This is part 1 of a 3 part hands-on unit study on Ecology. Make leaf rubbings, assemble rain forest terrariums, make pine needle tea, experiment with forms of animal insulation, and more! These lessons are geared toward 3rd-5th grade level children and their siblings. This lesson was created for a homeschool co-op class. We meet each week for 2 1/2 hours and have 33 children between the ages of 1-13. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, family, after school program, or co-op!
1. Pray. Read and discuss Genesis 1:27-30 and Psalm 8:4-9. Emphasize how God created the world and all that is in it for us to use and to take care of as good stewards.
2. Ask a couple of the children to describe their homes. Ask a couple other children to describe their community, as in our city or county. We are about to endeavor on a study of biomes. Who can tell me what a biome is? A habitat is the environment in which a plant or animal lives. It is kind of like what [names of children] were describing when they were talking about their houses. A biome is the entire community of living organisms within a major region. A biome is like what [names of children] were describing when they were talking about our city or county.
3. Read Forests by Chris Arvetis and Carole Palmer or other book that gives a brief introduction to the major biomes of the world. (Forests includes 6 of the seven biomes. It covers deserts in another book. It was definitely my children's favorite picture book covering the biomes. It has colorful illustrations and includes a brief overview about each of the biomes.)
YOU WILL NEED: Forests by Chris Arvetis and Carole Palmer or other book that gives a brief introduction to the major biomes
4. Briefly go through the seven types of biomes and sing the "Seven Types of Biomes" song.
Seven Types of Biomes Song
The Best Book for This Entire Lesson
If you can only get one book for this lesson, I would recommend this one! It contains information about all the biomes and is written in an engaging manner that keeps the attention of my children. It not only covers each of the biomes, but it also has easy activities (blubber mitt, tropical rainforest trail mix, etc.) for each biome. It includes lots of the vocabulary that you will study during the ecology unit and even includes ideas on preservation. I loved that the book did not go heavily into evolutionary language. It was very easy for me to replace the word "adapted" with "God created this animal to" whenever talking about specific traits of animals.
Deciduous (Temperate) Forests
5. Ask children what they think of when they think of a forest. What are some of the differences between a deciduous, coniferous, and tropical rain forest? One of the biggest differences is the types of trees found in each of them. Deciduous forests have mostly what types of trees? (Deciduous Hardwoods) How many seasons do they have? (4) Let's name them together.
6. Deciduous forests are full of nuts and berries that are delicious for both animals and people! Wash or sanitize hands and allow children to eat small bags or cups of "Deciduous Forest Trail Mix" (dried cranberries and/or blueberries and pecans or walnuts) *Be sure to check for nut allergies first!* As children eat their trail mix, read part of I Can Name 50 Trees Today!: All About Trees (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth.
YOU WILL NEED: baggies of dried cranberries and/or blueberries and pecans or walnuts and I Can Name 50 Trees Today!: All About Trees (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth
7. Deciduous forests have deciduous trees, which lose their leaves every fall. Go outside and have children collect 5 leaves from different trees. [If you can't do this, bring an assortment of tree leaves to class.] Have them use magnifying glasses to inspect them. Mention how botanists, who are scientists who study plants, use the shape of a tree's leaves as one of the ways they identify leaves. Then have them make leaf rubbings with their favorite leaves. *We noticed that some crayon brands and colors worked better than others, so try to switch out any crayons that do not seem to be producing clear images.
YOU WILL NEED: magnifying glasses, crayons, paper, & leaves [optional]
8. What types of animals might you find in a deciduous forest? Flip through pictures on your laptop or use pictures from A Walk in the Deciduous Forest (Biomes of North America) by Rebecca L. Johnson to show some of the animals.
YOU WILL NEED: pictures of animals from a deciduous forest (from your laptop or a book)
9. Review: What type of biome did we just learn about? What makes it different from other biomes? What kinds of plants would you find there? What types of animals might you find there?
