Night at the Museum – the case of the missing Leaf Monkey

What can hold the rapt attention of children for 2 hours, near their bedtime and leave them talking about it long after the event? Well to make that happen, here is the recipe –

• Throw in some 150 million year old fossils,

• Add several tapir skulls twice the size of their own heads,

• Mix in a tiger’s skull and fur,

• Carefully introduce one live coconut crab (bigger than any chilli crab they have seen)

• Add in one flying lemur,

• Drop in one flying squirrel

• Blend in a couple of enthusiastic naturalists doing show and tell, letting the children touch the fossil to experience “Dino power!”

• Bake in a large natural history museum!

A natural history museum is a larger than life encyclopedia where you can get these oddities and where actual scientists reside. Its collections, carefully curated and displayed makes for a thought provoking and an evocative setting; and it enlivens the child’s mind.

Having brought my son Joshua for a Toddycats meeting organised by Siva to the museum at night (I told him to chuck his homework), it felt like a most befitting time for children to be in the natural history museum (really, it has nothing to do with Ben Stiller). I observed him ask questions about the specimens about him – “Is that real?, What animal is this?, That monkey looks funny – giggles”. So I seeded an idea of having a Night at the Museum for kids, first to Siva and then to a few biology kakis. Everyone wanted to pitch in and I was buoyed by this enthusiasm. Soon we had the likes of Abby, Zeehan, Joelle, Oi Yee, Luan Keng, Swee Hee and Jocelyne Sze. I remember someone asking very critically – are you sure this will happen or not? And Siva said, don’t worry, it will. And so, with this confident stamp of affirmation, the night at the museum was birthed.

After a few meetings, several emails and many people availing of their time and ideas, the programme started to take shape and every detail figured and communicated. So it looked something like this in essence.

6:45 pm Arrival and registration (Parents were charged S$30 for each kid and were encouraged to donate to the museum for acquisition of the 3 dinosaurs. All proceeds bore their name and at the end of the day, $1,500 was contributed).

7:00 pm Inside the museum collections tour (Dr Zee, Luan Keng and Kok Oi Yee)

Tapir skulls, Tiger skull and set of bones, Large Hornbills,

7:30 pm Gallery activities (part 1 and 2) (Jocelyne and Adrian) @ stuffed mammals area

Part 1: Touch and feel – Knobbly starfish, Monitor lizard, Pitta, Colugo, Barn Owl, Giant clam, Wooden, Squishy Sponge, Spider conch

Part 2: The case of the missing monkey (lesson on human impact on biodiversity)

8:15 pm Dinosaurs and their bones. A 150 million year old fossil and three dinos named Twinky, Prince and Apollo.

8:45 pm Free time to stroll around gallery and END

Whilst there was some initial doubts about the programme, all of us felt the children and their parents we invited would have a great time and learning experience. We sort of had a trump card, thanks to Swee Hee who coughed up a 150 million year old dinosaur bone, which was not yet revealed to the participants. 20 kids and about 10 accompanying parents came to this event on 2 Sep 2011.

Location is important. What better way to learn about animals than to be in the presence of these awe-inspiring specimens. There were lots of opportunities for incidental learning. With attentive guides pricking their ears for children’s questions, they were always ready to engage with the kids and bring each part of the gallery to life. A very still owl would be brought to life by a guide hooting, or in a moment’s imagination, an otter would fill the room with its nasty fishy pong.

Children love stories and here we have a budding naturalist, Jocelyne Sze, who led the show and tell with her stories. We gave the animals emotions and anthropomorphised, some animal biologists would frown on this, but Jean Piaget would say they missed the point. We didn’t and all the better for it! These children got to touch a flying lemur, a squirrel and pangolin among other things. They got to learn about the differences between mammals, reptiles, birds, vertebrates and invertebrates by seeing the actual specimens, very much like a natural historian would. These concepts of groups of animals, by the way, are in their primary school syllabus. If only schools could have learnt from us! The museum is indeed an encyclopedia come alive.

The energy levels of the kids were matched by Oi Yee’s. During the programme we often heard howls of gibbons, roars of the tigers and hoots of owls, all from Oi Yee.

Joelle, crab specialist, turns up the magic with this live and very docile crab. The enthusiasm of the scientists does lots more than the programme itself.

The look of wonderment says it all. In the middle of the programme all the facilitators were confident that we had gotten the kids pretty engaged.

