Discovering Connections in the Natural World

Living things are connected to each other and to their environment in many fascinating ways. In a sunny field, grasses, clover, and goldenrod capture sunlight to make food by photosynthesis. Rabbits and grasshoppers feed on leaves and shoots, and foxes feed on rabbits and grasshoppers. The wind scatters grass pollen and milkweed seeds, rainfall brings water, and worms turn dead leaves into soil underfoot. These are examples of the many interactions between plants and animals, sunlight, water, and air that go on in a field. Every different environment – field or forest, pond or stream – functions as an ecological system, or “ecosystem.” An ecosystem consists of all the living and nonliving things in a particular place and the ways they are connected. All the organisms in an ecosystem depend on everything else – both living and nonliving – for food and other needs. Continue reading Ecosystems

Signs of Leaf Eaters – Background

You don’t have to go far to see nature at work – bees visiting flowers, fireflies twinkling in a field, a hawk circling overhead. Less familiar, but right under our noses, are countless tiny animals busily feeding upon leaves or hiding in them from their predators. The signs of leaf-eaters, or leaf-hiders, are easy to find. Peer into any bush or tree and you are sure to see leaves that are chewed, rolled, folded, or sewn up with silk. Snails, aphids, and caterpillars feed upon this bountiful food supply, while spiders and hunting insects prowl amidst the leaves. Looking for signs of leaf-eaters gives us a glimpse of an ecosystem in action. Continue reading Signs of Leaf Eaters – Background

Signs of Leaf Eaters – Activities

FOCUS: By summer’s end, nearly every leaf bears some signs of feeding by plant-eaters small or large. Some make holes, some scallop the edges, some roll the leaves into tubes. Plants capture energy from the sun and, in turn, produce food for a variety of leaf-eaters. When we watch a leaf-eater feeding on a leaf – or being eaten by a predator – we are seeing the flow of energy from sun to plant to herbivore to carnivore. These interactions are evidence of food chains and webs, important components of every ecosystem.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about leaf-eaters.

Bring in or have children gather a variety of leaves that have bite marks, spots, or irregularities on them. In small groups, ask children to sort their leaves according to their observations.

Materials: a variety of leaves with bite marks, spots, or irregularities.

Objective: To view examples of leaf-feeding, noticing patterns and grouping by shared characteristics.

Begin by giving each small group of children a set of photos of leaves showing damage by leaf-eaters. Continue reading Signs of Leaf Eaters – Activities

Signs of Leaf Eaters – Puppet Show

Leaf-eaters and their Foes


Characters: Benjy Bear, Leafcutter Caterpillar on leaf, Chickadee, Gertie Grass, Grady Grasshopper, Freddie Fox

Benjy Bear  Boy, my belly’s so full of berries, I need a nap. I’ll just lie down in the shade of this maple tree. (leaf enters) Why, look at that leaf. I wonder why it has those big holes in it?

Leafcutter  They don’t call me a leafcutter for nothing!

Bear  A leafcutter? You look like a caterpillar. Continue reading Signs of Leaf Eaters – Puppet Show

Life in the Dirt – Background

Unless we are gardening, farming, or digging a hole, we don’t think much about the dirt beneath our feet. Yet it teams with life, and within it are complex food webs and a host of interesting creatures. Here nutrients that were once part of living plants or animals become part of the soil again, eaten and digested by a multitude of organisms. As they eat, grow, or tunnel through the earth, the many inhabitants of the soil have an important role in the making of soil and the ongoing life of terrestrial ecosystems, from the richest prairie to the rockiest northern forest.

Most people use the words “soil” and “dirt” interchangeably, meaning bits of earth we have to sweep up or wash off. But to a scientist, Continue reading Life in the Dirt – Background

Life in the Dirt – Activities

FOCUS: Life abounds in the soil, from plant roots to earthworms to moles and millipedes. All these organisms play important roles in the flow of energy and matter through an ecosystem. Many soil critters act as decomposers, breaking down plant and animal materials and returning them as nutrients to the soil where other living things may use them again. The soil is a rich ecosystem teeming with life in a complex food web.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about life in the dirt.

Give small groups of children worms to observe and draw, and ask what they notice about them.

Materials: earthworms, one for each pair of children (any kind of garden worm is fine; night-crawlers are less active but larger so the parts are easier to view; smaller worms are often more active and so more fun); water mister, paper plate and damp paper towel for each worm; magnifying lenses.