Coniferous (Taiga/Boreal) Forests
10. Ask children what they think of when they think of a coniferous forest. Coniferous forests have mostly what types of trees? What do coniferous trees grow inside of leaves? (pine needles) What else do they have? (cones)
11. (Optional -- if you have available pine trees) (Prep: Bring a pot of water to boil. You will want about 3 cups of water for every 10 children if you want them to each have a small taste. You will want a ratio of about 1 cup of pine needles for every 3 cups of water.) Make Pine Needle Tea: Go outside and have each child grab a handful of green pine needles from a pine tree. Use scissors to cut the needles into smaller pieces. Only use the green parts of the needles -- though it won't hurt if the brown tops get in there as well. (A teacher/parent can do this or the children can do it.) After the pine needles have been cut, a parent/teacher should drop them into the boiling boiling water. After all the needles have been put into the pot of water, cover it and lower the temperature to simmer/low. Simmer the needles for about 15-20 minutes (or longer if you have time). After you return, strain the needles from the tea and add desired amount of sugar or honey. This is a great source of vitamins A & C, and was used by Native Americans and American frontiersmen as medicine to help strengthen their immune systems when they got sick.
YOU WILL NEED: pine tree with accessible pine needles, scissors, kettle or pot with a lid, sugar or honey, strainer, & cups
12. While the tea is simmering, Make a pine cone bird feeder. Do this outside for easy clean-up. Have each child write their name on sheet of paper and then place the sheet of paper in a plastic grocery store bag with their name facing outward. This will be used so that they can tell which bird feeder is theirs. Have children tie a string to the top of a pine cone. Use a plastic knife to spread peanut butter over the pine cone. Use a cup full of birdseed to sprinkle over the pine cone. Do this over a bucket in order to catch the loose birdseed. Place the bird feeder on the sheet of paper. Have children place their bird feeder in the plastic bag and then allow children to wash their hands. Do not leave these outside if you live in an area that has ants.
YOU WILL NEED: pine needles & leaves (optional), 1 sheet of paper per child, 1 grocery store bag per child, markers, 1 pine cone per child (the larger the better), 1 plastic knife per child, 1 piece of 2' string or yarn, 5 large containers of peanut butter, 1 10 lb. bag of bird seed
13. Read most of Where Would I Be in an Evergreen Tree? by Jennifer Blomgren while children sip on pine needle tea.
YOU WILL NEED: or other book about coniferous forests Where Would I Be in an Evergreen Tree? by Jennifer Blomgren
14. Review: What type of biome did we just learn about? What makes it different from other biomes? What kinds of plants would you find there? What types of animals might you find there?
Tropical Rain Forests
15. Ask children what they think of when they think of a tropical rain forest.
16. Tropical Rain Forests are full of nuts and fruits that are delicious for both animals and people!
-(Optional) If papaya is in season, show the children the inside of the papaya. The black seeds of the papaya are edible and have a sharp, spicy taste. They are sometimes ground and used as a substitute for black pepper. Allow children to taste one if desired or hold one and squeeze it.
-One of my favorite foods comes from the rain forests: chocolate! Chocolate actually grows as a bean on trees. It is crushed up and mixed with other ingredients to make it more delicious. This is basically what chocolate tastes like.
-Allow children to sample tiny pieces of unsweetened baking chocolate. Isn't not very good without sugar and milk, is it?
-Thankfully I did bring some chocolate with sugar and milk added.
-I'm going to pass out those and Brazil nuts. Brazil nuts grow on one of the largest of trees in the Amazon rainforests, and some of them can live to be 1,000 years old! A couple fun facts I found out about Brazil nuts: 1) It's illegal to cut them down in Brazil, so they grow in many places. 2) From what country do you think we get most of our Brazil nuts? It's not Brazil! We get most of them from Bolivia!
-Allow children to sample small bags or cups of "Tropical Rain Forest Treats" (chocolate chips and Brazil nuts) while you read part of If I Ran the Rain Forest: All About Tropical Rain Forests (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth.
YOU WILL NEED: papaya (optional), small pieces of unsweetened baking chocolate, chocolate chips, Brazil nuts, small baggies or cups, and If I Ran the Rain Forest: All About Tropical Rain Forests (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth or other book about the Tropical Rain Forest
Book for Activity 16: Our Favorite Book on Tropical Rain Forests
We were able to find plenty of great picture books on Tropical Rain Forests. This was our favorite! It covers the plants, animals, people, and layers of the Tropical Rain Forest all while using the rhyming Cat in the Hat Dr. Seuss style.
