Ferns and Fiddleheads – Activities

FOCUS:  The arrival of spring is heralded by the appearance of fuzzy spirals poking up through the soil and leaf litter – fiddleheads ready to unfurl into fern fronds. By examining similarities and differences, sorting by leaf structure and creating leaf prints, we’ll see how patterns can help us recognize and classify our common ferns. All ferns have leaves with a blade and a stem, but the many variations in leaf form, spore-bearing structures, and preferred habitat make each species unique and recognizable.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about ferns and fiddleheads.

Give each child a once-cut fern frond. Ask children to draw it. What do they notice about ferns?

Materials: a variety of once-cut fern fronds; paper or journals, pencils, magnifying lenses.

Objective: To learn the parts of a fern and sort ferns into three basic groups by leaf form.

Have children work in small groups with a leader. Give each group some once-cut ferns (such as Christmas fern) to examine, pointing out the axis, blade, leaflet, stem, and roots (if present). Now give them a twice-cut and thrice-cut (lacy) fern.

Have children observe closely to see how the blade can be further divided into subleaflet and lobe. Provide each group with the Three Types of Ferns chart and a set of real pressed ferns or fern pictures and have them sort these into the three categories. What other characteristics might be used to sort the different ferns? Older children can try to identify their ferns using the Ferns of New England handouts.

Materials: Three Types of Ferns chart; photos or drawings of a variety of ferns or real, pressed fern leaves, Ferns of New England handout.

PUPPET SHOW  “A Ferntastic Journey”
Objective: To meet some common ferns and learn about three basic patterns in frond structure.

Perform the puppet show or have the children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. Ask the children one way in which ferns are different from other plants. (Reproduce by spores instead of seeds.) Hold up the fern puppets and ask the children to name some ways in which they are alike or different from each other. Use the Three Types of Ferns diagram to review the difference between once-cut, twice-cut, and thrice-cut ferns.

Materials: puppets, script, props, Three Types of Ferns diagram.

Objective: To construct a large model of a thrice-cut fern in order to understand the structure of fern leaves.

Working in small groups, have every child cut one or more subleaflets out of green paper using the Fern Leaflet Pattern template and directions. On a piece of white paper, have them assemble their set of five subleaflets into a leaflet, as pictured on the Fern Leaflet Pattern handout, then glue or tape it down. Mount a long, thin strip of green paper, about four feet long by two inches wide, onto a bulletin board to make the stem and axis of the fern frond. Have each group bring up their leaflet and tape it along the fern’s stem to create a thrice-cut fern frond.

Materials: Fern Leaflet Pattern template, green paper, scissors, bulletin board or white board, tape.

Objective: To conduct a survey of ferns outside, looking for different kinds of ferns and different stages of their life cycles.

Ahead of time, the leader can scout on and around the school grounds for areas where ferns are present. Have the children work in small groups with a leader and visit these areas. Using the Fern Hunt card, have them try to find different kinds of ferns and the different fern features described.


—–  A fiddlehead – open one gently to see how the leaves are furled inside.

—–  Rootstocksensitivefern

—–  Once-cut fern

—–  Twice-cut fern

—–  Thrice-cut fern

—–  Fern with a smooth stem

—–  Fern with fuzz on its stem

—–  Fern with brown scales on its stem

—–  A fern with fruit dots on the underside

—–  A fern with its spore cases on a separate, hard, brown, fertile frond

Ask the children to notice what the habitat is like where the different ferns are growing. What kinds of conditions – sunny, shady, damp, dry – do ferns seem to prefer? Do different kinds of ferns grow in different habitat?

For older children, give each group a small Ferns of New England booklet that shows silhouettes of many ferns that grow in the region. Have the students try to find and identify ferns they find outside. Can they find a fern that is not in this booklet?

Materials: Fern Hunt cards, pencils, magnifying lenses, surveyor’s tape, marker; for older children, Ferns of New England booklets, one per child.

Objective: To closely examine and record observations of a fern or fiddlehead.

