‘How Long Is a Blue Whale?’ Kids, Science, and Scribbling on the Sidewalk

My daughter, helping me play the blue whale game we made up. Photo credit (or blame): Matt Shipman.
My daughter, helping me play the blue whale game we made up. Photo credit (or blame): Matt Shipman.

I love science. And I want my kids to love science. But before they love it, I have to get them to like it.

Luckily, this is pretty easy. My kids, like most kids, are drawn to insects, sharks, dinosaurs, horses and a wide variety of other critters. Fostering this interest in living things (or, occasionally, prehistoric things) has been a fun and easy way to encourage their interest in science.

My plan is to parlay their fascination in animals into a fascination with plants. From there we can talk about sun, rain and the atmosphere. And, before you know it, I’m blowing their minds with the concept of just how small an atom is. (I’ve already had these conversations with my oldest daughter, by the way. And she dug it.)

But, as I said, it starts with animals. And when kids are interested in something, they ask questions. A lot of questions. Where do they live? What do they eat? How big are they? Are they as big as you? Are they as big as a TYRANNOSAURUS? Answering these questions encourages a child to ask even more questions — and before you know it, they’re learning stuff.

Plus, it can be a lot of fun to look up the answers to these questions WITH your kids — whether that’s looking at books in the library or scrolling through the animal files at National Geographic. But sometimes it can be difficult, even impossible, to explain some of the answers you find.

For example, how do you explain just how big a blue whale is?

Blue whales, for the record, are the largest animals ever. Bigger than the biggest dinosaur. From what I’ve read, blue whales tend to be larger in the southern hemisphere, reaching lengths of up to 100 feet (they tend to top out around 80 feet in the northern hemisphere). But there are reports of blue whales as long as 108 feet (or longer).

I’m an adult, and it’s difficult for me to truly appreciate just how big that is. It’s virtually impossible to explain it to preschooler. Sample conversation – Me: “It’s bigger than a school bus.” Child: “How big is a school bus?”

Luckily, if you can’t explain it, you can demonstrate it. All you need is a tape measure, a piece of chalk and a sidewalk.

When I play this game with my kids, the first thing we do is sit down and make a list of animals we’re interested in. Then we look them up to see how long they are. For most animals, you can usually find both average lengths and maximum lengths, so decide which set of figures you want to use. I also measure my kids to see how tall they are. Once you’ve written all the lengths down, grab your tape measure and your chalk and head for the sidewalk.

I draw a line on the sidewalk and mark it as zero. Then we measure out the length of each animal (and child) on the sidewalk, marking down the right spot with our chalk and writing the name of the animal next to it. Once you’ve written them all down, you can begin to get some sense of perspective.

I stand at the baseline (zero inches), and as I call out the names of the animals, the kids run to the relevant chalk line on the sidewalk. Five-lined skink? Eight inches, max. Blue whale? 100 feet. I ask them to imagine that they’re standing by the animal’s nose, and I’m standing by its tail. This gives the kids a very real sense of scale (“Look how far away Dad is!”).

This can also be a fun way to talk about prehistoric animals. For example, most children’s books on prehistoric creatures mention ichthyosaurus, pliosaurus and mosasaurus on the same page – they were all marine reptiles, after all. So it’s easy to picture them as all being about the same size. They weren’t. Ichthyosaurus was around six feet six inches, whereas Pliosaurus could be approximately 40 feet long. And the longest of the mosasaurus species is thought to have maxed out at around 55 feet. (Although, by the time I write this, everything could have changed. I’ll wait for Brian Switek to correct me.)

One last note: this is a great excuse to break out your camera. Showing your children photos of themselves standing at each of the chalk lines really reinforces the difference in size for each of the animals.

Give it a try – and let me know how it goes!

Note: I wrote this post a couple years ago for a parenting blog that no longer exists. My middle daughter asked me last week just how long blue whales were. That reminded me of this project (and this post), so I decided to share it here (with a couple minor revisions). We’re getting the chalk out again this weekend.


3 thoughts on “‘How Long Is a Blue Whale?’ Kids, Science, and Scribbling on the Sidewalk

  1. Shauna Bennett

    My elementary school had someone paint a to-scale blue whale on the pavement where we had recess… it was AWESOME. I think all the kids decided to be marine biologists when that happened. Such a simple action to bring a concept to life.


  2. Pingback: [BLOCKED BY STBV] Morsels For The Mind – 29/05/2015 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

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