17. Tropical Rainforests are warm and moist with plenty of rain water cycling through to keep all the plants lush and green. We will make our own little tropical rain forests by making miniature terrariums. Line up the jars (which should have the children's names on them), pebbles, charcoal (sometimes called terrarium charcoal), potting soil, sheet moss, other seedlings/plants, & water in a line. Have the children walk through the line and put about 1 inch of each of the items in their jars in that order. If they are not able to get the moss to drop in green-side-up, they can use a stick to push it over. Slowly pour just enough water into the jar until you can see water in the pebble layer. Screw on the lid. They should remove the lid when they get home and keep it off for a month or so. After that, they can cover the jar and spritz it with water every few weeks.
YOU WILL NEED: 1 small handful of moss per child, 1 bag of potting soil, 1 bag of terrarium/activated/chipped charcoal (found at a nursery/garden center or pet store), 2-4 trowels or cups to use to pass out the charcoal and soil, sheet moss (sold in a nursery), 1 Dixie bathroom cup size cups per child for water, small plants (We used clover & dollar weed which we dug up from the ground) & items brought by families: a glass jar with lid with gravel/small pebbles
18. Review: What type of biome did we just learn about? What makes it different from other biomes? What kinds of plants would you find there? What types of animals might you find there?
19. Ask children what they think of when they think of grasslands.
20. Much of America's Midwest is covered in grasslands, which we also call prairies. They are great places for growing crops because they have nutrient-rich soil and few trees. Much of the food we eat, including grass, comes from the grasslands of America. Did I just say that we eat grass? We do! Wheat is a type of grass. Wheat is what makes flour, and flour is what we use to make bread, cookies, cakes, and lots of other delicious items. Option A: If you have a wheat grinder (or coffee grinder) available, show the children how wheat kernels are ground into flour. Option B: Compare various types of flour (at least white and whole wheat). Allow children to compare them by looks and taste. If you can purchase wheat kernels, allow children to observe them and try to smash them.
YOU WILL NEED: Option A: wheat kernels and wheat grinder (or coffee grinder) OR Option B: various types of flour (at least white and whole wheat) and wheat kernels (optional)
21. Grasslands are also called prairies in America. In Asia they are called steppes. In Africa they are called Savannas. Let's read about savannah's while you enjoy some whole wheat rolls from the wheat grown in the American grasslands. Read some of Safari, So Good!: All About African Wildlife (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth.
YOU WILL NEED: whole wheat rolls, napkins, and (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth or other book on African savannas Safari, So Good!: All About African Wildlife
22. Review: What type of biome did we just learn about? What makes it different from other biomes? What kinds of plants would you find there? What types of animals might you find there?
22. Ask children what they think of when they think of deserts.
-Let's discuss animals in the deserts. Name some.
-Are most of them diurnal (awake during the day) or nocturnal (awake at night)? [nocturnal] Why? [avoid heat of the sun]
-Where do many of them live? [in the ground] Why? [It is cooler.]
-How much cooler do you think it could possibly be in a hole in the ground? Let's find out!Before we start, let's make a hypothesis, an educated guess. Who thinks there won't be any difference between the temperatures on the grass versus a hole in the ground? Who thinks there will be a slight difference? Who thinks there will be a big, significant difference?
-Have a few children take turns digging a hole in the ground. (We dug about 1 1/2 feet deep and tried to kind of dig a small tunnel under the grass.)
-Place one thermometer in the "tunnel" in the hole and one in the grass near the hole. (Tip: If you are using your thermometer app on your phone, be sure to put in in a bag to keep it from getting dirty!)
-While we wait for the temperatures to heat up a bit, let's do something else.
YOU WILL NEED: a shovel and 2 thermometers (Your phone app will work if you don't have scientific ones.)
23. Much of the world is becoming a desert. We call that desertification. Do you think that's a good thing? Would you like to live in a desert? Why do you think that is happening?
