Kids ask great questions about nature. When we make time to listen, we hear their quest for the basics concerning everything from survival to the importance of play.
Our son is 5 and yesterday he asked, "Why are turtles, snails, and sloths so slow?" This is a profound question! For one thing, kids usually seem more concerned with biggest, tallest, most dangerous, and The Fastest (which is a Tree & Back t-shirt design; check it out here: THE COOLEST ANIMALS COLLECTION.) But....the slowest?
How to Answer Kid Questions About Nature:
The answer to why certain animals are slow is rooted in a lot of scientific detail that would bore kids faster than watching an episode of Downton Abbey so first, I'll tell you what I try to do, and then I'll include some detail (I kind of went overboard on the detail) below for your mature, adult brain.
First, no distractions... My favorite way to answer any question about nature would be to put my phone down, turn the computer and television off, and remember to not ask Alexa and also make sure both ipads are hidden, and think of a fun way to get the inquisitive little future genius outside by saying something like, "Let's go find something outside to help us answer." But yesterday, we were in the car.
One way to teach is to compare relatable information to the information being taught. The answer to, "Why are some animals so slow?" is rooted in how animals evolve a metabolism in regards to energy expenditure. My son doesn't know a lot about metabolism in regards to energy expenditure so I chose a few classic 5-year-old favorites: cheetahs and armor and gas in the tank. I asked questions about how cheetahs get their food. We discussed that the cheetah had to use a lot of gas to run that fast and when he eats, the food gives him more gas in his tank. Sloths, turtles, and snails don't need as much gas because they have learned to move slowly. We talked about why turtles and snails need armor. "To protect them!" he said, "but armor is heavy."
"But why doesn't the sloth have armor?" I asked.
"Sloths have the trees to protect them," he answered, "and camouflage". Future. Genius. [disclosure: He didn't really know about the camouflage, but camouflage, being another 5 year-old favorite, gets applied to most answers about everything.]
Then I asked him if we answered the question. He said we did but maybe he was getting bored by that point. Still, I felt like Dad of the Year because we had a full 4 minute exchange about something fundamental to life and health: gas in the tank.
Now For the Scientific Detail (again, apologies for getting carried away a bit):
From an efficiency standpoint, sloths have it made. They have 4 stomachs so they can ingest and carry around 35% - 40% of their needed food intake at all times (it would be interesting to calculate this for humans). Plus, the low-calorie leaves they eat are found along the route they are traveling anyway. Combine that with the lowest body temperature of any non-hibernating mammal and you've got a really efficient animal. They obviously can't outrun predators so they've developed a symbiotic relationship with algae that camouflages them in their tree environment. Also, the predators in sloth habitats are sight hunters that rely on movement to find food. Sloth speed falls below the radar so they mostly avoid detection.
Taking this a step further... food and animal energy systems are a really great bridge to get kids talking about nature. Here are a few interesting bits to help you. Somewhere along the way, humans gained the ability to pre-digest food through cooking and then later through other processing methods (like milling grain). Though some animals engage in the use of tools to crack open a nut for example, humans pre-digestion techniques have eliminated the need for digestive tools within our bodies like extra stomachs. But our pre-digestion is a catch 22. Without shelter from the elements, it's difficult to cook food not-to- mention keep predators from eating us. So we have to expend energy to build shelter, gather fuels to cook with, and chew our food.
An interesting health note to add and then I hope you put the screen away and take a kid outside: we don't pre-digest an orange other than to peel it. Our bodies are capable of eating the fruit without cooking it. However, we've learned to chop and dice and squeeze the juice out which is unhealthy for 2 reasons: For one, our digestive system, though not comparatively hearty like a tiger's, still needs to be used to work properly. Juices don't require much work to digest so our digestive system loses an opportunity to be in use. Secondly, the juice provides an easy way for our bodies to extract the unhealthy sugar without the work-benefit of digesting the fibrous fruit. Humans have evolved to store unused energy as fat until needed, but humans rarely get to the point where they need to use the stored energy - so we get fat.
Have fun outside!