Objective: To view some special characteristics of earthworms and consider how these make them well suited to life in the soil.

Bring in a container of worms in soil. Have children work in pairs or small groups. Continue reading Life in the Dirt – Activities

Life in the Dirt – Puppet Show

Worm Wonderings

Characters: Woggle Worm, Wiggle Worm, Dandelion, Cicada, Mole

Woggle Worm Is that you, Wiggle?

Wiggle Worm  Hi, Woggle! It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other. What have you been up to?

Woggle  You mean down to. I’ve just been enjoying the dirt. And now that we’ve gotten some rain, it’s so easy to get around!

Wiggle  And easy to breathe. When you breathe through your skin, the way we worms do, you need to stay damp. Continue reading Life in the Dirt – Puppet Show

Leaf Litter – Background

Under a leafy canopy, the shaded forest floor is a rich ecosystem teeming with life. Here in the leaf litter, millions of small organisms – fungi and bacteria, springtails and mites, spiders and centipedes – are all part of a rich food web. These busy creatures have an important role in the flow of energy through the forest, for many of them feed on dead plant and animal debris, releasing the nutrients so other living things can grow and thrive.

All the leaves, twigs, feathers, insect parts, and other debris that falls on the forest floor form the leaf litter, a very important part of the forest. Continue reading Leaf Litter – Background

Leaf Litter – Activities

FOCUS: Under a canopy of trees, the forest floor is a cool, damp, and protected environment. Here in the leaf litter millions of small organisms – fungi and bacteria, springtails and mites, spiders and centipedes and others – are all part of a rich food web. Many of these are decomposers, feeding on plant and animal remains and turning them back into soil.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about leaf litter.

Pour a garbage bag of full of freshly fallen leaves onto a sheet. Point out that these are just some of the leaves that fall from a single tree, each year. Ask children, “With so many leaves falling in a forest every year, why aren’t they piled up high in the forest?”

Materials: a garbage bag full of freshly fallen leaves, old sheet.

Objective: To experience the world as it might seem to a small creature living on the forest floor.

Spread a tarpaulin or shower curtain on the forest floor and have children lie on it, facing upwards. Continue reading Leaf Litter – Activities

Leaf Litter – Puppet Show

Litter Critter Jig

Characters: Woodcock, Dead Leaf, Millipede, Fungus, Eft, Springtail.


Wanda Woodcock (dancing) Step to the right, give a little jiggle, step to the left, make the worms wiggle.

Dead Leaf  That’s a nice dance you’re doing, whoever you are.

Woodcock  I’m Wanda Woodcock, and I’m not dancing. I’m jiggling the ground to make the worms wiggle so I can catch ’em! Continue reading Leaf Litter – Puppet Show

Snags and Rotting Logs – Background

Perched on the bare limb of a standing snag, an owl calls to its mate. Nearby, a mouse scampers along a fallen log and a spider spins its web on a rotting stump. From standing snags to lying logs, dead wood is essential in a forest, though its importance is often overlooked. At each stage of decay, snags and logs are hubs of activity, providing food, shelter, perches, travel corridors, and many other functions in the forest ecosystem.

Some trees die suddenly, caught in fires, hurricanes, or struck by lightning, but most trees die in stages, succumbing gradually to disease, drought, old age, or a combination of factors. Continue reading Snags and Rotting Logs – Background

Snags and Rotting Logs – Activities

FOCUS: From standing snags to lying logs, dead wood is essential in a forest, though its importance is often overlooked. As wood decays, a succession of plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria come and go, each decomposing it further. At every stage, snags and rotting logs are hubs of activity, providing food, shelter, perches, travel corridors, and many other functions in the forest ecosystem.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about snags and rotting logs.

Give small groups of children a rotting log to investigate with their senses. Ask children to touch the log with their eyes closed, to tap on the log, to smell it, and then to look at it. What do they notice?

Materials: rotting logs (one per small group); plastic tarp or newspaper for each log.

Objective: To examine a rotting log, looking for evidence of living things – plants, animals and fungi – that live on or in it, and to record observations about them.

Log Portrait
Work in small groups of three or four children with an adult. Provide each group with a rotting log to examine. Continue reading Snags and Rotting Logs – Activities

Snags and Rotting Logs – Puppet Show

Cleaning House

Characters: Benjy Bear, Sappy Sapsucker, Sammy Squirrel, Carpenter Ant Queen, Sally Salamander.

