One of the things I love about working in early childhood is that children help us see the wonder in the everyday. Sometimes I need help with that. For example, snails make me think: slow, annoying, eat my plants, have shells. Does this inspire wonder? Not so much. Snails are commonplace. Snails are ordinary.
That’s what you’d think. However, here are two facts demonstrating that snails are not ordinary. The first is that their metabolism is evolving to be slower and researchers are investigating whether this means that snails themselves are moving slower.
They are mostly right-handed. Well, sort of. They obviously don’t have hands but they do have a shell that coils in a certain way. Snails with a shell that coils the wrong way can’t mate unless they find another lefty. “Left-handed” snails don’t get partners (don’t share this information with the lefty in your life). There is even a lefty snail poster boy, Jeremy, who has his own Wikipedia page.
It turns out snails can fill you with wonder after all!
What do you need?
Go out and find some snails! Be gentle and put them back. Wash your hands if you’ve touched them and don’t eat them. I am not joking: some snails can carry a disease called rat lung worm disease. You can catch it from eating an infected snail or slug or even from unwashed lettuce with infected slug slime on it. As always, supervision is the key.
Where to start?
Talk about respect for snails. Ask the children to observe, but not handle them. You can do a close encounter with a snail when you have access to hand washing and you can supervise. Discuss what you observe on your snail hunt: What habitat does the snail prefer? Why? Why do snails like the damp? Why do snails like to be close to edible plants? You can even talk about why we don’t pick them up: snails are slow and don’t want to be moved from their habitats because they might not survive.
What’s the STEM?
Snail shells curl clockwise. They prefer a damp habitat close to food sources. They eat slightly rotting vegetation like leaf litter, fungi and, for some reason, my radishes. They are invertebrates (no backbone) and within the class gastropod, meaning ‘stomach foot’, which makes sense because they really are a slow moving stomach on one foot! Slugs and snails move by gliding on a surface of slime that they produce from glands on the foot.
This covers so much STEM. You could look into habitats, what conditions snails prefer, what they eat, how they move – put one on a piece of clear plastic or a tank and watch it crawl up the side.
Encourage the children to draw or paint snails to strengthen their observation skills. You can talk about where the snail’s eyes are. Why are they on tentacles? Do the children think it might be because it helps the snail see better? How? Get the children to check that they’re drawing the shell curling the right way.
The illustrations in the book Swirl by swirl could kick-start a great conversation about snail shells: Where else can we find spirals? How are spirals different from circles? Which other shapes are useful in nature? You can introduce the terms clockwise and anti-clockwise to describe them.
You could engineer a way to keep snails off my radishes. Snails don’t like to crawl over very rough, dry surfaces like sandpaper. You could design a snail home or snail tank with everything in it to keep the snails comfy.
You could listen to the noises they make. Seriously, a slither does make a noise. Do they make any other noise? Do they communicate? If so, how?
As you can see, there’s so much to wonder about that even adults will have to admit that snails are far from ordinary.
Use your explorations to introduce this STEM vocabulary to the children: clockwise, anti-clockwise, gastropod, mollusc, habitat.