Breathing new life into old bones: The day I took my skeleton to school

I took my box of human bones into my son’s class the other day.  I don’t know how a year 3 class normally behaves, but as soon as I took the first bone out of its bubble wrap (by chance the femur, that most typical of bones),  hands went up, attention was intense, feedback was loud and positive, and the questions didn’t stop coming.

I had learnt at least one thing in preparation; the word skeleton comes from the Greek word skeletos meaning dried out.  It was a starting point.  But I didn’t really need one.  They weren’t interested in my bullet point list.  They wanted information imparted to them in rapid and random quickfire succession, in answer to what was occurring to them, and in proportion to their curiosity, which was immense.

The questions ranged from ghoulish “Is the person dead or did you just take their skeleton and leave them alive?” to the difficult to answer “How does it actually hold you up?”  Mmmm…  The bones did not look and feel as they had expected, (the ribs more delicate, the skull more complicated “it’s like a 3D jigsaw”).  They enjoyed feeling bones – “it’s like wood” – and fitting vertebrae and hip joints together “it’s like Lego”.  Quite a few pointed out a corner of a humerus that had accidentally been chipped off to reveal the internal bone structure.  I was surprised they’d even noticed that, and even more surprised they found it really interesting.  I tried to explain that bone was a bit like wood in some ways, and a bit like coral. That what we call a material in the world, we call a tissue in the body.  They weren’t interested.  I didn’t even bother with the definition of an organ. And I totally lost them when I tried to explain that blood cells were made inside the bones.

They were amazed to be able to see the spine of the scapula and then feel it on themselves.  However the things that most astonished them were the processes of growth, and ossification.   I started to explain growth plates (in no detail whatsoever, I don’t really know that much about it these days), and drew loud gasps of wonderment.  Spurred on by this, I showed them the clavicle, and explained that it was the first to start turning to bone, and the last to finish.  They sat up taller in their seats and stared at it as if it were about to transmutate in front of them.  Carried away by their enthusiasm I told them that their own bones wouldn’t finish turning completely to bone till they were about 25.  The volume increased as they expressed their amazement in shrieks and “wow”s.  I really should have checked that figure first, but turns out I was basically accurate.  I hadn’t realised that ossification would fire them up like this.

They weren’t at all interested in my comparisons of the nervous system to a computer with a huge electrical network attached.  But their fascination at solid objects enlarging, and one tissue turning into another,  reminded me of what incredible processes are at work in our body.  To these children (“It’s like magic!”) this was akin to someone pointing a wand at a frog and making it ten times bigger, or turning cheese to chocolate.  They were simply awestruck. It was infectious.  I came away feeling uplifted and renewed, as if stardust had been sprinkled over those dry old textbooks, and I was inspired to look again at ossification centres.  Quick, before the magic fades….


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