“To begin our skit, I need a volunteer…with LOTS of energy!” From within the sea of second graders sitting cross-legged on the classroom floor, a forest of little arms shoots up. I choose a tiny girl in hot pink who’s been so eager to participate she’s blurted out comments several times during my field trip welcome spiel. Might as well harness that youthful energy!
Holding up a photo of a ruby-throated hummingbird, I introduce the class to the first character in our skit. Then I drape a shimmery green cape across her shoulders, tie a white bandana around her throat and send her, “Ruby,” zooming around the room. The next boy who volunteers gets a black “ninja” eye mask to match the coloration of a wood frog. My third request is for someone “willing to be a little silly,” and I clothes-pin a white felt tail with a black tip onto the back of her t-shirt and ask the “short-tailed weasel” to wiggle her tail for the audience.
To match our “Nature’s Calendar” exhibit, our school field trips this year are all about phenology. We use these three animals to talk about the timing of seasonal events on nature’s calendar that happen at about the same time every year.
The skit brings lots of giggles. Ruby dons gigantic aviator glasses for her spring and fall “migrations” around the room. The frog tosses eggs into a wetland bucket and holds his pee in the fall (to concentrate urea that will protect his cells from damage while he freezes over the winter). The weasel mama leads a trio of pups on a hunting expedition around the room in between multiple wardrobe changes from white to brown and back. Scene/season changes are punctuated by a flurry of notes on my tin “adventure” whistle.
When we break into smaller groups, half the class follows Elsa into the Nature’s Calendar exhibit. The Sounds of the Seasons display offers a chance for the students to listen to the chirps and wing beats of a hummingbird. In the spring diorama, kids spy on wood frogs hopping toward a woodland pool. The weasel mount poses realistically in the winter diorama, and kids get to touch examples of both its summer brown and winter white fur.
For a dash of seriousness, Elsa also breaks out a big yellow Sun and a small globe. With a flashlight, she demonstrates how the tilt of the Earth on its axis means that in winter we’re angled away from the Sun, and in summer we’re tipped toward it. That tilt, in combination with our annual trip around the Sun, gives us seasons.
Meanwhile, the other half of the class puts on their hummingbird wings and heads outside with me. A real hummer zooms overhead from the feeder to his favorite perch in the mountain ash tree. I use a stopwatch to time the kids flapping their “wings” for 10 seconds. A hummingbird can flap its wings 700 times in that period. Second graders…about 38.
Then I put the kids through the paces. We drink from flowers and grow new feathers in Mexico. Boys head north first, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico, grabbing a snack in the southern U.S., and flying on to Wisconsin. There they set up a territory on a baseball base and collect poker chip “spiders” for food. When the girls migrate a short time later, they have the fun of scaring a boy off his territory to get food for their chicks.
According to Laura Erickson, male hummingbirds may not even know where babies come from. They single-mindedly defend a patch of flowers against other nectar-lovers, though. As a result, there’s plenty of food available when the slightly bigger female briefly zooms away from her egg incubating duties, flashes her scary white tail spots at the male, and grabs a bite to eat.
Finally, when the chicks have fledged and everyone has migrated back to Mexico, I stop the game with the universal call of “FREEZE!” My first question, “Are you tired yet?” is answered with an emphatic “NO!” I, on the other hand, am exhausted!
We fly back into the classroom, and this time, become frogs. After learning to imitate the quacks of wood frogs, peeps of spring peepers, snores of leopard frogs and hmmms of bullfrogs, we put on a frog concert. Wood frogs begin. Peepers join in. Wood frogs stop. Leopard frogs start. Peepers go silent. Bullfrogs round out the summer. And, for a blip in fall, the peepers give their last notes before a silent blanket of snow covers the hibernating frogs once again.
For our final game, the kids become short-tailed weasels. They get to choose whether to be white or brown each round, and test their luck against the “dice of the seasons.” When a roll of the dice lands on white snow, all brown weasels die. When the dice lands on brown leaves, the white weasels perish. After three rounds, they’re all dead. Then we play a new round. This time, I don’t roll the dice, but turn it in order of our normal seasons. All weasels survive the year. The timing of individual events is important, we decide, but in nature, it’s even more important that related phenology events happen at the correct times. A white weasel without snow has a problem.
We don’t go any deeper into climate change or the issues of our times. It’s too early to burden these young minds with doom and gloom. But hopefully, through this roleplay, they develop an empathy with their natural neighbors and will someday work toward our mutual survival on this tilted planet we call home. I’m hopeful. After all, they do have LOTS of energy!
For over 45 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new phenology exhibit: “Nature’s Calendar: Signs of the Seasons” is now open.
Find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot, http://cablemuseumnaturalconnections.blogspot.com.
Third graders from Spooner, WI, pose for a class photo under our exhibit banner after learning all about the phenology of hummingbirds, frogs, and weasels. Photo by Emily Stone.