health / kitchen science / life science

Fun Fundamentals of Fish

Nutritionists and health care providers are encouraging all of us to eat more fish. Fish is good for you, they tell us. It is especially rich in omega-3 fatty acids that are important for children’s developing brains. Omega-3’s are also associated with protecting against heart attacks and strokes. So why not eat more fish?
Perhaps you and your family already enjoy a regular meal including fish. If your child likes eating fish and/or catching them, then you have succeeded where many parents struggle.


I would encourage you and your family to eat more fish for the health benefits of course, but also because of the many lessons that can be learned, questions answered, and hands-on activities that can be informative and fun.


To keep things organized, the following recommendations are specific to fish that, in contrast to other sea creatures, are vertebrates (have a backbone). Shellfish (shrimp, lobsters, crabs) are crustaceans and invertebrates. Clams, mussels, and scallops are mollusks, also invertebrates (as is an octopus). Whales, dolphins and porpoise are mammals. And despite their names, jellyfish are not really fish either but are also invertebrates.


We will discuss these latter categories of animals at another time. Yes, I am being picky, but in the long run, it might be worthwhile for your child to try and begin to make these distinctions early and often.


If you are familiar with this blog you know that we have designed a process for engaging children in learning. Please familiarize yourself with the suggested approach by reading the “What is Guiding Curiosity” page on this blog. The following recommendations are not to be followed in a step by step fashion, but rather are meant to serve as templates so that as a parent you can effectively guide your child’s learning while being spontaneous and playful.



Let’s get this party started!  Curious minds want to know.


Where do fish come from?

How many different kinds are there?

How are they alike or different from other animals?

Do all fish swim?

What do fish eat?

What eats fish besides us humans?

How do they “breathe” underwater.





To answer any question, a thorough observation is a good place to start.


If you can visit an aquarium encourage your child to take the time to carefully observe a fish or two. Invite him to make note of color patterns, scales, shapes of fins, locations of eyes on their heads, the presence or absence of “whiskers,” nature of movement through water, any camouflage, and any interactions with other fish or other species in a tank.




Observe the gills move and discuss how fish “breathe.”


Observations can be written, dictated to you, or drawn. If your child prefers drawing, try asking him to draw a fish. Then go out and observe live fish and ask him to draw what he sees again (either while watching a fish or when you return home). I think that both you and your child will see a difference in these drawings and hopefully your child will realize the advantage of careful observations.


Consider using a hand lens to look at fish through the glass of a tank to get a close up and personal view.


If you do not have an aquarium nearby, find a grocery store, fish or pet shop with a tank, or a koi pond in a park or public place and take some time to observe.


Perhaps you have an aquarium or fish bowl at home. Lucky you! Invite observations at different times during the day. It is a good idea to suggest focusing on one fish that may be distinctive, rather than try and observe all simultaneously.




Even if your child has limited opportunities to observe live fish, do not give up! Fish purchased at the supermarket or a fish market are almost better because, while it may not be moving, cuts of fish or the whole animal (think trout or salmon) can be touched, smelled, and tasted (raw if sushi grade or cooked).


Fresh fish is described as smelling sweet. If the fish smells “fishy,” it may not be fresh.


So, buy fresh fish that your child can handle and then consume! If fish is frozen, this too can be examined once it is thawed, or even through the process of thawing.



So many fish, so little time.  Taking time to notice the differences between species of fish should engage and heighten interest and learning.


If you are in the grocery store, ask your child to take a look at the various cuts of fish available, and compare. There are a variety of colors, shapes, and outer skin types that can be seen through the plastic. You may have to have a “no touch” policy to appease store managers, but why not take a couple of minutes to discuss what is seen and the variety of fish available for us to eat.




Cards with images of fish created by you from pictures found on-line or cut from a used field guide are great for sources of entertainment. Look, classify, discuss. Think about differences between fish that live in fresh or salt water, fish that are predators or prey, male or female fish, and fish that live nearby or far away.


As described in other activities, consider including important information on the backs of the cards, such as where the fish can be found geographically, their minimum and maximum size or weight, variations between the sexes, or other fun facts.


Compare a fish fillet to a fillet of beef or to a chicken breast. How do these differ? (Fish meat tends to be light in color because they are swimming and do not have to counter the effects of gravity and their muscles work in different ways than a large animal with muscles used for extended activities. Chicken meat is both white and dark.)




