To begin our unit on birds, the children learned the basic structures of an egg (using the regular, hard boiled variety). Then, they learned the difference between a fertile and an infertile egg, and had the opportunity to view some mounted specimens of eggs and an assortment of particularly beautiful eggs (white, cream, brown, and blue eggs) from our community supported agriculture farm to see the diversity in differently sized and colored eggs.
The children learned to identify the basic structures of an egg (shell, membrane, albumen, yolk, and chalaza).
and this embryology set (which shows the development of an embryo during each of the 21 days in their development).
Finally, after what seemed like "eternity," or so one young man told me, there were chickens! The children named their beloved brood Dandelion (after their most beloved flower), Ginger, Tilly, and Twinkydink (characters from one of the chicken books they read). Caring for animals is an important experience for children this age. It facilitates independence and the development of responsibility. They learn how to care for something gently and compassionately, they learn about the basic needs of living things (water, food, warmth), and it helps children to develop a positive sense of self esteem (by contributing positively to their environment and community).
It was important to me that children have some understanding of the great diversity of avian life. To show children some different types of birds, we treated the children to a special presentation from the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program. The children got to see a Great Horned Owl and a Red Tailed Hawk. They learned about the basic characteristics of raptors, and the need for preserving wild spaces where they live.
After the presentation, many of the children dissected "owl castings." Generally, I am a big fan of using "real" supplies for projects, but we actually used artificial pellets for this activity. The artificial pellets have a few clear benefits over real ones- they are safer (there have been some disease outbreaks in public schools where real castings were dissected, even ones that had been sterilized), and you are guaranteed to get an entire skeleton (and to know, in advance, what animal skeleton will be inside). We dissected castings containing small birds so that the children could get the added benefit of assembling a disarticulated bird skeleton (reinforcing that birds are vertebrates). The children matched the "bones" to blackline masters of the skeleton. This turned into a great small group project!
The children also had the opportunity to examine birds nests.
The children learned about different species of birds using three part cards. Three part cards are a versatile Montessori material, used for practically every area of cultural study imaginable. Children who are proficient readers can read the labels and match the labels to the pictures; children who cannot read use the cards to perform a simple visual matching exercise in which they match identical pictures and words. These lessons increase childrens vocabulary, provide advanced students with new reading challenges, and give all students exposure to having seen a lot of words in print.
The children looked at some framed mounted specimens of different feather types (down, semi-plume, and vaned feathers). Then they created their own feather collections and labeled the parts, type of bird, and types of feathers.
Some of the older children also came up with the idea of sorting them into raptors and non-raptors once they were labeled. This generated some great discussions and intense debate about how best to classify some birds and about the characteristics of raptors (for example, as one student observed, pelicans eat fish like a raptor, but don't have talons and hooked beaks).
Children also reinforced their understanding of geography by correctly placing miniature birds on the continents in which they live.
Children diagrammed sentences about birds and raptors.
The children also really enjoyed looking at feathers and parts of egg shells under the microscope (something I really recommend- you can see the air holes in the shell, even under very low power).
They also matched bird x-rays to the types of birds they came from (again, reinforcing the meaning of the term vertebrates).
After completing so many bird activities, many of the children processed the information in their own ways, pretending to be hens sitting on nests in the yard or Peregrine Falcons diving at prey, creating beautiful bird drawings in the style of John James Audubon (whose art they studied with books and matching cards),
bird cut-outs and representative modelling with clay and playdough (one child made an amazing Great Horned Owl),
and by researching and composing their own non-fiction books about birds or raptors to read to their friends during the "Author's Chair" at line time (a time when children can read aloud their own compositions to their friends).
(This page reads: "Bald eagles feed the fish to the baby. They eat small birds too.")