considered, discussed-and-agreed support.

    At five my Daughter was bringing home school books. They were great. I also took her to bookshops – sadly so many are closing down – and I never said no to any book she wanted, even the ones that seemed overly simple or too low a reading level – the end game was still engagement. We were lucky to have a good local community library too – but the children’s section left a lot to be desired.

    I sat and read with my Daughter as regularly as possible until she was about six and a half (my wife’s first language is not English). After that, I tried to show a regular interest in her homework, and to ask her about her studies, but I never tried any form of home schooling. When I tried to help with some maths homework, at about age ten, it was clear that I wasn’t adding anything so I took a step back. Still interested, still looking at engagement, but allowing my Daughter greater autonomy.

    Looking at how my Sister and Brother brought up their kids too, I’d say that covers it – in a very general way.

    I hope that helps.

    With all those memories, I envy you. The way small children learn, and learn so fast, is endlessly fascinating.

    Peace.

  11. Kids of that age want a one paragraph answer.

    “who made the first grass” — Nobody. look how grass gets made each year by grass seeds from the previous season. The very first grass came from a plant that looked very much like grass, but was not actually grass.

    “where did the world come from” — Once the world was just a big ball of gas. That gas was like steam but made of a mixture of things, including iron, gold, rock… It gradually cooled and became solid like the way cooled steam becomes water and eventually ice. The gravity of earth pulled it into a perfect ball shape.

    “where did I come from” — ask your mother.

  12. A word of warning to fathers. Sometimes kids will ask the same questions over and over. You might think your child is retarded. They are just making conversation. Asking questions is a way to spend time with you. If they can’t think of new questions, they will recycle old ones.

  13. This came up just the other day. If the answer you give a child leads to a personal outcome for them, they are very often satisfied.
    My 5yo daughter: “Daddy, did you see the dinosaurs when you were a little boy?”
    Me: “No… they were around a long time before I was born.”
    5yo: “Did grandad see them?”
    Me: “No, they were around a long long time before grandad was born too and long before people were ever around.”
    5yo: “So did no one ever see them?”
    Me: “No, no one ever saw them.” I feel the surge coming (“Then how do we know they are real?”) …
    But my 7yo daughter chimes in: “Yes, god saw them… but I think he was the only one.”
    Don’t know where that came from but it sort of saved me from having to inform her that all beliefs have an inescapable weakness – they must at some point leap from evidence to assumption. Save that for later.
    Me: “But anyway, a crocodile is a dinosaur, so if you’ve seen a crocodile you are pretty much seeing one.”
    5yo: “Ok” then a pause… “But how did an asteroid kill the dinosaurs?”
    Me: “Well what would happen if it was a freezing winter and you were left outside.”
    5yo: “I get too cold and would die.”
    Me: “Yes, probably,… and have you seen a lizard lying in the sun to get warm on the fence?”
    5yo: “Yes.”
    Me: “Yes, well dinosaurs liked the sun too and they didn’t like the winter because it was cold. And when the really big asteroid hit it made such a big splash that it made clouds all over the world for a very long time. It was like a cold winter and they couldn’t get warm and they all died…. except for the crocodile because they got to stay in warm water. Does that make sense?”
    5yo: “Yes.”
    As far as the origin questions go (eg. Who was the first person?”), I let them know there are no ‘firsts’ in nature, humans invented numbers, and there are no straight lines in nature, humans just pretend there are because it helps us invent stuff. The idea that numbers are not real is an easy one for a 5yo since they have not ventured far from the natural state of not knowing numbers. Remember, we all were told to believe there were numbers by rote, not via evidence :)

    • In reply to #17 by twostories:

      But my 7yo daughter chimes in: “Yes, god saw them… but I think he was the only one.” Don’t know where that came from but it sort of saved me from having to inform her that all beliefs have an inescapable weakness – they must at some point leap from evidence to assumption. Save that for later.** Me: “But anyway, a crocodile is a dinosaur, so if you’ve seen a crocodile you are pretty much seeing one.**” 5yo: “Ok” then a pause…

      That sounds like misinforming kids by using the assumptive “faith-method” of making stuff up instead of researching information! – Crocodiles are not dinosaurs!

      So what does all of this classification have to do with whether crocodiles came from dinosaurs? Alongside birds and oth­er flying reptiles, dinosaurs are lumped into the Ornithosuchia branch. Though dinosaurs and crocodiles have the common ancestor with the archosaur, they evolved separately.http://science.howstuffworks.com/zoology/reptiles-amphibians/crocodiles-descend-from-dinosaurs1.htm

      It saved you from mentioning fossils, the wonders of scientific investigation, or any real research methods for learning too!

      Remember, we all were told to believe there were numbers by rote, not via evidence.

      Many of those who are semi-innumerate were taught by rote. -
      Others used hands-on evidence based measuring equipment and calculations, to build their in-depth understanding of ratios, length, mass, volumes, graphs, geometry etc.

  14. Hi

    After reading your post, I signed up so I could respond.

    My four year old daughter came home from school today, and asked how people came to be. What about daddy’s daddy? And his daddy? And his? And his?

    While I was fumbling for an answer (wife : “ask Daddy, he might know”) she said “were the dinosaurs somebody’s Mammy & Daddy?”

    Obviously not the case, but she’s asking the right questions, and she’s on the right track.

  15. Hi Eric!

    I’d be very interested in keeping in touch with you about this. I write about how nonreligious parents can/should address religion with young children — relaxitsjustgod.com — but am always interested in finding ways to connect the scientific dots for kids without overwhelming them with information they neither need nor want. My daughter is 8, so I’m in a similar boat as you. Thanks for the great question. Also, have you checked out the children’s book “Bang: How We Came to Be?”

    Wendy Thomas Russell

  16. A few weeks ago I was talking about the extinction of the dinosaurs with my 6th grade students at the Catholic school were I teach part time. To illustrate the point I’d created a powerpoint presentation and I showed the Gary Larsen cartoon in which we see three dinosaurs laughing at a funny looking furry mammal, but one dinosaur looks perplexed as he’s noticed it’s starting to snow. I explained that the when the dinosaurs died off ecological niches were opened for mammals and since we were mammal it was a very good thing for us. Since the idea was presented with a cartoon it was enjoyable and nonthreatening for the students.

    But I didn’t end there. I explained that there are alternate theories and I showed them the Gary Larsen cartoon where dinosaurs are shown going extinct due to smoking cigarettes and a similar cartoon were we see obese dinosaurs eating Big Macs with a McDonnell’s in the background. After some discussion the students agreed that smoking and unhealthy eating habits probably didn’t kill the dinosaurs.

    Then I did something a bit subversive. I showed them a cartoon were two dinosaurs opt not to board Noah’s Ark because the male says he hates waiting in line. You’ll be happy to hear that the Catholic school kids laughed at the Noah’s Ark cartoon. Am I worried about backlash? Not really. Just so long as their children are happy and excited to go to school the parents are happy as well.

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