Props: dead snag, rotting log, spray bottle, cotton balls, loop on back of stage to hold up props.

(Dead snag prop on stage.)

Benjy Bear  Gee, look at all these rotten snags and logs. As manager of this forest, I need to do a little house cleaning. Better get rid of some of the dead wood, like this old, rotten maple tree here.

Sappy Sapsucker  Wait just a minute, Benjy Bear! I need that tree! Continue reading Snags and Rotting Logs – Puppet Show

Staying Warm – Background

A bushy-tailed fox patrols the edge of a snowy field; a blue jay’s call rings out in the frosty stillness; tiny mice prints, like stitching on a quilt, crisscross the snow. These sights and sounds tell of the many birds and mammals that stay active throughout the winter. Like us, these animals must find ways to stay warm in order to survive this season of cold, inhospitable weather.

It’s easy to show why warm-blooded animals face the problem of heat loss in winter. Continue reading Staying Warm – Background

Staying Warm – Activities

FOCUS: In northern climates, ecosystems are very different places in winter compared to summer, with shorter days, colder temperatures, and plants making little or no food. Even so, many warm-blooded animals stay active throughout this cold season, conserving body heat by seeking out shelter or putting on extra fur, feathers, or fat. For small animals, a layer of snow can offer some protection, and the energy stored in dormant plants and cached food provides the nutrition they need to get through the winter.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about animals staying warm.

Either outside or near an open window, ask children what they notice about how the outdoors in northern climates is different in the winter than at other times of the year. Ask children what they do to stay warm outside. Continue reading Staying Warm – Activities

Staying Warm – Puppet Show


Characters: Matthew Mouse, Matilda Mouse, Dory Doe, Chelsey Chickadee, Rocky Raccoon

Props: small strip of fur, downy feathers, small bag labeled “Nuts”; special stage with tunnel and chamber under the snow.

(Puppets appear on top of the snow)

Matthew  Hey Matilda, let’s go out for a walk in the snow.

Matilda  Sorry, Matthew. I’ve decided to hibernate like Woody Woodchuck and sleep until spring. So, see you in May!

Matthew  Matilda, hibernating is much more than sleeping. Continue reading Staying Warm – Puppet Show

Squirrel Tales – Background

Squirrels are a familiar sight whether we live in a city, suburb, or rural setting. It’s fun to watch squirrels’ antics at bird feeders, their acrobatics on branches and utility wires, their furtive foraging for nuts and seeds. Because we often see them near our homes, we may forget that squirrels are wild animals and that they play an important role in the forest ecosystem. Tree squirrels are gatherers of seeds, planters of trees, and prey for predators like hawks and owls.

The Northeast is home to four species of tree squirrels, those that make their homes in tree branches. Continue reading Squirrel Tales – Background

Squirrel Tales – Activities

FOCUS: Three kinds of tree squirrels – gray, red, and flying squirrels – occupy our forests, often competing for the same foods and shelters. Each kind has a special niche – particular habits and habitat preferences – which helps these squirrels live side by side. All are hoarders of food, hiding a supply for the winter, though each uses a different technique. Looking for signs of squirrel activity outside gives us a window into the lives of these busy animals.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about squirrels.

Give small groups of children photographs of the three types of squirrels. Ask them to make observations about similarities and differences.

Materials: Squirrel Pictures (one set per group).

Objective: To examine different parts of a squirrel’s body, its tracks and sign, and consider how these relate to a squirrel’s daily life and its role in the ecosystem.

Set up three stations with items from the Squirrel Set and have children work in small groups, visiting each station and discussing the items on display with an adult. Continue reading Squirrel Tales – Activities

Squirrel Tales – Puppet Show

A Tree Party

Characters: Rocky Raccoon, Grady Gray Squirrel, Rita Red Squirrel, Floyd Flying Squirrel (two-sided).

Props: several conifer cones and one stripped cone.

Rocky Raccoon  Oh boy, this is going to be fun. I love block parties. All the neighbors get together and everyone brings along some food to share.

Grady Gray Squirrel  Hi, Rocky! I don’t usually see you in the daytime, especially in winter. You’re usually asleep in your den.

Raccoon  I would be asleep, but my stomach woke me up. I haven’t eaten in two weeks. Tonight’s potluck supper should be a feast! Continue reading Squirrel Tales – Puppet Show