-Eroision is causing much of the desertification. A few years ago my family visited Providence Canyon in Georgia. About a hunder years ago Providence Canyon was covered in farms and the land grew plenty of crops. Farmers kept planting and planting and planting. Eventually the soil started wasing away. Then cracks started opening up. Eventually canyons, hundereds of feet deep opened up and the once fertile farm land was now sandy desert land. What in the world happened?
-Let's see how erosion works. Place a piece of sod in one erosion tray (i.e. the lid to the plastic shoebox). Fill another half full of just soil. Tilt both trays. Put an equal amount of water in two watering cans. Water each tray. Compare how much water and soil has collected at the bottom of the tray.
YOU WILL NEED: soil, a piece of sod with dirt on its roots, 2 trays (like a plastic shoebox lid), and 2 watering cans with equal amounts of water
24. Let's check back with the thermometers. Is it really that much cooler in the ground?
25. (Optional) If you are not limited by time, read part of a book on the desert such as Why Oh Why Are Deserts Dry?: All About Deserts (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Tish Rabe.
26. Review: What type of biome did we just learn about? What makes it different from other biomes? Who can name a plant or animal that we'd find in the desert?
27. Ask children what they think of when they think of the tundra.
28. God provided special ways for tundra animals to insulate themselves. Insulate means “to keep warm.” One way is with their coats. Do we humans grown thick coats? Then how do we get warm? (We add on layers of clothing.) Not all clothing and materials insulate the same. Show the children 4 containers that each have the same amount of water in them. Let the children touch the water to feel that it is all the same temperature. Use rubber bands to wrap each container in a different material: bubble wrap, fleece, and cotton towel. Leave one with no insulation. We’re going to put them in the freezer. We need to make a hypothesis, or educated guess, as to which material will insulate the best. Ask, “Which container do you think will get the coldest? Which will be the warmest?” (Have them raise their hands for their vote.) Put them in the freezer.
YOU WILL NEED: 4 containers (cups, bottles, tupperware, etc.) that are the same size each with the same amount of water in them (no more than 2 cups of water per container), 4 rubber bands, bubble wrap, fleece, and cotton towel or t-shirt
29. Many Arctic animals, such as musk oxen, wolves, and foxes, don’t go to the store to get coats and jackets like we do. Instead, God have them grow two layers of fur to help insulate their bodies in subzero winter temperatures. The animals shed this extra layer each spring, when temperatures rise and the extra layer is no longer needed. Have each child hold out both of their hands. Have the moms lay the kitchen towel over their child’s hands. Lay the thicker towel over 1 of their hands. Now lay a piece of ice in each hand and tell the children to squeeze the ice and count to 20 together. Afterward ask, “Which hand stays the warmest? Why? What does this teach us about the Arctic animal’s fur?”
YOU WILL NEED: 2 towels per child (such as kitchen towels), 2 ice cubes per child, and a container/bowl to hold the ice
30. God also gave many of the large animals blubber to insulate them. Blubber is thick layers of fat. Seals, walruses, and whales all have layers of blubber which help to keep them warm. Give each child a blubber mitten to put on one hand. Tell them to try to smash around the vegetable shortening to make sure it covers as much of their hand as possible. (If this is done correctly, the shortening shouldn’t ever actually touch their skin as it should stay in the zipper bag.) The shortening is like blubber. Their other hand will be bare. Divide the children into 4 groups and assign them to 1 of the 4 bowls. Have them then place both hands in a bowl of ice water and compare how each hand feels. Ask, “How cold does the water seem with the ‘blubber mitten’ on? Do you think a nice layer of blubber would be great protection against cold?” This shows how blubber insulates ocean mammals and keeps them warm.
YOU WILL NEED: 4 large bowls filled with very cold ice water and one “blubber mitten” per child (To create a “blubber mitten” fill a sandwich or quart size zipper bag about 1/3 full of vegetable shortening/Crisco. Then turn a second zipper bag of the same size inside out. Place it carefully inside the bag with the shortening so that you are able to zip the one bag to the other.)
