What’s Alive?

One of the first lessons I teach the preschoolers at both the Catawba and Novant sites is the understanding of what is “living” and what is “non-living.”  Mastery of this concept provides a base for most future scientific learning. It’s no coincidence that Biology, the science of living things, is taught before Chemistry or Physics. Children know that they are alive, and that just about everything else important in their lives; their parents, teachers, friends, pets, etc., are all alive also.  Learning what all living things have in common, and what differences make other things non-living becomes the natural first topic to tackle in an Environmental Education for Early Childhood Education.

It may seem simple, but this lesson can be trickier than you might think! With great young imaginations, and toys that talk and move, some little ones might see these things as alive. Most television programs and movies for children are animated, with characters exhibiting qualities that don’t exist in the real world. Figuring out what is “real” and what is “pretend” is the prerequisite for understanding “living” versus “non-living.”   For instance, if I tell them that the baby in the class next door is alive, and then ask if the doll they are holding is alive, they might say yes. After all, I just told them that a baby is alive, and they are holding a baby, so of course it’s alive!  Understanding that the doll is a pretend baby, and not a real, live baby is understood fairly easily by the time our children reach the age of three, on average.

Preschoolers readily accept that people and animals are living things. They are alive, Mommy and Daddy are alive, their pet kitty is alive, etc.  What is a little more difficult to understand is that things like trees or grass are alive. It gets even trickier when they are told that the broccoli they are watching grow in the garden is alive, but the broccoli on their plate isn’t. (Even when it is the same broccoli that we just picked!)

Children develop critical thinking skills as they master the topic of Living and Non-living things.  This first lesson will be touched on frequently throughout the year, and revisited every year that they are in preschool.  Being able to identify living things is the first step in learning how to care for and nurture all the living things in our environment.  My goal as the Outdoor Environmental Specialist is to see that the children here develop an understanding and desire to care for all living things in our world.

Two of the books that I use for this subject are:

What’s Alive? By Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld, and illustrated by Nadine Bernard Westcott, is part of the “Let’s Read and Find Out Science series of books written for ages 4 to 8, but I have read it children as young as 3.

Is it Living or Nonliving? By Sheila Rivera, is a Lerner Classroom book aimed at 3 year olds, but it is useful as an additional source for the older preschoolers as well. Each page is simply a photo of something with a sentence underneath stating what the picture is and if it is living or not.  For example, the first page is a picture of a dog, and the sentence “ A dog is living. “

Joanne Stewart, Outdoor Environmental Specialist