I spent much of last week immersed in the theory of evolution. This would be unsurprising if I were a science teacher, but I work at a church. We are currently in the midst of our Creation unit. Our youngest group of kids, age 4-kindergarten, talked about evolution during their Sunday morning Sunday school class. I then came home Sunday evening to Fox’s event TV show, Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Our Sunday school curriculum is a Bible-based, interfaith curriculum, so we start with Genesis 1 and 2 and then go from there. Every culture has a creation story, and many of those stories have been written down. Some of them are even appropriate for our youngest kids. We read stories from Native American tribes, from Greek mythology, from the Maori people and from various other civilizations. In all cases, we are trying to help kids appreciate the beauty and wonders of creation.
We adopt the same approach when we read about the big bang and evolution. Of course, we tell them that this “story” comes from scientists and that numerous bits of data give us important information about what happened before humans walked the earth. We also tell them that many people believe these are the true versions of creation. But, in all honesty, we could say the same for creation story in Genesis.
We want them to appreciate the scientific explanation of how the world came to be in that Thomas Berry/Brian Swimme/we-are-all-stardust kind of way. But figuring out how to do that in a group of very young children is not so easy when it comes to evolution. They have no understanding of genetics and a very poor concept of time. Both topics are essential for a complete understanding of evolution. Nevertheless, many people are beginning to think that it makes sense to start somewhere – and the younger, the better. Obviously, we are not producing world-class scientists in a one-hour Sunday school class, and we are happy to leave science education to science teachers, but evolution is a pretty awesome creation story, and we like to share some of that wonder with our kids.
Luckily, kids always appreciate a good book. Although traditional public schools rarely teach evolution during the preschool and early elementary school years, there are a number of storybooks available for young kids that focus on evolution. The trick is finding the best book for your purposes. After reviewing numerous books, I have concluded that it’s impossible to cover all aspects of evolution in a kids’ book. Some books focus on the scientific aspects of the story, some focus on the spiritual aspects of the story, some focus on the concept of deep/geologic time, and some focus on natural selection.
For our classes, we are looking for books that adeptly walk that fine line between pure science and pure wonder. Over the years, I’ve reviewed several different books about evolution for young kids. Here’s my take on what they offer.
Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters (auth.) and Lauren Singer (illus.) 2003
This book moves through the evolutionary process – from single-celled organisms to sea creatures to amphibians to early land mammals to later land mammals and finally to early hominids. Along the way, some of the major changes that occurred – like developing a spine, breathing oxygen, and growing fur – are mentioned to show how/when various key features appeared.
This book is age-appropriate; there is a noticeable rhythm to the text even though it doesn’t rhyme; and it’s the right length for our purposes. The text also strikes a nice balance between providing information and provoking a sense of wonder. The illustrations are abstract enough to depict a class of animals, but concrete enough to help the kids in understanding the story. This is the book we’ve used most recently. It’s also recommended by Connie Barlow who has developed a very extensive wonder- and science-based curriculum for teaching kids about the big bang and evolution.
The Little Flower that Could: A Story of Evolution by Julianne S. Oktay (auth.) and Lillian McKenzie (illus.) 2012
This book tells the tale of flowers growing at the base of the mountain near a stream. The flowers appear in a variety of colors, but all their leaves point downward. That shape is perfect for feeding the stream with rain water, which in turn feeds them, but it doesn’t allow for survival higher up on the mountain. One day, a flower grew with a new shape – leaves that pointed upward. Eventually, this mutation allows those plants to survive higher up on the mountain, thereby populating the entire mountain with flowers.
I really like this book and our kids do, too. The example provides a nice introduction to mutation and survival of the fittest without ever using those terms. In fact, you wouldn’t know you were reading a book about science at all. The artwork is simple, but colorful and was contributed by the author’s young niece, who also inspired the book. This book is not scientific, but it presents evolutionary concepts accurately in an age-appropriate way. There is one small part where the other flowers tease the one that is different, which seems unnecessarily anthropomorphic to me, but that’s my only criticism. It’s also very easy to find flower crafts that the kids can make after reading the story.
Evolution (Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science book) by Joanna Cole (auth.) and Aliki (illus.) 1987
This book starts with the everyday discovery of fossils. It talks about how scientists have used both rock formations and fossils to identify which animals lived during which geologic time periods. It also talks about more complex animals appearing after more simple organisms and mentions Charles Darwin/evolution. It then delves into the well-known example of amphibian evolution and the evolution of modern-day humans from an early, common ape-like ancestor.
As you might surmised from the title, this book falls on the science side of the spectrum. The text is carefully worded and explains terms like “fossil” and “strata.” Aliki’s colored pencil drawings also enhance story comprehension. It’s a bit long for kids in the 4- to 6-year old range, but more manageable for kids in the lower elementary grades. It does make some attempt to inspire, but it does so by appealing to the detective in each of us.
Stones and Bones by Char Matejovsky (auth.) and Robaire Ream (illus.) 2007
This book contains a 4-line rhyme on each page. It mentions a “starburst” and then goes on to talk about various dinosaurs, the age of mammals, and the appearance of early hominids. It uses phrases like “DNA in mitochondria” but doesn’t explain what they mean (thank goodness). It also includes various units of time (4 billion years ago, 250 million years ago) that are surely lost on kids in this age group.
This book is the correct length for kids age 4- to 6-years of age, and it rhymes, but it misses the mark on both aspects that we are interested in. It doesn’t actually explain anything about evolution or how it works. Instead, it simply lists the various species that have existed on the planet over millions of years. It also doesn’t inspire awe or wonder about how any of these events happened. The kids do enjoy listening to this book, but the adults don’t particularly enjoy reading it.