Joelle with some crab magic again, this time with a coconut crab. Diet – coconut and … children’s fingers (muahahahaha!). The look of glee on the children’s faces lit up the night as they realized we were kidding. Nevertheless, they got to carry the box with the live crab to get a sense of the weight of this giant crustacean that lives on land and climbs the coconut tree. Who would have guessed the habitat of this creature.

Even before the programme officially started, the kids walked around and observed the specimens in the gallery. The curiosities of the museum evoked questions in the kids and Luan Keng was always on hand to quiz the kids and hand out museum fridge magnets to the delight of the kids. Answers were never given out easily and in the spirit of education, each question was greeted by a guiding question till the children arrived at the answer or something that was close to it.

What kind of phone does spongebob use? A “shell”-phone! The volunteers included undergraduate students of Dr Zeehan Jafaar who made sure that no shy child was left out.

Dr. Abby Ng made these leaf monkeys out of printed paper and we hid them in 2 areas of the museum simulating urban areas with forest patches and big natural forest. The kids were put into two groups and went to find the leaf monkeys, after which, they placed the monkeys side by side to build up a bar chart. It was a great way to get the kids to understand deforestation and why habitat destruction would threaten the 30 native leaf monkeys left in the wild in Singapore. Biostatistics 101 for kids?

Abby, enticing the kids with a nugget of a dinosaur fossil. The kids loved the names of the three dinosaurs, Twinky, Apollo and Prince, that the museum were trying to acquire. To give the kids and idea of their age, we made the kids represent 10 years as 1mm.

1mm = 10yrs

2mm = 20yrs

2cm = 200yrs

20cm = 2,000yrs

2m = 20,000yrs

20m = 200,000yrs

200m = 2,000,000yrs

2km = 20 million yrs

20km = 200 million yrs (they just have to imagine…)

correct distance is about 15km = 150 million years

Who seems more excited, the kids or the facilitators? We left the best to the last part of the programme. Just one dinosaur vertebrate got the kids queuing to touch something older than their grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s grandparent’s….

So as the kids (parents themselves had transformed to kids as they stood in queue) were lining up to touch the 150 MYA fossil, a single vertebrate the size of a rugby ball, we all secretly wondered what it would be like for the kids to look up to 3 gianormous dinosaurs towering over their heads… Devin looks very delighted and we are sure he will share this during class when asked about what he did during the school holidays.

Make the kids happy and the parents will be happy too. Chris and kids Vivienne and Paul musing over a fossil. How many kids get to touch a real fossil they usually only read about? We are happy to give these kids some boasting rights when they go back to school. This was one programme catered to kids where parents learnt as much –

2 kids posing enthusiastically with the pachyderm skull.

Austin proudly posing with the tiny head of the large dinosaur. The comblike teeth apparently make stripping the leaves off branches easier.

The Seah family after an educational night at the museum. Because the kids were engaged no nerves frayed for the parents! The kids remembered the names of the dinosaurs Twinky, Apollo and Prince at once when the papers reported the Dinos were going to be here after all.

Quotes:

Michelle (mum of Jade and Hailey) – “One of the best nights ever! Please thank all the presenters, volunteers, organisers.”

Christina (mum of Deborah and Faith)- “What an amazing night!” Thanks [facilitators] and all at RMBR. It was the best museum visit ever!”

Chek (dad of Jonathan) – “Jonathan liked it because he got to touch a real dinosaur bone, the flying squirrel and the monkey search. Didn’t like the stinky owl specimen.”

Credits

Museum staff and Toddycats

Sivasothi N – advisory role

Wang Luan Keng – logistics and educational set up

Tan Swee Hee – Dino hero

Toh Chay Hoon – Paperwork

Tan Kaixin – back up and liasing

Jocelyne Sze – facilitator for gallery section

Adrian Loo – facilitator for gallery section

Zeehan Jafaar- facilitator for dry collections, organising undergraduate volunteers

Joelle Lai – facilitator and crab magic

Kok Oi Yee – facilitator for gallery section and loud animal noises

Abby Ng – programme editor and facilitator for dino fossil bone

NUS Undergraduates volunteers

Tan Yi Ting, Chloe – facilitator for gallery section

Letchumi D/O Mani – facilitator for gallery section

Pang Sheau Shiuh – facilitator for gallery section

Maryam Nadheera Bte Rizdwan – facilitator for gallery section

Ng Wen Qing – facilitator for gallery section

Vivien Naomi Lee Min – facilitator for gallery section

Photos and text by Dr Adrian Loo, Raffles Institution.

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