Last month, the 1st graders jumped on a yellow school bus to depart for a field trip to the Oakes Museum of Natural History. Before we left the classroom, I asked the students if they had ever been to this museum on the campus of Messiah College, and 75 percent of the students said, “No, what is at the museum?’ Although Africa is about 16 hours away from Central Pennsylvania via airplane, the museum is only 15 minutes away from our school via school bus — and what a treat these students were in store for!

Every Tuesday, Mrs. Lucille Oberman provides a 30-minute Learning Links lesson within the classroom about Africa. Today at the museum, the lesson lasted for an hour and a half, and the students were more observant to all of the details and markings of each animal. The students didn’t need to be reminded to pay attention and loved comparing the mammals. They showed an increased interest in science and used their background knowledge to be observant participants — and they noticed all the details in the exhibits!

The lesson started with a short discussion on seasons. The students were asked if they knew what the seasons were in Africa. Now, this was not a trick question for the 1st graders because they responded with: “Two seasons of course! A wet season and a dry season.”

The students then focused their attention again on the exhibit and talked about the climate of the African Savanna. The class learned that it can be 86 degrees Fahrenheit and the summer season sometimes can last up to six months. This quickly became a key factor when the students were asked to look at the lions on display. They examined the lions but could not understand why the three male lions had shorter manes. The guide stated, “The lion’s manes are smaller due to the hot, dry climate and location of Africa.”

Next, someone stated, “It is funny that you have no cheetahs on display.”

The guide replied, “How do you know that?”

The student replied, “Cheetahs have marks that look like they are crying.”

The guide continued, “You are correct. Perhaps these lines are also due to the fact that cheetahs come out during the day and the eye lines may help them reduce the glare from the hot sun? Lions and cheetahs are not the only animals that have adapted to the climate.”

“Take a glance over at all the jackals on display,” she continued. “Are they all the same?”

“No,” replied the class. “The ears are different sizes!”

“Exactly,” said the guide. “You see, the ears are different sizes because the small ears help the jackals stay warm and the larger ears help release heat.”

I could already see the students thinking like scientists and interpreting the data to get ready to compare the rest of the animals on display. The students noticed some small antelopes and wondered about the markings under these antelopes’ eyes. They learned that these tiny deer-like creatures were called dik-diks (they enjoyed calling out the name, and from this point on, whenever the guide would say “dik-diks,” the class had to freeze in position). The class found out that the dik-diks have oil glands under each eye and the grass brushes against them and pokes their eyes, and the oil marks the grass — so everyone can follow close together!

We enjoyed the fact that we didn’t have to stay seated the entire time during this field trip. The students were allowed to “pronk” up in the air like a springbok (a medium size antelope that leaps in the air with an arched back and stiff legs) to see different displays and additional rooms in the museum.

One other hilarious moment was watching 1st graders pretend to be giraffes and bend down to drink water out of the watering hole. The class also encouraged me to give it a try, but placing my head on the ground without bending my knees would prove to be a bit of a challenge!

Through this exercise, my students realized that the lanky, long-necked giraffe has only seven bones in its neck, just like humans. The giraffe has to stoop down to drink from the watering hole. Now, the class proceeded to ask their own questions after giving it a try, and wanted to discuss the matter in more details with our expert guide. They were finding a problem because they could not understand how the water would pump up the giraffe’s long neck and into the his stomach. The guide was amazing, and she quickly pulled out a video on a tablet to explain and show the process to them.

The students went on and on asking questions about all the animals and never seemed to realize that our time was up and it was almost lunch time. It was fascinating to listen to the students on the bus ride home discussing facts with each other as if they had actually just visited Africa! Mission accomplished: the knowledge they acquired on this day had become real and meaningful.

The value of one field trip is immeasurable, and the opportunity to observe, acquire information, and apply classroom information with museum facts will help to develop stronger critical thinking within each individual — from 1st grade and beyond!

Learn more about Harrisburg Academy on our school website.