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Desert and Forest Ecosystems: Lesson Plans

Updated on August 23, 2014

Habitat Boxes: Bring a Bit of Nature into Your Science Curriculum

Science comes alive when you bring a little bit of nature into the room. Luckily, even those who live in the city may find nature all around them. How about placing a little of your ecosystem into a habitat box?

It's something I've done. I taught for several years in the desert city of Tucson. My last year there, my students gathered bits of the Sonora Desert ecosystem: from palm fronds to pine cones to samples of sand and dirt. We used those bits of desert in our habitat study, then I gathered them into a heavy-duty recycled box that happened to be decorated with an orange, and...

That box traveled with me to the forest ecosystem of Seattle Washington. The following year my students gathered bits of our Pacific Northwest woods ecosystem-- cones and bark and woodland soil -- and placed them in a (nearly) matching box decorated with an apple. Those two boxes of habitat were the 'centerpiece' of our science center: We 'did' science. We compared and contrasted. We asked questions and carried out low-budget experiments.

Habitats are a standard part of the curriculum in the primary grades. Students can learn many basic science processes: how living things adapt to their environments, how they are interconnected, how changes in one part of a system affect other parts of the system...

On this page, I'll share my tips for teaching about desert and forest ecosystems, as well as some favorite nature study resources from around the web. There are a lot of wonderful materials and so many individual choices to make! It does help to have a sense of how your studies fit into the larger goal of science learning, though, so, for those new to teaching or homeschooling, I am also linking to the science standards.

Sonora Desert Habitat Box

Sonora Desert Habitat Box
Sonora Desert Habitat Box

In My Habitat Center - Fun Items for Desert and Forest Ecosystem Exploration

  • A box of forest relics
  • A box of desert relics
  • Sand, soil... and magnifying glasses
  • Flannel board animals and habitats
  • Poster diagrams of the forest and the desert
  • Small plastic play animals
  • Picture books
  • Activity books
  • Decaying leaf (and other science experiments)

The Sonora Desert - (Not far from where we collected those first habitat boxes!)

Discussion Question: How do other living things rely on the saguaro to meet their basic needs? (How does it provide shelter? What about water?)

Before You Collect:

Remember not to disturb the ecosystem. Take former living things, not living things -- and make sure you don't remove anything from protected areas.

An Ecosystem Concept: Adaptations - A Fun Introduction for the Elementary School Set

"Adapt, adaptation, changes in the body to fit the location!" This video is a good way for primary school children to remember the word 'adaptation' and to understand some of the ways that animals can be adapted to live in a dry climate. This is an important concept for a study of desert habitats... and also helps develop the general concept of habitat.

It's essential to understand the general concept that things are adapted for the desert; it's also important to note that we don't find exactly the same living things in all the deserts of the world. Those camels didn't live in the same desert I did.

Spotlight on Rabbits and Hares - Adaptation, adaptation...

Rabbits and hares are masters at adaptation wherever they are found. Members of this ubiquitous group of mammals aren't quite the same from one climate to the next. One of the more obvious differences between the snowshoe hare and some of his bunny cousins is the fur color. Another difference is the design of the hind legs -- the hare's big hind legs are well suited to Northern climates.

How about talking about how (and why) one type of animal has different chaacteristics in different parts of the world? Below you'll find an overview of rabbit and hare adaptations, and a simulation that shows why the snowshoe hare's white winter fur is crucial to its survival. Students can extend the activity by coloring bunnies (and hares) to match different terrain in their own room.

The activity is from Utah Education Network; you will also find links to a lot of other cool sites.

Desert Flannel Board Figures

Even in this digital age, children enjoy manipulating toys in pretend play -- and it's an important part of their development.

This set features animals the North American (Sonora) desert -- probably not so far from my former home. The saguaro is surely a familiar sight!

I have enjoyed using Bette Lukens' beautiful flannel figures in the classroom across a period of years. The photo down below shows one of her forest habitats. It's from my own set.