Becoming Me: A Story of Creation by Martin Boroson (auth.) and Christopher Gilvan-Cartwright (illus.) 2011
This book contains only a sentence or two on each page, but it is chock-full of powerful concepts about the divine that can be interpreted in numerous ways. It talks about an entity (God? the hot dense state?) that got lonely and then made a big burst (creation? the big bang?). This entity then morphed into all sorts of things seen in creation (trees, birds, etc.) until it morphed into a fetus surrounded by love. This created being sometimes remembers that it is connected to all other things and to a God-like entity, but even when it forgets, the God-like entity still showers it with love. Another way of interpreting the book is that it tells the story of creation from God’s point of view.
The author trained with Stanislov Grof and is described as being “widely recognized for his ability to communicate important spiritual ideas to young and old alike.” Despite the marketing, the author seems to be better with “the old” in this case. I suspect that this book primarily appeals to the highly spiritual-but-not-religious grown-up who is reading the book to the child. This is partly because way too many things are trying to be communicated, making the book both profound and confusing. The big bang, evolution, being created in the image of God, being born into pure love, and being connected to all living things are all concepts touched upon briefly. The illustrations are beautiful, but like the ideas being expressed, it’s all extremely abstract.
The Tree of Life: The Wonders of Evolution by Ellen Jackson (auth.) and Judeanne Winter Wiley (illus.) 2004
This book starts with an already-formed planet earth. The first few pages describe the primal earth. The next several pages focus on an “almost-alive thing” that could divide and copy itself. The next several pages cover the evolution of everything else – sea animals, amphibians, reptiles, dinosaurs, mammals and humans. The book ends by pointing out that we’re all part of this tree of life.
Ellen Jackson has also authored several books on the solstices and equinoxes that we have used with slightly older kids, but this book about evolution is not one of my favorites. The description of single-celled behavior is too long while the description of the rest of evolution seems rushed. The drawings are pleasing to the eye, but they are only in shades of gray, so they don’t maintain the young reader’s interest as well as the other books mentioned here. One illustration is also completely unrelated to the text that goes with it. This book isn’t horrible, but I think it works better for kids who are slightly older (ages 7- to 9-years old) and much more familiar with classes of animals (amphibians, reptiles, mammals).
Charlie and Kiwi: An Evolutionary Adventure by Eileen Campbell (auth.) and Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision (illus.) 2011
This book tells the story of Charlie, who is writing a book report for school. He is inspired by a stuffed animal given to him as a souvenir – a kiwi. Charlie and Kiwi travel back in time to 1860 where they meet Charles Darwin, to 30 million years ago where they see how early kiwis survived, and to 150 million years ago where they meet a bird-like dinosaur. Along the way, Charles Darwin explains the concepts of mutation and natural selection. Charlie returns and makes an amazing report to his classmates.
I like this book, but I have no idea why they are marketing it to kids age 4- to 8-years of age. The concepts are too difficult, there are too many words on each page, and the book is too long. It would take several sessions to read this book to kids on the younger end of that age spectrum; it’s even a bit much for kids on the upper end of that spectrum. This book would be great for kids in the upper elementary grades. It also falls on the science side of the spectrum in that it tells a good story and teaches the science, but it’s not particularly inspiring in a spiritual way.
Mammals Who Morph: The Universe Tells our Evolution Story (Book Three) by Jennifer Morgan (auth.) and Dana Lynne Andersen (illus.) 2006.
This book is marketed for kids age 7 and up. I mention it here because it has received a lot of positive press, and many people know about it. It is the third book in a series on the universe story. The first book talks about the big bang. The second book talks about the formation of earth and the appearance/disappearance of the dinosaurs. The third book deals with evolution. It is scientifically accurate and captures a sense of joy about creation and how it happened. It is very long, which is why we don’t use it in our Sunday school classes. However, it is a great book to have at home. Upper elementary kids enjoy it, and their memory span allows them to read it (or have it read to them) in small chunks over several days.
In our curriculum, the goal is to share the evolution story with the kids in our youngest group during a single Sunday school session. We want them to have heard of evolution, and we want them to add this story to their mental database about the wonders of creation. We do that through storybooks, which is how we teach all of our lessons whether it’s Moses, Joseph, Jesus, Pangu, the brave parrot, the big bang, or evolution.
In this way, we are adopting the same methods used for other amazing scientific stories that young kids are cognitively unable to completely understand. For example, young kids cannot understand the chemical processes underlying photosynthesis, but the idea that trees “breathe in” what we “breathe out” to create what we “breathe in” is pretty awesome. Similarly, the processes that underlie insect metamorphosis are so complicated they entertain biological scientists for a lifetime, but the idea that caterpillars can eat leaves, make a cocoon, and then turn into a butterfly is frankly miraculous.
This approach may actually be fairly successful. Recent research suggests that kids can learn real concepts about evolution by reading storybooks. In a recently-published paper in Psychological Science, researchers developed their own stories to teach kids, age 5- to 8-years old, about the tenets of natural selection. They found that the kids could learn – and retain – the principle ideas found in the book.
The evolution story is perfect fit for our Sunday school Creation curriculum. Many, if not most, adults, have difficulty comprehending deep time. Many, if not most, adults would fail when trying to articulate exactly how environmental influences affect survival and population genetics. But it’s still a really cool story – one that inspires awe, wonder, and a sense that there is more to life than what we perceive in any given moment. And that’s what we really care about.
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