Animal Classification

In last week’s Five Senses class, we talked about the core science process skills of Observation and Communication. This week, those skills formed the foundation for our work on a third process skill: Classification. We taught this in the context of Taxonomy – sorting animals into category by class, because that is a fun and engaging topic for kids, and it’s an easy way to introduce and focus on this core skill.

Key concepts of sorting:

There are three steps needed to sort objects into categories.

Observe What does it look like?
Smell like?
Feel like?
Sound like?
Taste like?
Compare How are 2 things LIKE each other?
What do they have in common?
Contrast How are 2 things DIFFERENT from each other?

Once you’ve assessed what you’re looking at, then you decide the criteria by which you want to sort…. am I sorting by how many legs an animal has, or am I sorting these objects by color, or by size? Then you decide which category to put the item into.

These are great base skills to teach your child and to practice anytime: putting silverware away in the drawer, sorting laundry, matching socks, deciding which basket to put your Duplos in, and where to put your stuffed animals.

So, as always in our class structure, we started with discovery time, where our kids have a chance to explore all our activities, then we do opening circle to cover the key concepts of animal classification, (see below), then we have tinkering time to play with everything more. Then after outside time, we end with closing circle to share what we learned.

Learning Activities:

Fishing & sorting. Set up a “pond” – we’ve used a kiddie pool with a foot bridge next to it, or a large plastic tub filled with a blue tarp. Make animals to catch: you could glue magnets or washers onto plastic animals. We printed these pictures from Confessions of a Homeschooler, laminated them, and fastened a paperclip to each one. Make fishing poles: poles or dowels with a magnet tied on. Kids then “fish” for animals.


Once they caught one, they could sort it into one of five buckets: mammal, reptile, fish, bird, or amphibian. We had signs hanging above each bucket that showed four characteristics of that type of animal: type of skin, number of legs, how babies are born, and where they typically live. (Here are the Sorting into Categories posters, if you want to print your own.) Optional: you could add one more bucket labelled ??? so if a child didn’t know an answer, they could just place the animal there and move forward with the game rather than feeling stuck.

This activity was a good example of how one class activity can work for kids of a wide range of ages. For our three-year-olds, it was just fun to fish – good large motor and small motor practice. We encouraged them to sort items into buckets just by asking: is that a fish or a bird? The four to five-year-old kids also enjoyed the fishing, but we encouraged them to think more about not just what category something belongs in, but why. We’d ask questions like: what kind of skin does it have? How are its babies born? We had a few trickier animals in there, such as bats… even though they have wings, they’re not birds. We talked a little about marsupials and how their babies are born live but small and spend time in a pouch. For the six and seven-year-olds, we asked them to put animals in the buckets, but also tell us other examples of each type of animal.

Tool of the week: magnifying glasses. We had several magnifying glasses, plus things for kids to examine: fur, fake fur, feathers, sheep’s wool that had been carded. At circle time, we also had a small piece of lizard skin we showed them. It was from a leopard gecko, so you could see the spots on it, so we shared it with them when we read the page in our book that showed a picture of a leopard gecko.


Sorting activity: Two containers, labeled “wild animals” and “tame animals” or “animals you’d find on a farm” and “animals you’d find in a zoo.” A collection of plastic animals to sort into the two containers.


Whose Ears / Whose Nose – this is an activity you could also use in the five senses theme or in the animal adaptations theme. Here’s the free printable PDF. I’ve gathered photos of several kinds of animals where I’ve cropped them to show just the ears or just the nose, and kids have to guess what animal it is.

Animal Mix and Match: There are several puzzles and books which allow you to mix and match the heads of different animals with different bodies and different tails. We used this printable: There are also online games and apps such as Switch Zoo which do this.

Take Home Art Projects

No-sew “beanbag” animals: Kids could make an animal by filling a sock or glove with rice, tying it off with elastic hair ties or string, and decorating it. To make a snake, use a small child’s size knee-length sock. Fill it some, tie it off, fill some more, tie it off again, etc. To make a bunny, use an adult size ankle-length sock. Fill the bottom half with rice for the body and tie it off. Fill the next quarter with rice for the head and tie it off. Then the top of the sock gets clipped to make bunny ears. Then you can decorate with googly eyes, pompoms, ribbons, and other embellishments. It’s really important to have good glue, like “Tacky” Glue. We only had Elmer’s that day, and it was a struggle!

One of our students loves turtles, so here’s what he and his dad made:


Here’s a collection of animals – click on it to see a bigger image.

