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Wool to the Rescue!

Storytelling is an incredibly important aspect of the Montessori method. I try to tell real life stories as often as I can, as they are the inspiration for all kinds of research and exploration in the classroom. (Also, I love telling them and the children love hearing them - win : win!)

I came across this touching story of the Little Penguins of Phillip Island, Australia and loved it as is teaches children about the beneficial traits of wool as well as opening conversations about humans' relationships with nature. The original story is on The Penguin Foundation website - you can direct children there if they want to research Little Penguins. I have rewritten the story into a more oral style for telling to students - remember you don't need to use my words, just read it to yourself and then tell it to the children with an air of wonder and they will be captivated!

A Story of Little Penguins.

Along the Southern coastlines of Australia and New Zealand live colonies of a very special flightless water bird. Eudyptula minor or Little Penguins are the smallest species of penguins in the world. They stand approximately 33cm (1 ft) tall and weigh around one kilogram (2lbs) each.

Phillip Island in Australia is home to around 32,000 of these little birds, and the people who share the island with the penguins take the care of them very seriously.

So, when there was an oil spill in the ocean in the 1990’s, the people knew that the penguins would be in danger and need their help. You see, a patch of oil the size of a thumb nail can kill a little penguin. Oiled penguins often die from exposure and starvation as oil separates and mats feathers. This allows water to get in which makes a penguin very cold, heavy and less able to hunt for food.

The people of the Island knew they needed to remove the oil from the water to save the penguins. If you have ever tried to separate oil and water, you will know it is not an easy thing to do - especially if that water also has ocean currents and winds working on it. The people did not give up, but they needed to do something to protect the Little Penguins whilst they were working on the problem.

Rescuers came up with the idea of making little bird sweaters out of a very special substance - wool! Wool absorbs oil and helps animals regulate their temperatures so it was the perfect material for the job. The rescuers thought that wool sweaters could be slipped onto the cold, wet penguins to keep them warm, absorb the oil, and stop them from trying to preen the oil from their feathers with their beaks, which would lead to them swallowing it.

Of course the rescuers did not plan to leave the sweaters on the penguins forever - the woolly coverings would just allow the penguins to survive whilst they waited for the rescuers to wash the oil off them and return them to the freshly restored ocean.

The knitters of Phillip Island set to work, making piles of little sweaters for the rescuers to slip onto the penguins but soon realized the job was too big for them to manage alone. They appealed for help and people all over the world began knitting sweaters for the Little Penguins and sending them to Phillip Island. The Phillip Island Nature Foundation received tens of thousands of little sweaters to save the oily birds. In fact, they received so many that they have enough to last for any more oil spills that happen in the future. They are also able to give the sweaters to other centers who might need them, and use them to help educate people about the effects pollution has on the environment, to help prevent future disasters.

Story and images used by kind permission of The Penguin Foundation

There are so many opportunities for research based on this story for example:

  • Children can research other ways that wool is useful people, animals and the environment. Examples include booms that soak up ocean oil spills.

  • Research conservation groups, what they do to help and why.

  • Research Little Penguins or other breeds of penguin or flightless birds (where do the fit on the Timeline of Life?).

  • Research other times when humans have come together to help wildlife in crisis - e.g. whole communities who gather to re float beached whales. (Obviously you are going to need to monitor this as Google might produce some disturbing stories).

  • Research weather patterns: global winds and tides.

  • Investigate separation of substances - oil from water, iron fillings from sand etc. Link to density experiments.

This story also provides opportunities for conversations around the impact human beings have on our environment - both positive and negative and our responsibility to the natural world. It all helps to prepare the next generation to become stewards of the Earth.

Please let me know if you share this story with your students and what follow up work it inspired.

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