One of the basic skills in science is classification. In sciences like biology, classification sorts living things into groups that have common properties. At one time, all living things were put into two groups called kingdoms. These two kingdoms were called plants and animals. Today many biologists sort living things into five kingdoms. Plants and animals are two of these five kingdoms.
You can practice the thinking and observation skills of classification by using toys. Since many students have animal toys, Beanie Babies, students can try making a classification system for these. Here is how.
Place all the toys you are trying to sort on a table, desk, or on the floor. Look through them to see their properties. For example, many have four legs, some have only two. Put all of the two legged beanies in one group, all those with more than two legs in another.
Then look again at the two legged group. How can these be sorted into two groups? This time it might be something like those with bills and those without bills. This might separate all the birds from any others.
Keep observing and sorting until all the toys have been sorted into their own groups. Check your work to see if any toy got placed in the wrong group. Did you end up with all the bears together? Are the sea creatures together or in different groups? Can you explain to someone else how you organized your groups? Can you look at someone else's groups and tell how they sorted them without having them tell you?
Scientists sometimes write a key to how to classify things. For example, there are keys to the wildflowers of different areas of the country. By looking at a plant carefully and answering a set of questions in a key, you can find out the name of a wildflower you find growing in a park.
A partly finished key to the Beanie Babies described above might begin:
1. Has only two legs, go to 2.
1. Has more than two legs, go to 10.
2. Has a bill, is a bird, go to 3.
2. Does not have a bill, go to 6.
3. Bill is wide and flat, a duck.
3. Bill is not wide and flat, go to 4.
4. Bill large and striped, a toucan.
4. Bill not large and striped, go to 5.
Look at how each step has two things to read. It is important to read both before deciding which one fits the toy you are looking at.
Try making a key to a bunch of Beanie Babies. Try making a key that would help someone come into your classroom and be able to call every student by name. Would your key work on other days when students wear different clothes? See if you can visit with a biologist or naturalist and have him or her show you a key and explain how it works.
Teachers and parents may enjoy visiting the Tree of Life site which explores the fields of biology concerned with phylogeny and biodiversity.