31. (Optional) If you are not limited by time, lead children in drawing a caribou/reindeer. I used the model from Draw Write Now: Book Four by Marie Hablitzel. Draw it right along with them, step by step, using an easel or dry erase board so that everyone can see it. As we drew the picture, we discussed the small plants, snow, and areola borealis.
YOU WILL NEED: paper, pencils, crayons, and tundra picture to draw such as the reindeer/caribou from Draw Write Now: Book Four by Marie Hablitzel
32. Check on the temperatures of the insulated cups in the freezer. What did we just find out about insulation?
33. Review: What type of biome did we just learn about? What makes it different from other biomes? Who can name a plant or animal that we'd find in the tundra?
34. Quickly review the biomes and sing the biome song.
Looking for More Great Children's Books?
Our Favorite Books on Deciduous Forests
Wonders of the Forest by Francene Sabin was my children's favorite picture book. It includes the typical plants and animals of a deciduous forest as the seasons change. It has soft, realistic looking illustrations that kept the attention of even my youngest children. A Walk in the Deciduous Forest (Biomes of North America) by Rebecca L. Johnson contains photographs rather than illustrations, but the text is short and interesting enough to keep the interest of my children. What If There Were No Gray Wolves?: A Book About the Temperate Forest Ecosystem (Food Chain Reactions) by Suzanne Slade is a great picture book that shows the food web in a deciduous/temperate forest and the importance of a key species, wolves. One Small Square: Woods by Donald Silver is a longer picture book that includes gorgeous illustrations and fun activities to engage children in really exploring the natural world! It was long enough that we read the book in 2 sessions rather than one sitting. It would make a wonderful book to read through over a longer period of time. What Eats What in a Forest Food Chain (Food Chains) by Lisa J. Amstutz is a good picture book that goes through a typical food web in a deciduous/temperate forest. It has nice illustrations!
Our Favorite Books on Coniferous Forests
Where Would I Be in an Evergreen Tree? by Jennifer Blomgren is a sweet picture book that goes through the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest forest, all centered around an evergreen tree. It was our favorite picture book on coniferous forests. Life in the Boreal Forest by Brenda Z. Guiberson is a longer picture book with nice illustrations. A Walk in the Boreal Forest (Biomes of North America) by Rebecca L. Johnson contains photographs rather than illustrations, but the text is short and interesting enough to keep the interest of my children. Northern Refuge: A Story of a Canadian Boreal Forest by Audrey Fraggalosch focuses on a family of moose as a mother raises her calf in the boreal/coniferous forest.
More of our favorite books on Tropical Rain Forests
In the Rainforest (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science 2) by Kate Duke follows two children as they explore the rainforest and discover the amazing features of the forest and what they can do to help preserve it. Life in the Rainforest: Plants, Animals, and People (Discovery Readers) by Melvin Berger does a great job of briefly covering the important aspects of the rain forest in an informative but interesting manner. It has nice illustrations! At Home in the Rain Forest by Diane Willow has beautiful illustrations and discusses the plants and animals of the rain forest. The Great Kapok Tree: A Tale of the Amazon Rain Forest by Lynne Cherry starts with a man about to cut down a kapok tree. As he rests, the forest animals and people who depend on the tree come by and talk about how they use it. My emerging reader enjoys the Magic Tree House series, so we included Afternoon on the Amazon (Magic Tree House, No. 6) by Mary Pope Osborne. To accompany it, add Rain Forests: A Nonfiction Companion to Afternoon on the Amazon by Will Osborne. We also enjoyed The Umbrella by Jan Brett (which is perfect for younger listeners), Wonders of the Rain Forest by Janet Craig (which is a longer picture book full of great information), What Eats What in a Rain Forest Food Chain (Food Chains) Lisa J. Amstutz, and Jaguar in the Rain Forest by Joanne Ryder (which follows a jaguar through the rain forest). If you would like a more in depth book, look for the book from the One Small Square series Tropical Rain Forest by Donald Silver.
