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.

Give each child a fern frond. Ask children what they notice about ferns and what they would like to know about them.

Materials: a variety of fern fronds, 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 diagram and a set of real pressed ferns 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 handout.

Materials: Three Types of Ferns diagram; assortment of pressed ferns, 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, 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 Ferns of New England handout or give each child a small Ferns of New England booklet, that show silhouettes of many common ferns that grow in the region. Have the students try to find and identify ferns they find. Can they find a fern that is not in this booklet?

Materials: Fern Hunt cards, clipboards, pencils, magnifying lenses, surveyor’s tape, markers; for older children: Ferns of New England handout, one per group, or 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: science journals or clipboards and paper, pencils; optional: colored pencils.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Botanical Collection of Schoolyard Ferns
Objective: To create a botanical collection of different fern species on the school grounds.

Ask students where we might find different kinds of ferns growing on the school grounds and make a list of areas to survey. Show them the Sample Herbarium Fern Specimen card and discuss how a collection is helpful for identifying grass species in an area. Working in small groups with an adult leader, have students look for different kinds of ferns in these areas. Have each student choose and pick a fern for making a herbarium card. The sample should include a single frond, with consideration given to size, based on the fact that it will be mounted on an 8.5×11” sheet of paper. Have the students lay out their fern on the white cardstock, folding the stem if needed to fit on the page, and tape it down with one or two small strips of tape. Have students complete a Herbarium Label (using the Ferns of New England handout or a field guide to identify their fern and glue it in the bottom right corner of the sheet.)* Now gather the students together and lay the fern collection out for all to view. Sort like with like. How many different species of ferns did they find on the school grounds?  Could there be others? Encourage the students to notice other ferns in the schoolyard to add to their class botanical collection.

*To press the herbarium cards, put them between several thicknesses of newsprint or scrap paper and place under a stack of books until they are dry.

Materials: scissors for clipping fern fronds, 8.5×11”white cardstock, clear tape, pencils, Herbarium Label TemplateFerns of New England handouts, Sample Herbarium Fern Specimen card, newsprint or scrap paper, books or phone books for pressing ferns; optional: field guide to ferns.

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 handout.

Optional: with younger children, do crayon rubbings of ferns instead.

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

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.

Fibonacci Spiral: Fern fiddleheads, cones, nautilus shells, galaxies and many other spirals in nature follow the Fibonacci Spiral, getting bigger by the same factor (phi – the golden ratio) for every quarter turn they make. To create your own Fibonacci spiral, a large piece of graph paper is helpful. Start with a 1×1 square, draw an adjacent 1×1 square, then an adjacent 2×2 square, then an adjacent 3×3 square. Continue to create adjacent squares that increase in length size according to the Fibonacci sequence (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55 ….), creating larger and larger rectangles. Add a curve going through each square, arching from one corner to the opposite corner.

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