Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Taxonomy and the Fungi Kingdom

"Out of damp and gloomy days, out of solitude, out of loveless words directed at us, conclusions grow up in us like fungus; one morning, there they are, we know not how, and they gaze upon us morose and gray. Woe to the thinker who is not the gardener but only the soil of the plants that grow in him."
Friedrich Nietzsche

Young children are sensorial explorers and science appeals to their natural curiosity about the environment. In the Primary (3-6) Montessori cycle, children begin by learning to distinguish between things which are living and things which are non-living and discussing the characteristics of living things (not a simple feat for children who are in a period of cognitive development defined by animism and magical thinking). Subsequently, children learn to classify living things according to their biological taxonomy. We begin our study with the five Kingdoms.

This week, while we await reliably good weather to begin our study of plants, the children began a unit on Fungi. Fungi are fundamentally important to life on Earth because of their ability to decompose complex organic biomolecules and recycle plants after they die. In fact, if not for fungi, the Earth would be buried in several feet of debris and life on the planet would disappear!
Montessori strongly believed that all studies for children this age should begin with a concrete experience and that "nothing is in the intellect which was not first in the senses." As a result, we began our study of Fungi with a hands-on examination of twelve varities of beautiful, organic, exotic mushrooms. The children learned about the lifecycle of mushrooms and learned to identify the basic parts of mushrooms. It was amazing to watch how carefully the children handled them and how thoroughly they investigated and observed them (inhaling their earthy fragrance, delicately running their fingers over their velvety gills, and excitedly remarking about the diversity of colors and textures).

After completing the group activity, many of our mini-mycologists chose to continue the activity by matching mushrooms to corresponding matching cards and examining the specimens with magnifying glasses.

The children also began learning about the lifecycle of mushrooms by planting their own self-contained garden of Enokitake mushrooms. Although there are many different mushroom kits available, I particularly love this one because it is translucent; already, the children are able to see the mycelium (cobweb-like threads which are the "plant" from which the mushrooms will grow). The children seemed very excited!

Finally, the children celebrated the culinary virtues of fungi, by making and enjoying a special snack of mushroom risotto. There were more than a few fans of the earthy flavors in this classic comfort food!

Over the coming weeks, the children will continue their unit on Fungi by studying mushrooms using 3 Part Matching Cards and making Parts of Mushroom Booklets. After that, the children will learn about some other common fungi- including yeast, molds, and lichens.

Want to learn more?
-Our favorite local mushroom farm, Hazel Dell Mushrooms, has a great website- http://www.hazeldellmushrooms.com/.
-Mycologist Paul Stamets gave a really interesting lecture at the 2008 TED Conference called "6 Ways That Mushrooms Can Save the World" that you can watch at http://www.ted.com/. He also has a little cottage business where he sells mushroom kits (including the one we purchased), growing supplies, and educational materials on his website http://www.fungiperfecti.com/.

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