Our Favorite Children's Books on Grasslands
What If There Were No Bees?: A Book About the Grassland Ecosystem (Food Chain Reactions) by Suzanne Slade is a nice picture book about the food web and what happens when a key species, the bee, is harmed in a particular ecosystem and how it affects everything else. Out on the Prairie by Donna M. Bateman uses the "Over in the Meadow" rhyme to go over the animals and plants found in the prairie, specifically the Badlands. Afterward, it has a nice paragraph about each of the animals and plants. Animal Babies in Grasslands by Jennifer Schofield is a short book with photographs describing some of the baby animals you would find in the grasslands. It is great for younger children! Here Is the African Savanna (Web of Life) by Madeleine Dunphy uses "The House that Jack Built" format to go through the animals found on the African savanna and how they interact with each other. This is good for younger children. If you would like a more in depth book, look for the book from the One Small Square series, African Savanna by Donald Silver. If you would like a book with photographs rather than illustrations, A Walk in the Prairie (Biomes of North America) by Rebecca L. Johnson is a great option as it has just the right amount of text to keep it interesting.
Our Favorite Children's Books on Deserts
The Desert Alphabet Book (Jerry Pallotta's Alphabet Books) by Jerry Pallotta is a great alphabet book that includes plenty of interesting information about various aspects of desert life, covering deserts from around the world. It also has beautiful illustrations and some humor, which my older children love. Why Oh Why Are Deserts Dry?: All About Deserts (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Tish Rabe provides plenty of information giving an overview of the world's deserts and their ecosystems while including fun rhyming text and illustrations. We read many great picture books on the importance of the saguaro cactus, and Cactus Hotel (An Owlet Book) by Brenda Z. Guiberson was probably our favorite. It talks about how the cactus supports so many lives in the desert. What Eats What in a Desert Food Chain (Food Chains) by Suzanne Slade focuses on the food chain in the Sonoran Desert. If you would like a more in depth book, look for the book from the One Small Square series, Cactus Desert by Donald Silver. Who Grows Up in the Desert?: A Book About Desert Animals and Their Offspring (Who Grows Up Here?) by Theresa Longenecker is a nice picture book that includes desert animals from around the world, rather than simply focusing on the ones found in America.
Our Favorite Children's Books on Tundra
North Pole, South Pole (A Holiday House Reader, Level 2) by Nancy Smiler Levinson does a good job of explaining the animals, plants, climate, and geography of the tundra. It has nice illustrations and the right amount of text so that this could be used as a class read aloud if you would prefer to not use another Cat in the Hat series book. If you would like a more in depth book, look for the book from the One Small Square series, Arctic Tundra by Donald Silver. It has wonderful illustrations on every page. It is a longer picture book and includes some simple activities. What If There Were No Lemmings?: A Book About the Tundra Ecosystem (Food Chain Reactions) by Suzanne Slade is a great picture book showing the food chain in action and demonstrates what would happen if a key species, the lemming, disappeared in the tundra. Ice Is Nice!: All About the North and South Poles (Cat in the Hat's Learning Library) by Bonnie Worth provides plenty of interesting about the tundra and was my children's favorite of these options. Amazing Arctic Animals (Penguin Young Readers, Level 3) by Jackie Glassman does a great job of discussing some of the animals you would find in the Arctic Tundra and includes information about their lives. A Walk on the Tundra by Rebecca Hainnu is about an Inuujaq grandmother discussing with her granddaughter the importance of the tundra plants. If you would like a book with photographs rather than illustrations, A Walk in the Tundra (Biomes of North America) by Rebecca L. Johnson is a great option as it has just the right amount of text to keep it interesting.
Our Favorite Videos for Elementary Aged Children: Study Jams - Biomes
This is not especially engaging, but it provides a quick overview of the main aspects of each biome in only 3 minutes.
Popular Mechanics for Kids - "North Pole" (Tundra)
Popular Mechanics for Kids - "Fun In The Desert"
Looking for all of my unit studies and lessons?
Over the years I have posted over 40 science and social-studies based unit studies, compromised of more than 170 lessons. The unit studies include the Human Body, Simple Machines, Earth Science, Medieval Period, American Revolution, Pioneer Life, Countries of the World, and many more! For each lesson I have included activities (with photos), our favorite books and YouTube video clips, lapbook links, and other resources. I posted links to all of my unit studies and lessons at Fun, FREE Hands-on Unit Studies .