All children love mammals. They’re fuzzy and cute. If the Animal Kingdom ran a popularity contest, mammals would easily sweep every category. They are one of the most popular choices for children’s toys, stories, and films. After all, how many of you have purchased a stuffed annelid for a child?
Of course, mammals are our closest living relatives and so they are likable to us. We often like what seems most familiar. They even share many of our own behaviors. They eat our food (raccoons). They live in our houses (cats and dogs). They give birth to live young. They keep warm with fur or hair.
Despite all of this earnest enthusiasm, there is still a lot for a child to learn about mammals. Starting with the fact that “mammal” is not a synonym for “animal.” Children just don’t think of a fly or an earthworm or even a bird as belonging to the same kingdom. Ah. There is so much to teach young naturalists about the natural world!
One interesting study took a wide look at the knowledge students have of animals across several countries. Researchers found that, for the most part, children could name mammals more often than other animals. But they also found that the children were a little fuzzy on the details. They seldom knew a species name and would not differentiate “cat” from a jaguar or mountain lion.
How Children Can Learn about Mammals
Of course, we know that natural history knowledge is not happening at nearly the pace it needs to. This is why parents, caretakers and educators simply must play a role. And a big one. In fact, researchers have found that most children learn about animals at home. Whether that be from parents or from stories read at bedtime with the ever-present animal main character (Frog and Toad, Dodsworth, Peter Rabbit) or on Animal Planet or Wild at Heart. So don’t underestimate those David Attenborough documentary screening nights!
Our new book, Mammals for the Young Naturalist is one tool to help children learn their mammals. The book was created to help guide children to know and love local mammals. We present the facts on mammals as a class of animals, what traits they share. Then we take a tour of some of the local mammals children may likely encounter in their own yards, as well as set them up to be young naturalist nature detectives to find their local mammals.
Why Children Should Learn Their Mammals
Why is it important to know the details? Why won’t just a peripheral, vague idea do? Experts say that for students to be informed citizens and act as environmental stewards, they must possess an understanding of the natural world. This "environmental literacy" will help children navigate through environmental concerns as they relate to animals and allow them to draw connections to environmental experiences.
For the sake of wildlife, the need is obvious. If we don’t give them the space and resources they need, they won’t survive. And with an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years, according to WWF's Living Planet Report 2018, we need to conserve all of the critters that we can.
So our children have to love mammals (and all creatures). And not just the far-off exotics like Giant Pandas or Lions that they are only likely to encounter in a zoo or a fairy tale. But the local wildlife like beavers, badgers, rabbits, foxes, squirrels, and, yes, even the rats. Did you know that 50% of the mammal world are rodents? We better get to know them!
A Young Naturalist's Gallery of Local Mammmals
Naturalists in Training
We know that the more children know about animals, the more likely they are to notice animals in their local environment. This will help them understand the natural world better— and how connected we are to other species.
Back to the point that we love mammals because we ourselves are mammals. Our likeness to nonhuman mammals is one of the strongest arguments for knowing and helping them. We often travel in the same circles. We might not even be aware of it. Raccoons and opossums survive on our food waste. Rodents winter in our homes. Squirrels patrol our bird feeders. All of these critters are not only dependent on our choices, they are vulnerable to them. If we cut down a tree that threatens an electrical line or our view, that might have been the home for generations of squirrels or the base of a fox den. Our actions affect them.
So it’s not enough to love mammals. We just have to know them.