Bird feeders: Option 1: In the microwave, heat vegetable shortening (Crisco), then stir together with bird seed. Tie a string on a pinecone, and slather the pine cone with bird seed goo. Option 2: Tie a string on a pinecone. Spread on peanut butter or sunflower seed butter on. Roll it in birdseed. Tip: when you put this in a ziplock to take home, be sure to leave the string hanging on the outside of the bag so it doesn’t get covered in goo.


Design your own creature: We had a drawing table with paper and markers, and some prompt questions encouraging them to design their own creature… what kind of skin would it have, how many legs, would it lay eggs or have live babies, and where would it live.

Free Play:

Sensory table: Simple… just sand and plastic animals (ideally desert animals) and sifters to shake sand over the animals.


Water table: Toy aquatic animals: fish, marine mammals, amphibians. Some rocks for the amphibians to sun themselves on. Fish tank nets to catch the fish with.

Finger puppets: We had a collection of animal finger puppets for imaginary play.

Animal puzzles: We put out four puzzles with farm animals and zoo animals. For manipulables, we try to put out things of different skill levels. So, a peg puzzle that was easy for little ones, a puzzle where you match two halves together to build an animal, a 24 piece jigsaw, and a cubes puzzle that has 6 different puzzles on the 6 sides of the cubes, so you have to figure out first which side to use, then how to put the puzzle together.

Opening Circle:

Intro to Theme and the Question: “Today, we’re going to learn about “classification” [write on board] This is how we sort things. Like if I had these things [hold up 2 crayons and 4 markers]: if you use your senses to observe them, what do you notice? Compare them: How are they like each other? What do they have in common? Contrast them: How are they different from each other? Classify them: Can you sort them by color? Can you sort them by type of object?”

“Today we’re talking about how scientists classify animals. They divide them into these 5 categories. Some ways to figure out which category an animal is in is to think about its skin: does it have fur, feathers, scales? Or limbs: How many legs does it have? Does it have live babies or lay eggs? Can it live underwater, can it fly, or does it mostly live on land?” (Point out posters from the fishing and sorting activity to illustrate different kinds of animals.)

“We’re going to read a book, and after I read each page, I’m going to ask you to tell me what kinds of animals some of the animals in the pictures are.”

Book: How Are They the Same? (see details below)

Puppet classification. Hold up a puppet, ask questions like: “What is it? What is its skin like – does it have feathers, fur, or scales? Does it lay eggs or have babies? Can it breathe underwater?” Then talk about what category of animal it belongs to and asks for examples of other animals in that category. “It’s a bird, so it has two legs, wings, and lays eggs. Can anyone think of any other birds?”

Conclusions Circle:

One of these things is not like the other: We laid out sets of four finger puppets, and sang the song from Sesame Street, and asked the kids which puppet didn’t belong, and why. We started easy and got harder. The first set was three identical snake puppets and a dragon puppet. The second set was three mammals and a duck. The third was three things that swim and one that doesn’t.

Book: Is Your Mama a Llama?

Animal spinner: One teacher created a spinner with pictures of lots of animals. A child would spin, and whichever animal came up, we all pretended to be. So, we’d have kids quacking and waddling around for a while, then say “OK, we’ll stop being ducks in 3 – 2 – 1.” After they all sat back down, the next child spun, and we were all gorillas. You could also do this as charades: the child who spun wouldn’t tell anyone what the animal was, and they would act it out and have people guess. This would likely work for ages 5 and up. But, for our 3-year-olds, as soon as they see what they spun, they announce it out loud.


Monsters: We included “monsters” in two of our activities last year. With the puppets at opening circle we showed a unicorn and a dragon, and asked about their characteristics, and asked what kind of animal they were and whether they really existed. So, a unicorn is like a mammal, but doesn’t actually exist. With the buckets at the fishing pond, we had one labelled monsters that the mermaid and other mythical creatures went into. It’s a fun thing to include, but you can decide whether it works for you or whether it feels like too many concepts to roll into one class.

Book Recommendations (in order from favorite for my class to least favorite)

Who’s Like Me? This is a lift the flap (uncover and discover) book, where one animal says “I’m a bunny. I am furry and breathe air. Who’s like me?” Then there are flaps with feathers, scales, spotted skin and fur. When you lift the flaps you reveal a pigeon (I have feathers, not fur), a fish (I don’t breathe air), a chameleon (I don’t have fur), and a fox (yes, I have fur and breathe air like a bunny).  Tip: In our morning circle, we had a little chaos as every kid wanted to lift the flaps. So, in the afternoon, we announced before starting a page which children would be responsible for the flaps on that page, and asked all the other children to sit back and wait for their turn.


Is Your Mama a Llama? This is a sweet book and a nice read-aloud. It has a great rhythm and rhyming couplets which engage the kids as they predict what the next word will be: “'[My mama] hangs by her feet and she lives in a cave. I do not believe that’s how llamas behave.’ ‘Oh’, I said, ‘you are right about that. I think that your mama must be a’ …” If you pause here, lots of kids will shout “bat.”