Your day to day activities are already filled with taking measures.  Find ways to include your child in these activities.


Prior to cooking fish, allow your child to take a close look counting a particular feature (fins, scales), measuring the size of the piece of fish from end to end, and weighing it. These measurements may be easier and more fun with a whole fish.


If you have a goldfish, attempt to ALMOST measure it while it swims in its bowl. Take measurements over a period of weeks or months. Is it growing?


If you have a fish tank, measure the temperature of the water from time to time. If there are fluctuations in temperature, have your child note how the fish behave in cooler versus warmer temperatures.


For younger children, count, add or subtract goldfish crackers or Swedish fish…these are not a real fish, but this is not a bad exercise for introducing various math functions.



Now the exploration of fish really begins.  If you want to understand something, try and change it.  Invite your child to think outside the box.


If you have a pet fish in a bowl, there are a variety of simple experiments you can perform. For example, observe the fish’s behavior before and after feeding time.


Add another fish and again observe behavior before and after the introduction of the second fish.


Ask your child to put her face next to the bowl and discuss the fish’s reaction.


Ask your child to tickle the top of the water with her fingers and observe the fish’s reaction.


Is there a difference between the fish’s behavior when it is light in the room versus when the lights are dimmed (you still want to be able to observe which may be impossible in complete darkness).


Place chicken and fish bones in vinegar. Wait a day or two. Remove the bones, rinse them off, and compare. What happened? Does the effect of the vinegar differ depending on what type of bone it is? If there is a difference, do the bones appear to be made of the same material? (Fish bones are made of calcium like chicken bones and the vinegar leaches the calcium out of the bone. Some fish bones are made of cartilage, however, so the reaction could be different).


This next experiment may not appeal to everyone, but if you are game it can be an interesting project. Buy a whole fish, complete with skin, head, and fins, from the market (for example a trout). Cover every inch of the fish, inside and out, with baking soda, then bury the fish in the baking soda in a plastic container with a lid. Check in a week. What is it like? Add more baking soda, close the lid and wait a second week. What is it like? How did the fish change over time and why?


If you have a child who is particularly curious and is not squeamish, ask that child to help you gut a fish caught while fishing or one that has been purchased. Examine the intestinal organs carefully. Measure, weigh, or examine with any tools that may be available. If you have fresh fish regularly that need to be gutted for meal preparation, compare results of measurements over time. Where were the biggest fish caught or purchased? Are there variations in the size of their internal organs?





Go fishing!



If you are unable to go fishing, build a pier with blocks or boxes. Create a fishing rod with lures and hooks (paperclips). Draw and cut out some fish that can be “caught.” Consider adding magnets to the end of the line and the fish your child has created to make catching more fun.


Create art using fish parts, such as fins, the removed skeleton, or even the head. The Japanese call this art Gyotaku. Brush a layer of paint (tempura) onto the fin (or another body part) and then press the paint side down on a clean sheet of paper. Alternatively, you can press the paper to an interesting part of the fish and rub it. You can even use the whole fish if you can rinse it off for meal preparation. Let the print dry and enjoy!


Discuss how trash or oil spills in the ocean are dangerous for fish.


Discuss aquaculture, or growing fish in farms. With the number of people on the earth increasing, how can we grow enough fish to feed everyone? The Monterey Bay Aquarium (Seafoodwatch.org) has a terrific free mobile app that you and your child can use to determine which fish to eat and buy according to whether or not it is caught in environmentally friendly ways as opposed to whether there are concerns about fishing techniques or how it is farmed.


Swim like a fish in a swimming pool or the bathtub.


Explore unique fish species such as seahorses, eels or stingrays.


Prepare fish for meals even tuna fish for sandwiches. Sardines or anchovies are other options for taking a closer look at fish when home in the kitchen without great expense. Explore where fish you eat come from and how they arrived on your plate. Examine pictures of the fish before it was filleted or prepared for cooking.



Find a fish with a name that starts with the same letter as your child’s name. For a name starting with “B,” look up barracuda. For a name starting with “D,” think Dorado, or for “P” find an image of a Pompano. Every member of the family can have their own fish namesake!






Fins (pectoral – side, dorsal – top, ventral – bottom)


Names of any fish your child takes interest including goldfish



Photographs from Shutterfly

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