IN classrooms in the Northeast, young children are fitting together a challenging 20-foot-long jigsaw puzzle - and learning about whales and marine biology in the process.
The 46-piece puzzle is a whale skeleton, and its bleached bones are used by the College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine, to teach people about whales. Called Whales on Wheels, the traveling hands-on education program has been a big hit with youngsters and teachers.
''It's just like a big puzzle, and kids are familiar with puzzles,'' says Catherine Kiorpes Elk, coordinator for Whales on Wheels, explaining children's eagerness to put the skeleton together. First, however, comes a short talk about whales from a COA student.
The Whales on Wheels program - and the related Naugahyde Whale program that involves a 10-foot foam-and-fabric replica of a pilot whale - are meant to be used with any age group. Minor adjustments are made, however, for presentations to very young children.
''With the younger groups we try to avoid big words or concepts that they probably would not understand,'' says Mrs. Elk. ''Reproduction, for example, is a pretty sophisticated topic. And we never use the words 'evolution' or 'adaptation.' We might talk about how a long, long time ago these animals might have lived on land. But time is a very strange thing for young kids.''
With the stuffed Naugahyde Whale, which comes apart to expose internal organs , the COA student-teachers might create a name and personality that children can relate to. ''Kids have a sense that there is something very real about something that is stuffed. They like to think that it has a name, a personality,'' Mrs. Elk says.
Despite the simplification, children are presented with a number of scientific terms and concepts during the program. For example, they learn that, like human beings, whales are mammals. And they find out that there are two kinds of whales, toothed and baleen. Baleen whales strain their food from seawater with the brushlike baleen, while toothed whales might feed on fish or squid.
They also learn the names of the different parts of the whale. There is the dorsal fin on top of the whale, for example, and the tail is called the flukes. ''The kids really get into the terms like flukes, flippers, and fins,'' Mrs. Elk says. ''They like to know the words.''
There are many similarities between whale and human anatomy, and Mrs. Elk says that becomes a valuable aid in teaching children some terms. ''It is very important,'' she says, ''to always compare what you are talking about with humans when it comes to another animal. A child might not understand what a vertebra in another animal is, but if you have them feel the bump in the middle of their back, they say, 'Oh!, that's a vertebra.' They can see and feel it.
''Kids are pretty amazed when they realize that whales have fingers, whales have elbows, whales have things they have.''
The talk also clears up many of the misconceptions children hold about whales. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are all whales, for instance, despite their different sizes and names. And killer whales don't eat people or boats.
''Killer whales are a big thing,'' Mrs. Elk says. ''Boy, oh boy do kids ever know about killer whales. They know they have teeth and that they eat boats, and people, and anything else. So you have to explain what they really eat.''
The Whales on Wheels and Naugahyde Whale programs are very much ''hands on'' activities, and one preschool teacher thinks that prevents young children from becoming bored. ''They are always listening . . . or touching something,'' says Leda Ball, director of the Westside Nursery School in Southwest Harbor, Maine. ''My kids sat for 11/2 half hours - which is rare for four-year olds.''
''Lots of kids will want to know if we killed the whale,'' Mrs. Elk notes. ''They are very concerned. But we explain that we didn't hurt the whale and that it drowned when it got tangled up in some lobster fishing gear.''
Once they are reassured and organized, it takes a class of two dozen four- and five-year-olds about 20 minutes to put the whale back together again, so that the elegantly shaped bones fit properly on their steel stand. ''All they know is shape and size,'' says Mrs. Elk, ''and that's all you really need to know.'' She says that she has seen a four-year-old put the skeleton together with fewer mistakes than high school or college students.
Whales on Wheels hit the road in the spring of 1981 and has since traveled more than 5,000 miles and given presentations to hundreds of audiences from northern Maine to the nation's capital.