Studying skulls and bones are an irreplaceable way of learning about and understanding animals. They conjure up images of the animal in life. They encourage us to use our imaginations in tandem with practical scientific skills.
You can learn things about an animal which can only be undertaken through studying bones and skulls. It goes beyond simply talking and involves looking, feeling and wondering. It is possible to compare bone types and structure. Forensic scientists and archaeologists can tell us about the life of the animal from their bones and some of the story of their existence. Through the skulls, skeletons and bones we touch the lives of these creatures.
Skulls and bones have the capacity to motivate children, to spark their curiosity and “need to know.” Handling such objects engages children. They provide a concrete experience that can aid the enquiry processes. They stir emotions within us all, positive and negative.
The bones and skulls photographed for this post were collected over several decades by visitors to the holiday cottage I stayed in recently on North Uist. Check out the vertebrae of a whale beside the front door in the photo below! There is an authenticity to such “slow” collections. I find exoskeletons on the seashore perhaps the easiest to find such as little crab shells, claws and occasionally even a whole specimen. A guide to cleaning chicken bones can be found on JVC’s Science Fair Project website.
Finding bones is a largely matter of luck in that scavenging animals are quick to find and tidy up any fresh dead carcass. They do turn up in curious places. For example, if you are in Edinburgh, you can stand under the whalebone arch at Jawbone Walk in the Meadows. It gives you a real sense of understanding about how big the mouth of a big whale actually is.
Going to natural history museums is also good especially for giant specimens skeletons such as big mammals. Also some museums may be able to loan your class replicas or collections of bones for a project. I had a look at the prices of replica skulls and they are not cheap resources to acquire.
Out of curiosity I searched online for advice about cleaning and preparing skulls. When I started teaching I remember coming across an article in a teaching magazine written by a very enthusiastic teacher in the Seventies. She would find dead animals and put them up her chimney so that a combination of soot and maggots cleaned up the carcass. After several months the bones would be ready to be removed and used as a teaching resource. However, after some further reading, it would seem that this is quite a rough and ready approach. Sometimes maggots can be overzealous nibblers and destroy the finer bones.
Perhaps the best source of information is the blog Jake’s Bones. This is written by an 11-year old Scottish boy so children can read and enjoy his friendly and helpful advice. The guide to cleaning bones is particularly good.
In terms of books, many about bones and skulls focus largely on the human body. The aforementioned Jake is writing a book, which will be worth buying. I’ve discovered two lovely illustrated books. The first is The Skull Alphabet Book. The brilliance of this book goes way beyond an alphabetical list. You actually have to work out from the illustrations and text what animal is being discussed. An adult book about skulls which is fascinating with the most amazing illustrations has to be Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection. It is helpful for classification and being able to compare species. Because it is mainly photos, children of all ages will find the book interesting.
If you or any children discover or stumble across a skull or bone when working outside or should one be brought into school, then this is a fine opportunity to let children handle the objects. Children need time to feel them, smell them, look at them closely, discuss their first thoughts and ask questions. Not all of these questions may be easy to answer even through online research.
Learning to look requires practice. So try the following activities:
Have magnifiers, fresnel lenses, handheld mirrors and cardboard viewers available. A digital microscope may be handy too. Do not rush viewing an object. If possible give children time to explore it over several days. Create a bank of questions and comments. These can be recorded by digital recorders, instead of writing, if this helps.
Try playing games such as looking at the skulls or bone for a minute, removing it from sight so that the children have to draw it from memory. Repeat this several times and see what problems and questions are generated from this experience.
Put the bone in a feely bag, if it is not too fragile. This can help learning using touch. Very often children will rush this so encourage them to slow down by asking each person to speak their thoughts about the bone as they do so. Afterwards, encourage each child to write a descriptive sentence or paragraph without actually naming the skull. This is a good opportunity to focus on alliterations, the use of similes or metaphor. If you have a collection of bones, skeletons or skulls, then children can read out their descriptions for others to try and match to the specific object.
Play other memory games, such as Kim’s Game to develop familiarity and to get children used using bones as learning objects.
Drawing is a useful way to practise recording skills. It is worth encouraging children to see this as a valid scientific approach. For example, when undertaking field studies, landscape and other annotated sketches help children to observe detail in ways that happy snapping with a camera simply doesn’t. The use of notes and labels to accompany a drawing, is a valid form of functional writing.
Drawing is also a good way of introducing children to the concept of scale. There is a tendency for children to to forget about size. Think, too about the size of the paper and the use of a ruler to take measurements.
If you have incomplete fragments of bones or just one bone and not a whole skeleton, then these are also worthy of exploration. Archaeologists rely on fragments as evidence to reconstruct past lives and events. They can reveal more information than one might expect at first glance. A useful format is for children to consider:
- What we know about this bone
- What we think is possible, e.g. type of bone, function, animal, etc. The skills of deduction!
- What the evidence is (and whether we have a biased view about this)
- What we need to find out
Finally, never forget the fun element of a bone! The above photo, taken on an outdoor first aid course is somewhat macabre and perhaps a little excessive for children to be faced with unexpectedly. However it did remind me of the value of skulls and bones as props for plays and drama-based activities.