Ask each child to find and draw a fiddlehead or a fern leaf and label the drawing with vocabulary from the lesson. What is one question children have about ferns from their observations?

Materials: journals, pencils.

UPPER GRADE CHALLENGE: Fern Survey (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To record observations along a transect to look for patterns of fern distribution.

Ahead of time, try to find an area on or near the school grounds with several different types of ferns. Place station markers, spaced ten to twenty feet apart, along a transect through an area with ferns or along the edge of a field or playground where ferns are present. Have the children work in small groups, and provide them with a Fern Survey Data Sheets, large (at least 36”) hula-hoop, pencils, colored pencils and clipboards. Assign each team to one or two stations where they will conduct a survey. Explain the procedure ahead of time. At each station, children will begin by laying the hula-hoop on the ground around the station marker. The survey has three parts – ferns, soils and shading.

Ferns: Begin by looking at how much of the area is covered by ferns. Is it completely fern-covered or are there other plants too? Would you say that ferns cover a quarter of the area? half? three-quarters? the whole block? If there is more than one kind of fern present, estimate the amount covered by each kind of fern. On the fern cover pie chart, have the children shade in the areas covered by each kind of fern with a different color. Now have them collect one frond from each fern species in their block. They may use the Ferns of New England handout or another guide to identify the ferns at their station.

Soil Type:  Ask the children to examine the ground under the ferns. Does it feel dry, damp, or wet? Is it mostly a) sand, b) dirt, c) rocky or pebbly soil, d) exposed rocks?

Shading: Looking up at the sky above the block, how much is shaded by trees and how much is open? Decide whether it is a quarter, half, three-quarters, completely shaded by trees, or completely open. On the Fern Survey Data Sheet, have them color in the areas that are shaded on the shade cover pie chart.

Afterward, gather the children together and compare their results. Press the fern fronds and make a bulletin board display showing the stations and types of ferns, shadiness, and soil at each station. Which places had the most ferns? Did some kinds only grow in sunnier places? Shady places? What other things might affect where ferns grow?

Materials: six station markers such as stakes, flags, gym cones; for each team: large hula-hoop, pencil, colored pencils, clipboard, magnifying lenses, Fern Survey Data Sheets, Ferns of New England booklets.

Objective: To make prints of fern fronds and use these to make a display about local ferns.

A few days ahead of time, press a variety of fern fronds. In class, have the children select and lay their fern frond out on a piece of newspaper, paint it with watercolor paint, then carefully lift their frond and place it, painted side up, on a fresh piece of newspaper. Place a half sheet or full sheet of white paper over the paint-coated frond, press it down firmly, then lift the paper off carefully and allow to dry. Have the children sort their fern prints into three groups, based on whether their fern was once-cut, twice-cut, or thrice-cut, and use them to make a bar graph or display board. Older children can label their fern print using the Ferns of New England guide.

Materials: pressed fern leaves, one per child; white paper, watercolor paint sets, soft watercolor paint brushes, newspaper, Ferns of New England guide.

Objective: To model the unfurling of a fern frond and share observations about ferns.

Have the children hold hands in a line with an adult at each end. One adult leads the group in a circle around the second adult who remains more or less stationary, tightening the circle with each rotation to form a spiral. Then reverse direction and open the group into a circle. Pass a sensitive fern fertile frond from child to child around the circle as the child holding it shares one fern-related word or phrase.

Materials: a sensitive fern fertile frond or other fern frond to pass around.


Fern Garden: Transplant some wild ferns into pots or a freshly dug bed, mulched with some leaves. Keep them watered well, and watch them grow new leaves.

Fern Trail: Help students to identify ferns on the school grounds using field guides. Make plant labels for each and set them near each fern. Invite others on a fern walk and explain the characteristics that help to identify each species.

Fern Sun prints: On a sunny day, make a print by placing a pressed fern on a piece of blue or purple craft paper and placing it in a sunny window for an hour or two until the paper fades. The fern will leave a print that is darker than the surrounding paper. This can also be done outside with sun-print paper following the directions on the package.

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