By CELA on 21 Apr, 2018

Gabrielle (Gaby) Flavin is a new contributor to Amplify and brings us a six-legged story of bug-care in early and middle years services. A multi-talented and experienced educational leader, Gaby has a particular passion for animal welfare and, as you will read, her exposure to animal-keeping has had a firm effect on her approach to teaching children, too.

Bugs’ lives

I like big bugs and I cannot lie!

In fact I am completely fascinated by mini-beasts altogether. There are a couple of exceptions, like giant cockroaches flying straight for my face, or the scream-and-run event you’ll witness if I walk into a giant spider web… But everything else? I just love them! I’ve rescued bees and butterflies and I am amazed by the earthy tones and beauty of a moth’s wings.

I understand that not everyone shares my fascination. More likely than not though, the children within your learning spaces will and then, who knows? You might come to share the joy.

I would love to share my journey with stick insects and their awesomeness as companion species in education and care environments. Insects are the most populous living creature upon our earth, numbering about 10 quintillion, give or take a few. Their presence on our planet is essential and, excitingly, their presence in teaching and learning spaces is completely sustainable.

My journey

Early in my teaching career a parent who also happened to be a teacher brought in some stick insect nymphs to share with us. She had been given them by the Australian Museum as they were surplus to their needs.

They were tiny spiny leaf stick insect nymphs and I was as enthralled as the children; their tiny ant like bodies and their wild waving front legs looking for the next branch to scale. She gifted us three babies. In the end, only one survived as they do have a high mortality rate.

Babel was a striking female and she travelled to and from work with me – she even went on a road trip up the east coast to Bellingen when I went on holidays. They are highly portable pets!

Juvenile stick insects, or nymphs. Image credit: Gaby Flavin
Juvenile stick insects, or nymphs. Image credit: Gaby Flavin

Stick insects in education settings

Stick Insects make amazing sustainable companion animals for early learning services, school aged care and education or for children in the home.

Unlike many other learning space ‘pets’, stick insects are not being taken from natural environments and kept in highly unnatural conditions. They are fed their natural diet, gum leaves, which are readily available fresh and free pretty much anywhere in Australia.

They are low cost, low maintenance: all they need is enough space to dangle and stretch and climb, daily sprays of water, and fresh gum leaves every few days.

They are native to Australia and they are prolific within many ecosystems, even in cities.

Best of all, stick insects allow you to view a full life cycle over the course of one year and into the next – from birth to death and then birth again. Stick insects also help to illustrate the seasons, as they hatch in spring and typically pass away in the cooler months.

A plastic aquarium and fresh gum leaves are all you need to begin keeping stick insects. Image credit: Gaby Flavin
A plastic aquarium and fresh gum leaves are all you need to begin keeping stick insects. Image credit: Gaby Flavin

Children’s reactions

When I brought my stick insect collection of eggs to my new service a few years ago, the children pounced on this new learning opportunity.

An enthusiastic fellow educator counted and sorted the eggs with the children. They were able to create sets of tens and then count them. When you’re dealing with hundreds of eggs – sets of ten become so useful!

The children looked over the eggs and noticed the differences in patterns and colours – you might think shades of brown and white or cream would be boring until you start looking for the differences.

Learning experiences

We had a hatchery aquarium set up, and added a tray of the eggs in sand which the children sprayed daily.

As the babies hatched, they would climb up a small branch and we’d move them to the nursery aquarium – which over time became two aquariums!

My hatchlings were prolific. Changing the leaves in the little aquariums became an epic comedy for the children, with me screeching as I would lose babies up my arms and over my back until another educator could come and assist me!

We counted our babies and then we drew dots on a page to show the number in a more concrete way since stick insect nymphs really don’t stay still.

Together, we developed our language about stick insects, and children gained a deep knowledge of these insects as we watched them grow.

We did observational drawings and scrutinised their body structures from every angle, especially the female insects’ spikes. We learned the males fly – with much excitement as we watch the flight.

