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Dandipuffs and Poke-a-Nuts: Naming Things in Nature

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A friend recently posted this photo of her daughter on Facebook and described how her little girl, Kiley, coined the name “dandipuffs” for this particular stage of the dandelion life cycle. Her family thought that name made perfect sense, and now they use that term whenever they see one!

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The first time my son Jack ever saw the seedpod of a sweet gum tree, he called it a “poke-a-nut”, which seemed like a great description to me. These made-up words from Kiley and Jack got me thinking about how things are named in nature and how we might use naming activities to encourage kids to take a closer look at natural objects. Here are some quick, easy ideas:

  • Go outdoors and find a plant, seed, or insect and have your kids come up with a name for it. For example, you could ask them, “If you were the first person to ever see this, what name would you give it?” Encourage them to take time to consider the color, shape, smell, size, and texture before they decide on a name. Later, you could help them do a Google image search to find out what it is really called.
  • When planting flowers in your yard, ask your kids what they would name that flower based on its appearance. Then, compare their idea to the actual name of the plant on the garden marker that comes with it.
  • Start a collection of unusual natural objects. Display them “museum-style” somewhere at home or at school with index cards displaying the made-up names and the actual names of the objects.   
  • Tell your kids about scientist Carl Linnaeus who believed that every kind of plant and animal on Earth should have a name. When he was a little boy, he loved plants and used to drive his dad crazy asking him the names of the wildflowers he had collected. When he grew up, he came up with a system for naming and sorting living things. This was over 250 years ago, and scientists still use his system today!
  • Ask your kids how many different kinds of plants and animals they think there are in the world – hundreds, thousands, millions, billions? Explain that scientists now think that there are about 8.7 million kinds of living things (species) on EarthBut the really interesting thing is that they estimate that less than 15% of those living things have been named. So, there are still millions of plants and animals to be named. Maybe your child will have the chance to discover and name a new species someday!

Remember, the most important thing here is not to memorize the names of different species. (Although, some kids might enjoy that kind of thing and there’s nothing wrong with that.) The real purpose of these activities is to take the time to look closely at natural objects, to consider their qualities, and, above all, make memories together…because life blows by fast - just like wind on a “dandipuff” - and sharing times like these can make it slow down just a little.

I would love to hear the names your kids have come up with for natural objects and your thoughts about exploring nature together. Please share your ideas on the Next Time You See Facebook Page.

- Emily Morgan

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