Learning Through Play: the circulatory system

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Today’s science lesson involved poker chips, math tiles and a huge sheet of paper strung out on the floor. The lesson was unplanned. My three year old has been singing the song “The Bloodmobile” by They Might Be Giants, so I grabbed a kids book about the circulatory system last time I was at the library. I read it to him yesterday, and then he asked me to read it to him again today. I started to read, but got only to about the second page, where there was an explanation about the different sides of the heart. As I read it, I decided he should get some hands on understanding.

First I tried to use wooden blocks to make the “roadways” representing arteries, veins, capillaries with little wooden trays as the heart and lungs. We used two colors of poker chips to represent the blood cells and oxygen. But my six year old wanted paths to other organs, so we put the blocks away and I pulled out a big roll of paper. The idea of drawing a model of the circulatory system is a bit intimidating, and I knew I needed to make the blood vessels wide enough to have poker chips moving about along them. So I decided to concentrate the picture just on a torso. I drew a big body shape, with head but neither arms nor legs. For simplicity sake I drew just the heart, one lung, one kidney, the liver, and part of the large intestine and an extra loop meant to represent other tissues, with the arteries leading to capillaries and then veins. We wrote out a legend explaining what color of poker chips and math tiles (little plastic squares) were going to represent which things (white blood cells, red blood cells, bacteria, platelets, oxygen, waste, glucose, other nutrients.) Then we spread the pieces around our model, talking about how the blood carries different things from different places to different places.

Once we had done an overview of how things work the kids wanted to act out scenarios with it. So I called out a few and the kids named a few. What happens when…. there is a cut? A virus gets into the nose? My six year old remembered conversations about diabetes, and wanted to talk about insulin, blood sugar levels and the kidneys. How we moved the blocks around was not sophisticated or particularly accurate, but what we were doing was exploring a model. Letting the kids move things around quite freely let me see what they were thinking and understanding, and the scientific details will be filled in over time.
Although I hadn’t planned this lesson before, I’m now thinking up some follow up steps. I’m going to defrost the cow heart I have my freezer and invite the children to watch me cut it open so I can give them a little tour of it. (We’ll eat it after.) Maybe we’ll make paper finger-puppets of different white blood cells, bacterias (with antigens) and learn about the jobs different cells do. We will probably watch a little YouTube video about how the circulatory system works.
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