Monday, October 3, 2016

Getting "Realia" About Kids and Science

By C.J. Hirschfield

No, that isn’t a typo in the headline. “Realia” is a real word that means “objects and material from everyday life, especially when used as teaching aids.”

Well, Fairyland has realia in spades, and we love to share it. Case in point: beginning Oct. 11, first-graders from six underserved Oakland schools and 18 classrooms will get to see, smell and touch plants as part of our “Science Alive” program, designed to get them excited about biology.

Fairyland first ventured into kindergarten classrooms three years ago with curriculum focusing on our gentle animals. The experience included a field trip to the park (with chartered bus transportation) and free admission tickets so that the kids could return at a later date with their families.

The program was a hit: 14 out of 15 teachers reported that their students increased their knowledge “a lot”; that they planned on following up with further classroom activities or discussion; and that their students were very engaged by interacting with our animals (one teacher did not respond). Local businesses that clearly understand the importance of teaching STEM at an early age—Oracle, Clorox and Lawrence Livermore Laboratory—have helped make Science Alive! possible.

Squirrel puppet and felt board used for Science Alive! projects.

Shana Barchas, our education director, is excited about our newest program, which she’s been working on for the last month with Jackie Salas, our horticulturist. The two have already collaborated on our summer camp program, using edible plants related to the theme of the week. For Pirates Week, Jackie has the kids pick limes, and she explains the concept of scurvy. During Superheroes Week, she describes why kale and sardines are considered superfoods. For Circus Week, she tackles the science of popcorn, and then the product is consumed with gusto.

“Kids love to learn science,” Shana says, but the subject tends to get short shrift as reading and math tests are prioritized in the classroom. Shana’s new program, which aligns with California’s Next Generation science standards, first gets kids excited about identifying the parts of a plant. Then, says Shana, “We’ll get them marveling at how different the parts are in different plants.”

The plan she outlined for me sounds like a lot of fun. She’ll be using a colorful collage, a felt board to which plant parts can be added, bee and squirrel puppets, and an interactive song. The classroom realia I mentioned earlier will be a carrot (root), celery (stem), lettuce (leaves), cauliflower (flower) and apple (fruit). Our animals will happily eat the realia at the end of the day. We’re leaving behind a root viewer, so that the class can observe this part of a plant as it grows.

Fairyland Education Director Shana Barchas with Science Alive! collage.

When the kids come to the park, they’ll go on a plant scavenger hunt. Once they’ve identified such diverse seeds as coconuts and peas, they’ll be invited to become official Fairyland Plant Detectives (complete with badges). We know they’ll share what they’ve learned with their families when they return for their future visit.

The first-graders coming this year are the same kids who participated in our animal program last year. We hear they’re very excited to see “Ms. Shana” again.  

In August, Fairyland was the site of “Math and Science FAIRyland," sponsored by companies that understand the importance of getting young kids excited about science so they can eventually fill the tech jobs in our local economy. Now we’re following up, doing our best to get 350 kids excited about plants and botany.

Shana anticipates that students will be most excited about learning the role played by animal poop in dispersing seeds. (This is first grade, after all.) But that’s one bit of realia we won’t be packing.


C.J. Hirschfield has served for 14 years as executive director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park.

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