The North American Desert Animals Felt Set (20+ Felt Figures, Flannelboard & Case)
The North American Desert Animals Felt Set (20+ Felt Figures, Flannelboard & Case)

Here we find beautifully detailed figures of desert habitat animals by artist Bette Lukens. The set includes a felt board, carrying case, and pre-cut animals.


Flannel Board Forest Animals

Flannel Board Forest Animals
Flannel Board Forest Animals

Doing Science: Experimentation - Science experiments don't have to be fancy or expensive. They can be as simple as bringing in some decaying leaves and placing

Kid science: a tulip grows in decaying leaves
Kid science: a tulip grows in decaying leaves

Students can ask questions, make hypotheses and record observations of their decaying leaf. Don't forget to include some science vocabulary like hypothesis and variable -- that will make it easier come standardized test time.

Note: When you make your Venn diagram (comparing and contrasting desert and woodland habitats), you can note that these same life processes take place in all ecosystems. Knowledge of systems -- the way parts work together -- is an important foundational concept.

And when you catch sight of flower, rising from a pile of leaves, that can be a good time for a review!

Explore Backyard Ecosystems with the US Fish and Wildlife Service - For the Elementary and Pre-Kindergarten Crowd

From the US Fish and Wildlife Service comes Neighborhood Explorers, an online simulated nature club that let's children earn points for playing science games -- and for going out and recording the nature that they find in their very own backyard habitats. (No personally identifying information is collected, and children need a password only if they want to save their badges online.)

Activity Sheets For Learning Scientific Processes

Science processes can be taught with graphic organizers: Children can compare and contrast habitats or organisms with Venn diagrams and record changes over time with observation sheets or notebooks...

You can use hula hoops, jump rope or string to make your Venn diagrams. Use words, pictures, and objects to show what's the same and what's different about different lands. You might, for example, write the word water or make a pictorial representation of water in the middle circle to show that all habitats have water in some form.

Forest Friends - Raccoons and humans live side by side in Seattle and other forest cities.

Things to consider: Why do some animals become endangered when humans encroach? How do species like the raccoon adapt?

A Model of a Temperate Ecosystem

This child made a model of the temperate forest with celery stalks forming the trunks, branches, and leaves. If you try something like this, better get your camera or web cam handy -- celery stays young for an even shorter time than kids do!

It's also a good idea to talk about what each item represents -- not just what physical object it represents but what role it plays in the habitat.

(In the resource list, you'll find some ideas for creating your own biome in a box.)

If You Don't Have the Woodlands in Your Backyard... - Try some woodlands manipulatives

Here is a bulletin board activity that reinforces geography concepts as well as science. Children can place the reusable forest stickers onto the map to show where different critters live. They can also compare the temperate forest (or woodlands) with other types of forest.

Eureka also makes a bulletin board set that introduces the concept of habitats.

Environmental Learning on Vacation

Excursions, both day trips and extended vacations, are a chance to explore the world. Even if you live in a very urban area, there's apt to be land not too far away. If you have the resources, you may want to participate in structured activities or tours.

More Poetry About Forest Habitats

What's described in this Robert Frost poem is the basic cycle of life, common to forest and desert ecosystems. It's a good poem for fall.A lot of people have happened into this page recently looking for habitat poetry. That got me thinking. What, besides the Robert Frost poem "Hardwood Groves" do I recommend? "Tuft of Flowers" (also by Frost) is a contemplation of environmental themes, but it's suitable mainly for mature readers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson also has some great ones. In "The Fable", you can ponder the squirrel and it's place in the world -- this one is intended for children. "The Rhodora", meanwhile, is about a forest flower; it's for slightly older readers. . Mature readers may want to stroll about "The River" while pondering riparian habitats.

You can also find collections of public domain nature and tree poems on several well-known sites.

Video: Building a Desert Diorama

This is a project for older kids: They can build a desert oasis out of inexpensive modeling compound. You'll find videos like this for other lands as well -- Papa Tom knows how to build!