How Are They the Same? by Kalman. Age 3 – 7. This book is a great visual aid for any class where you’re addressing the idea of “same” and “different” or compare and contrast. It is especially good for a class on animal classification. Each two page spread shows several photos, then asks how the things shown are the same or different. For example, on the pages with a leopard, a leopard butterfly, a leopard gecko and a leopard frog: “This cat is a leopard. A leopard has spots on its coat. How are these animals the same as a leopard? Are they cats too?” See above for how we used this book in circle. There are a couple lame pages in the book – the opening page of random “words to know” and the dino activity at the end, but as a whole, it is quite good for our purposes in the class. I especially like the ‘notes for adults’ section at the back that has extension activities such as sorting stuffed animals and drawing pictures of animals in categories.

Creaturepedia: Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth by Barman. Ages 6 – 9. This is a big hefty book – over 200 pages – there are kids who love big books. Illustrations are fun “kids book” style illustrations, but still reasonably scientifically accurate. Each page spread lists a “category” and then shows several animals that fit that category. The fun of this book is how it assigns animals to new categories: “the prickly ones” includes armadillos, porcupines, horseshoe crabs, sea urchins, prickly leaf beetles, and more. “The show-offs” fill multiple page spreads and include: peacock, gray crowned crane, red deer, martens, and bowerbirds. If you’re a teacher who likes to teach one concept really clearly and doesn’t like to confuse matters by adding in more ideas, then this is not the book for you. If, like me, you like to teach one concept clearly, but then encourage them to play around further with the idea of classification by seeing what’s alike and what’s different, you may well like this for your bookshelf, though not to read aloud.

Mammals: Hairy, Milk-Making Animals  and Reptiles: Scaly-Skinned Animals and so on. There are multiple series that have one book each for mammals, reptiles, etc. These are from the Amazing Science: Animal Classification series by Salas. Age 6 – 9.  The mammal book covers the same basic ideas as Hall, but in much more detail. Appealing illustrations, with good attention to accuracy. Includes a Linnaeus classification chart in the back, which shows how lions are the species panthera leo, which is part of the genus panthera, part of the family Felidae, etc. Sample text : “All mammals are warm-blooded. This means their body temperature doesn’t change much. Because they are warm-blooded, mammals can live all around the world.”

Mammals: A Compare and Contrast Book by Hall. (Note: she also wrote: Amphibians and Reptiles) Age 6 – 8. Great photos. Text is a little bland… like an encyclopedia entry has been split up to one or sentences per page, then nicely illustrated. – “Mammals are a type of vertebrate animal. All animals have a spine or spinal column. // A mammal’s skeleton supports its body. This cat skeleton has a spine that connects the head bones (skull) all the way too the tail.” But, it conveys all the key info about mammals (breathe air, vertebrate, warm-blooded, hair or fur, live birth, and milk.) At the back, there’s extension materials for kids who want more: a dichotomous key and then descriptions/photos of animals that you can assess using the dichotomous key, info about strange mammals (platypus and echidna) and how to look for signs of animals near you. (tracks, evidence of feeding, scat, and signs of habitation.)


Dolphin, Fox, Hippo, and Ox: What Is a Mammal? (Animal Groups Are Categorical) (Animal Groups Are CATegorical (Paperback))  by Cleary. I like the text of this book – I find the illustrations dreadful – not to my taste at all! Anthropomorphized animals, exaggerated features, gaudy colors… But the information contained is good, and written in a style that is engaging for ages 5 – 7. “Mammals all have hair or fur – like tigers or a mink. And when they’re very young, their mother’s milk is what they drink…. they may eat meat or plants or both, use wings or arms and legs, but nearly every mammal is born live and not from eggs.” It is a good overview of all the key info about mammals, and children would find it engaging. I like that the final two pages summarize all the info from the book. This is a series of 5 books, about each category of animals

What Makes a Mammal? (Animal Kingdom) by Rourke. This Discovery Library also includes books on Amphibians, Birds, Fish, Insects, Mammals and Reptiles. Age 6 – 9. Not an attractive book. It has a acceptable-but-not-great photo on one half of each spread – the other half is blocks of text. Each page packs in random factoids that are loosely connected to a theme. “Kinds of mammals. Scientists separate the 4000 kinds, or species, of animals into 18 or 19 groups. One group is made up of meat-eaters. Dogs, cats, otters, seals and bears are some of them. Rodents make up the largest group, nearly 1800 kinds. Rodents have special teeth for gnawing…”

Resources to Explore More


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