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plankton, squid, the imagination of children

Homewood, Illinois. Long shadows stretch across the asphalt tile of the multipurpose room in Dolphin Park’s tiny field house. Six children gather ’round, each kneeling on chairs in anxious curioisity, leaning in to examine the mysteries of our deepest oceans, laid bare, sprawled forth, on the blue vinyl of folding tables. Starfish exoskeleton, dissected squid, and the imagination of children propel us forward as we learn from a soft-spoken woman–an oceanographer?–in a dirty lab coat. Who would have thought such adventures awaited us twenty minutes from home on a Wednesday evening. The class is called “Sea You Later.” It’s focus: ocean habitat.

Over the course of an hour, we examine the remains of coral colonies, starfish, sea horses, and a variety of squishy, slimy mysteries perfectly preserved in tiny jars of formaldehyde. We craft our own coral reef using clay and the impressions of shells; we learn about the trickiness of plankton–both plant and animal–and how the largest of all the earth’s habitats depends on these barely-visible organisms for their very lives. With combs and toothbrushes, children fish pepper out of a tub of water–imagining the baleen whales use to filter tons of plankton in giant gulps of sea water; we simulate bubbles in ocean water, reminding us that sea animals breath oxygen too. We don one-size-fits-no-one disposable plastic gloves and finger a flaccid squid, at first with trepidation, and then with full force, letting it squish from tiny fists.

Gills, eyes, brain, arms, tentacles–saved from the chef’s fry basket–delivered to the snips, pokes, and prods of curious little hands and minds. With a clip of a child’s safety scissors, a four-inch thread of cartilage–the squid’s “pen”– is slid from his body. Moment’s later, those same scissors open him flat with a quick ventral cut from our lab-coated teacher. Another snip and the ink sack bursts, tiny artist brushes vying and dabbing for enough ink to scrawl each child’s own representation of that once-upon-a-time creature of the sea.

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