Kits for Desert and Forest Dioramas

Scene a Rama is the company that Papa Tom promotes with his diorama-building video tutorials. The company has quite a line of products for the student who strives for realism. You can find materials for deserts, mountains, even riparian habitats. There are also foliage kits and water kits. Fake water can be very striking in a miniature setting (though of course there's also charm in what children create themselves out of construction paper).

Woodland Animals for Dioramas... and Play

Dioramas don't have to sit on a shelf in the garage. You can use small toy animals to create a playable habitat diorama. This set includes one each of a number of well-known North American species,including beaver, raccoon, white-tail deer, and black bear. (There is a separate set available with species that live in and around rivers. Seattle is not a river species, but there are some things that look familiar.)

Science Standards - Integrating Scientific Methods

Science is not just a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking: questioning, hypothesizing, setting up experiments where just one variable differs and the rest are controlled... Yet I've known children as old as middle school who, when asked how scientists gain knowledge, said they get it from books. They have fallen behind on some of the standards.

Here are links to the standards and grade level expectations from my own state, Washington, as well as from other states and national organizations. State boards can provide a surprising wealth of resources -- for teaching as well as assessment.


With the exception of the raccoon and bunny pictures, the photos are mine.

You can share ideas and responses here.

Don't Forget to Leave Tracks!

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    • Gayle Dowell profile image

      Gayle Dowell 

      5 years ago from Kansas

      Great resources. I've homeschooled my two girls and this would have been a great added resource! Will pass it on to others with smaller kids. My girls are now grown.

    • LoriBeninger profile image


      5 years ago

      Very nice! Did I miss the part where you explain the orange and the apple that were in your desert and forest boxes, respectively?

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Awesome lens, nicely done!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Quite wonderfully presented! Thanks so much for sharing - blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 

      6 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      Nice ideas for study desert and forest ecosystems. I live in the desert now and is interesting, to say the least.

    • iijuan12 profile image


      6 years ago from Florida

      Thank you for the great lens! I'm featuring it on my lens on Arizona .

    • naturegirl7s profile image

      Yvonne L. B. 

      6 years ago from Covington, LA

      Excellent ecosystem boxes, plans and resources. Understanding habitats and ecosystems is crucial for our children. Blessed.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens. It is really helpful to learn about different ecosystems.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I used to have rabbits when I was a kid and seeing your article photo reminded me of that, appreciate your article ... *blessed!*

    • LouisaDembul profile image


      6 years ago

      I think teaching children about ecosystems is very important. Not only children, actually. Nobody is independent.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens but the videos are for a much younger audience!!

    • Loganor profile image


      6 years ago

      The desert is different from any other ecosystem. And the Sonoran Desert is different from the Chihuahuan Desert where I live.

    • MelonyVaughan profile image


      6 years ago

      Great and inspiring lens! Thanks for sharing!

    • TenPoundTenor profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens. Thanks for the info. You present it very well.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Burning Issue.Nicely presented.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice to see this on the front page of Squidoo. I love your presentation.

    • Nimsrules LM profile image

      Nirmal Shah 

      6 years ago from India

      Having an inclination towards snakes, I've always liked the Desert ecosystem. Nice lens!

    • Brandi Bush profile image


      6 years ago from Maryland

      I really like the habitat box and the diorama. I remember making diorama's when I was in school. I'm going to bookmark this and we'll use the ideas and links here in a science unit study. Thanks!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a great idea, you can simulate an environment in a miniature form. You probably can't get any animal life though.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thumbs up! good lens

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 

      6 years ago from Ljubljana

      Very attractive approach to interesting study. As former substitute teacher I support every idea of teaching on real life examples. Environment is best textbook of all biology related classes. Thumbs up!

    • iijuan12 profile image


      6 years ago from Florida

      Great lesson! I love your hands-on learning ideas!

