If your children are interested in animals, why not teach them some basic (or advanced!) animal classification. It’s not just some thing to memorize for a science class. Learning how we classify animals uses important observational and critical thinking skills.

Animal classification for young scientists

I first started telling my son about mammals, reptiles, etc. a few months ago. It came up in a book we read and he asked me what the word meant and I got all excited and told him way more than he expected and then he was hooked.

But I know what you’re thinking, right? Isn’t that something you learn in like fourth grade science? Something about Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species and whatever bizarre mnemonic device went along with it. I think one of the hardest things about teaching my own children is breaking free from the way I was taught. Just because I learned (or didn’t learn) something one way, doesn’t mean that’s the way it has to be. Follow your child’s interests and you won’t go wrong.

What we’ve been doing for the past few months is using his little plastic animal collection to learn about the different types of animals. I would write Mammal (etc.) on a piece of paper and we would list a few characteristics. Then he would place his animals on the paper. (These Safari Ltd animals are pretty much his #1 favorite toy. He basically plays with them all the time.)


I decided to switch things up a bit to give him a little more of a challenge. I wrote out the type of animal and a few characteristics for each. I gave him those slips of paper and a pile of photographs. I happened to have these (ripped out from National Geographic) from my teaching days. And I just made sure there was a representative from each group. I wasn’t quite sure what he would do with it. He read through all the characteristics and started finding his animals that for each one. (The lizard was basking in the sun to represent ‘Don’t like cold.’ Ha!)

Classification of Vertebrates

If this is too easy for your child, you can branch out to Invertebrates. We started with a little Insects and Crustaceans from that part of the Animal Kingdom. You can also get more specific within groups. Learn differences among Primates or Big Cats. (This is what I am planning to do with him next.) What’s important isn’t memorizing facts, it’s learning to make observations and distinctions within a set.

 A few more ideas for teaching Animal Classification:

  • Use books. Most everything we do springs from something we’ve read about. I’d recommend one of these to pique your animal lover’s interest:

Also check out the About series by Cathryn Sill for some excellent non-fiction work that’s easy to read and contains gorgeous images.

  • Make sure to explain the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates. A lot of kids get confused about this, but it’s really so simple. Mammals, Reptiles, Fish, Birds and Amphibians have bones and the others don’t! This was also a fun opportunity for my son to try and feel the bones under his skin. We also got to touch some real animal bones at our nature center. And we saw some amazing skeletons at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History!
  • Start with what’s apparent and what makes sense to your child. Concepts like warm and cold blooded might be confusing if you’re just starting out. Mammals have fur. Reptiles have scales. Fish live only in water. Birds have a beak and feathers. Amphibians have wet skin. Start with one thing and you can always add more characteristics as you go.
  • Make it real. If you’re able to go see and touch real animals or even bring in examples like a feather or piece of skin, it will help make abstract ideas real for your child. We go to the zoo and nature center a lot and there are always hands-on activities for the senses.
  • Be ready for questions. Once we got started, my son was a volcano of questions. Do birds have teeth? Do mammals lay eggs? Are mammals the only ones who drink milk? Many times I didn’t know the answer. That’s a great opportunity to look something up. Use a book or the internet to answer all those burning questions. You’ll learn something too! (Yesterday I learned that frogs have teeth but toads do not. How did I go 33 years without that information?!)
  • Make up riddles. I play simple little guessing games. Like: I’m thinking of an animal that has has wings but doesn’t lay eggs. Or I’m thinking of an animal that hates the cold and has no legs. Guessing games are a great tool to expand critical thinking skills.

Animals are such a captivating subject and there are so many ways to incorporate different kinds of learning. Have fun with it!






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