How Big Is A Blue Whale?

07/09/2012 at 8:59 am | Posted in just plain fun | Leave a comment

Remember Animal Dance Party? Here’s the second in a series of guest posts about creative games to play with your kids. Enjoy! 

I love science. And I want my kids to love science. But before they love it, I have to get them to like it. Luckily, this is pretty easy. My kids, like most kids, are drawn to insects, sharks, dinosaurs, horses and a wide variety of other critters. Fostering this interest in living things (or, occasionally, prehistoric things) has been a fun and easy way to encourage their interest in science.

My plan is to parlay their fascination in animals into a fascination with plants. From there we can talk about sun, rain and the atmosphere. And, before you know it, I’m blowing their minds with the concept of just how small an atom is. (All of this actually happened — the discussion about atoms was just last month.)

But, as I said, for a lot of kids it starts with animals. And when kids are interested in something, they ask questions. A lot of questions. Where do they live? What do they eat? How big are they? Are they as big as you? Are they as big as a TYRANNOSAURUS? Answering these questions encourages a child to ask even more questions — and spurs on their interest. Plus, it can be a lot of fun to look up the answers to these questions WITH your kids — whether that’s looking at books in the library or scrolling through the animal files at National Geographic. But sometimes it can be difficult, even impossible to explain some of the answers you find. For example, how can you explain just how big a blue whale is?

Blue whales, for the record, are the largest animals ever. Bigger than the biggest dinosaur. From what I’ve read, blue whales tend to be larger in the southern hemisphere, reaching lengths of up to 100 feet (they tend to top out around 80 feet in the northern hemisphere). But there are reports of blue whales as long as 108 feet (or longer).

I’m an adult, but it’s difficult for me to truly appreciate just how big that is. It’s virtually impossible to explain it to preschooler. Luckily, if you can’t explain it — you can demonstrate it. All you need is a tape measure, a piece of chalk and a sidewalk.

The first thing I do is sit down with my kids and make a list of animals we’re interested in. Then we look them up to see how long they are (I also measure my kids to see how tall they are). For most animals, you can usually find both average lengths and maximum lengths, so decide which set of figures you want to use. Once you’ve written all the lengths down, grab your tape measure and your chalk and head for the sidewalk.

I draw a line on the sidewalk and mark it as zero. Then we measure out the length of each animal (and child) on the sidewalk, marking down the right spot with our chalk and writing the name of the animal next to it. Once you’ve written them all down, you can begin to get some sense of perspective.

I stand at the baseline (zero inches), and as I call out the names of the animals, the kids run to the relevant chalk line on the sidewalk. (Five-lined skink? Eight inches.) As they get further away, I get smaller. By the time they reach the blue whale (100 feet), I’m pretty far away.

This is also pretty useful for talking about prehistoric animals. For example, most children’s books on prehistoric creatures mention ichthyosaurus, pliosaurus and mosasaurus on the same page – they were all marine reptiles, after all. So it’s easy to picture them as all being about the same size. They weren’t. Ichthyosaurus was around six feet six inches, whereas Pliosaurus could be approximately 40 feet long. And the longest of the mosasaurus species is thought to have maxed out at around 55 feet!

One last note: this is a great excuse to break out your camera. Showing your children photos of themselves standing at each of the chalk lines really reinforces the difference in size for each of the animals.

Give it a try – and let me know how it goes! – Matt Shipman

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