Learning Biology, Exercising Empathy, and Appreciating Nature: Using Bugs to Teach Kids

Bugs. They’re annoying. Gross, perhaps. Maybe for you they’re even scary. But I’m writing this to try and convince you that you should give bugs a chance, particularly when a kid is watching you interact with them. Bugs can be an uncommon way to teach a kid about appreciating nature and biology, and also an opportunity for an exercise in empathy towards something smaller and weaker than us.

Just so I’m clarifying early on and avoiding any feather ruffling, I’m using the colloquial “bugs” here. In biological terms, true bugs are Hemiptera, a specific order of insects. But bugs has always had a nice ring to it when referring to anything small and crawly, and it’s what most people use it for.

I’ll be honest with my bias here: I’m not on the bug hate train. I think they’re interesting little creatures. Heck, I think they’re downright cute. For as long as I remember, I was running around with a cup putting a spider or some such back outside, or sharing a Cheez-It with some ants, or just watching a bee go about its day.

But here’s the important bit: I knew the word for and said I wanted to be an entomologist (studies insects) as early as Kindergarten. I actively read science books about all sorts of insects, arachnids, and other arthropods. I was spending time outside finding them and catching them.

Now, I’m not assuming the kid you’re working with will react to them as strongly as I did. I’ll be the first to admit that my interest was probably a bit unique to someone who’s just taken by something. But I do think there’s a lot of value there in what people usually see as a nuisance at best.

First things first: bugs are living animals. And it doesn’t take an expensive and possibly crowded zoo trip to see them. If you can get the child you’re caring for invested in what really is its own tiny world, you can foster an interest in biology right in your backyard.

It’ll help to arm yourself with some facts here. Knowing what bug you’re looking at in a general sense isn’t too hard. Making a specific species id is sometimes impossible without some pretty intimate knowledge, but it’s generally doable to know some facts about what you’ve found, and impart those facts to the kiddo you’re showing the bug to. is a site with some great resources for finding out what sort of thing you’re looking at beyond “gross bug.” Once you’ve got an idea of the common name, a google search of just that will give you bunches of articles and likely a Wikipedia page with information about behavior, diet, and habitat.

You might be surprised yourself to find out some new stuff about the tiny worlds operating beneath our feet. Maybe you didn’t know that wolf spiders don’t spin the traditional spider web and actually go on the prowl or wait ready to pounce near a burrow to hunt their prey. Or it might be news that worker bees cooperate to find flowers, doing a dance when they arrive at the hive to let other workers know where to go for good food pickings.

Cool little bits of info like that can really grab a child’s attention. Much like pointing to a giraffe at a zoo and explaining why they have the long neck, you can point in your own garden and describe what’s happening there. All it takes is telling a kid that the bee that they’re looking at is a worker bee and therefore female to pique just a bit of interest in how they work overall.

But maybe for whatever reason you’re not so keen on the child you’re watching diving head first into biological science with bugs. Or maybe that just doesn’t feel worth the price of having to deal with creepy crawlies (I know they can bother people quite a bit). However, biology isn’t my only selling point here.

If you’re a person that enjoys nature and wants a child to do the same, bugs are a good way to encourage that and give them something fun to do outside. Maybe you’re not barraging them with cool insect facts. Maybe you’re just pointing them out, giving them a jar to catch them with, or letting them watch a trail of ants try to devour a bit of cracker. Let them enjoy this bit of nature the same way you might appreciate a flower together. It helps get you out together more as well. If the kiddo isn’t dreading the insects but embracing them, that’s one less thing preventing them from running around outside.

Another cool bit about bugs is using them to let a child practice very early on empathy for something small that they’re obviously stronger than. It might be simpler to smush the spider or beetle scurrying around the house, but it can be rewarding, at least in my mind, to encourage a kid to not kill out of convenience. I’m far from saying not killing bugs is going to solve bullying or any such large and complex issue, just that it’s an easy small spot you can show a child a kind of gentleness to other things.

I would say it’s a good idea to get a handle on what bugs are a problem to see in your house and what aren’t. Bed bugs are something you should call someone for, even if you get squicked out by killing something, because they can be a real issue. But a lone house spider is basically a non-issue, and is actually probably helping you out by eating things you don’t want around. There are lots of sites that’ll show you what a bed bug or a termite looks like, and the grand majority of bugs you’re likely to run into in your home are not serious house-damaging or you-damaging problems.

Helping a child to not be afraid of something small, and to even be interested in it or kind towards it, I feel is very much a positive. I understand this is a hard sell for some people, but if you feel like you could, maybe try giving bugs a chance. You might find they’re more interesting than you thought, and a decent teaching tool to show children a little piece of their natural world.

About Emma Hartsock

Emma Hartsock is an undergraduate student at the University of North Texas, majoring in Sociology with minors in Criminal Justice and Biology. She’s got experience in everything from volunteering as a summer camp counselor and regular babysitting, to just happily hanging out with her younger cousins and brother. She spends her time working hard at personal projects such as her writing, design, and any other various enterprises she has on the burner.