    • hassam lm profile image

      hassam lm 

      6 years ago

      Great informative article! I am sure a lot of other teachers will find it useful as well.

    • Lee Nitus profile image

      Lee Nitus 

      6 years ago

      Wow.. your lens has a lot of good information. I liked it.... It was informative and well put together. I'll know where to direct my science teacher friends. Thanks for creating the lens!

    • Diana Wenzel profile image

      Renaissance Woman 

      6 years ago from Colorado

      Great ideas and lesson resources. Appreciated and blessed!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens and solid information.

    • profile image

      ThomasJ4 LM 

      6 years ago

      Nice desert habitat resource you have here, good work :)

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      good one @ thumbs up

      have the 50th thumb up from me

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      science and technology are fantastic things!

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      6 years ago from Scotland

      this is fantastic and such a valuable learning resource! Blessed

    • franstan lm profile image

      franstan lm 

      6 years ago

      Perfect lesson plans

    • EdTecher profile image

      Heidi Reina 

      7 years ago from USA

      Great resources for ecosystems. Thanks for sharing.

    • lasertek lm profile image

      lasertek lm 

      7 years ago

      You have some great info and links. Well done!

      We actually cover the same topic, hereâs mine: Homeschooling 101: Guide to Free Curriculum and Other Resources.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      It is always interesting to know the eco-systems, nature's ability to recycle and sustain.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Nice article.Thanks for sharing. Work Plan Platform

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      love to teach - love to learn . great job

    • GonnaFly profile image


      7 years ago from Australia

      Some excellent ideas. Lensrolled to my desert coloring pages.

    • Barb McCoy profile image

      Barb McCoy 

      7 years ago

      Thanks for collecting these resources and ideas. I will be lensrolling to my desert lens, adding to my favorites and adding a special blessing.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is an excellent resource for studying the ecosystem. Thanks for doing this lens.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      7 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      This is an excellent resource for studying the ecosystem. Thanks for doing this lens.

    • jackieb99 profile image


      7 years ago

      You have an excellent site.

    • MamaBelle profile image

      Francis Luxford 

      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Great information. Very nice lens.

    • MeggieMcFallon profile image


      7 years ago

      What a great idea. I grew up in Rural New England and our school was on over 100 acres so I had the privilege of studying eco-systems up close and personal. You must be quite popular with the students! Very clever method.

    • jackieb99 profile image


      7 years ago

      Such great ideas! I want to do them all myself :)

    • javr profile image


      7 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Sure a lot of great tips here. This lens has been blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      What a delightful lesson plan! I see a very well deserved purple star here, congratulations on a work well done!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I like to find lenses that teach us about our planet. Thanks. Nice lens.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very informative lens on our forest, desert and eco-system.

    • norma-holt profile image


      7 years ago

      Nice project lens. Featuring it on Educating Young Minds

    • EmmaCooper LM profile image

      EmmaCooper LM 

      7 years ago

      Very useful lens, thanks for sharing :)

    • LisaAuch1 profile image

      Lisa Auch 

      7 years ago from Scotland

      This is such an important topic of our time, great resources sure wish I had this info at hand when I was teaching! Congratulations on your Purple Star Award, truly deserving

    • jimmielanley profile image

      Jimmie Lanley 

      7 years ago from Memphis, TN, USA

      Thanks! I see some of my lenses linked here. :-)

      Ecosystems are a great unit study topic because of all the tangents you can explore. And plus I just love nature.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      What a wonderful page. You have some great ideas and links for lesson plans here.

    • Spook LM profile image

      Spook LM 

      7 years ago

      I wish you had been my teacher. Blessed by an Angel.

    • Meloramus profile image


      7 years ago

      Marvellous lens! Thanks for putting this together.

    • hlkljgk profile image


      7 years ago from Western Mass

      another wonderful resource. thanks for all of your hard work.

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 

      8 years ago

      I bet teachers and homeschoolers will get a lot out of this lens - great job! Blessed by a squidangel


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