We talked about the cycle of life and drew our very own life cycle. I mean what does come first? The insect or the egg?

Life cycles

I ended up giving away hundreds of eggs to local services, some traveled as far from our Sydney service as Canberra and Northern NSW.

After all this, we had three females and one male, Guillermo. He was our first insect to pass away and the children and educators mourned him.

A coffin was built, a grave dug in the fairy garden, a stick cross made, and flowers laid.

Guillermo's grave. Image credit: Gaby Flavin
Guillermo’s grave. Image credit: Gaby Flavin

Setting up for stickies

What you will need:

  • a suitable enclosure/habitat
  • a spray bottle for water
  • a fresh supply of gum (eucalyptus) leaves every few days
  • a jar or vase to support the gum branches to last longer. When the nymphs are young, you will need to cover the jar with aluminium foil and poke the branches through to prevent any accidental drownings.
  • small stones or glass pebbles to weigh down the jar/vase.
  • paper towel, newspaper or something for the substrate of the habitat

More information here from the Australian Museum.

Each time I use stick insects in a learning environment, my knowledge deepens, but my ability to teach and engage with children on the subject also becomes far more honed.

Teaching reflections

As I reflect back upon this experience I shared with the children and educators I am reminded of all the rich learning opportunities.

Engaging with stick insects in the classroom meant we engaged in far more than simple biology. Mathematics played a large role as we attended to count and sort eggs and insects. We observed the changes in their bodies as they grew – moulting and transforming. We used our ability to discern and describe what we could see using art as a medium. We talked about the cycle of life and drew our very own life cycle. I mean what does come first? The insect or the egg?

We researched stick insects and expanded our vocabulary. We found videos showing us how the nymphs would hatch because we never quite saw that part of the cycle.

We created displays and made webs of our ideas and learning. Each time I use stick insects in a learning environment, my knowledge deepens, but my ability to teach and engage with children on the subject also becomes far more honed.

I’m still a learning teacher, despite the many years behind me. I suppose I have learned that it is so critical to be interested in the content alongside children, because that is truly where learning occurs.

Further reading (list provided by the Australian Museum)

  • Brock, D. 2000. A Complete Guide to Breeding Stick and Leaf Insects. Kingdom Books. Havant.
  • Brock, D. and Hasenpusch, J. 2009. The Complete Guide to Stick and Leaf Insects of Australia. CSIRO Publishing
  • Henderson, A. Henderson, D. and Sinclair J. 2008. Bugs Alive, A guide to keeping Australian invertebrates. Museum Victoria. Melbourne.
  • Matthews, R. W., Flage, L. R. and Matthews, J. R. 1997. Insects as Teaching Tools in Primary and Secondary Education. Annual Review of Entomology, 42, 269-289.SHARES198

Meet the author

Gabrielle (Gaby) Flavin

Gabrielle (Gaby) Flavin is an Early Childhood Teacher, director, entrepreneur and kitten fosterer. In her current work incarnation, she is the director of a long day care service by day and by night, the owner and operator of Sticks & Stones Education. This business was born of a love of learning spaces and beautiful quality toys and resources for educators, services and families. As if working full time as a director and running a side business wasn’t enough, Gaby decided she needed another project in her life and the Educator’s Symposium & Resource Emporium (aka ESRE) was born. Gaby loves coordinating the resource emporium and connecting like-minded small businesses with each other and the broader community. In her not so past life, Gaby was an Educational Leader to other Educational Leaders, supporting 26 children’s services for a local government. This role instilled in her a love of supporting and mentoring educators and exploring curriculum and reflective practices. Gaby fosters orphan kittens for rescue organisations, because kittens and saving lives are good for her wellbeing.

About CELA

Community Early Learning Australia is a not for profit organisation with a focus on amplifying the value of early learning for every child across Australia - representing our members and uniting our sector as a force for quality education and care.

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