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.

Gather a variety of leaves that have bite marks, spots, or irregularities on them. In small groups, ask children to sort 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.

Give each small group of children a set of photos of leaves showing damage by leaf-eaters (Leaf Photo Set). Ask them to look for patterns of similarities and differences and sort the leaves into several groups by the kind of damage they notice. Continue reading Signs of Leaf Eaters – Activities

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.

Provide a container of worms in moist soil. Have children wet their hands before handling worms or dampen them with the water mister. Set out paper plates covered with damp paper towels. Review how to use a magnifying lens. Place a worm (rinsed in clean water, if needed) on each plate. Give small groups of children time to observe and draw, and ask what they notice about the worms.

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 thus more fun; invasive jumping worms are oddly active); 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.

Have children work in pairs or small groups.

Things to Look for with a Lens:
Body segments – notice how the body seems to be made of many rings

The worm’s digestive tract full of dirt

The front end or mouth of the worm; the tail end – can you tell which is which? Does the worm have eyes? (No, though it can sense light through its skin.)
Continue reading Life in the Dirt – Activities

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.

Be sure to check for poison ivy first. Have children lie on the forest, facing upwards. What do they notice about their surroundings, such as the amount of light on the forest floor (shady), amount of wind (little), noise (quiet), moisture (damp), fragrance (musty, moldy, like damp earth). Have children roll over onto their stomachs and find a place to dig a little nose hole in the leaf litter; Continue reading Leaf Litter – Activities

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. The logs can be placed on tarps on the ground or examined in place in the woods. Ask the children to examine the outside of their log. How many different things do they notice growing on it?

Continue reading Snags and Rotting Logs – Activities

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.

Gathered in a circle, 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 can do to stay warm outside.

Objective: Use a model to see how a warm object loses heat to its environment.

Ask a child to feel the spot in the center of the circle and report how it feels to the group. (It usually feels cool.) Now set a pan of hot water in that spot. Continue reading Staying Warm – Activities

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. Use the Squirrel Set Questions and Squirrel Set Guide with Answers to guide the exploration. Continue reading Squirrel Tales – Activities

White-tailed Deer – Activities

FOCUS: White-tailed deer are big animals and require a lot of food to survive, so they can have a profound impact on the forests in which they live, and on the many other inhabitants as well. As plant-eaters, seed-planters and sometimes food for large predators, deer are connected in countless ways to the other living things in their woodland homes.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about White-tailed Deer.

Give one item from the deer set to each small group of children. Ask children to take a close look at their object and write down one thing they notice and one thing they wonder.

Materials: Deer Set: deer antlers, skull, pelt, hoof, plus deer and rabbit browse; journals or clipboards and paper, pencils, magnifying lenses.

Objective: To think about the connections between a deer’s physical adaptations and its role in the forest ecosystem.

In small groups, give children a chance to hold and study different deer parts such as those listed below. Use the Deer Set Study guide questions to help children think about each part and how it relates to a deer’s life. Answers are provided on the Deer Set Study Guide Key. Consider the following topics: Continue reading White-tailed Deer – Activities

Stream Life – Activities

FOCUS: Water in a stream rushes, splashes, tumbles, or flows smoothly, creating different conditions and homes for a variety of organisms. In spite of the challenges of life in moving water, the streambed teams with insects. Many feed on plant and animal debris, helping to break down organic material that falls into the water, and they in turn provide a rich source of food for fish, birds, salamanders, and other stream inhabitants.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about stream life.

Standing near a stream, take a minute to stop, listen, and look. Ask children what they notice and wonder about the stream and what animals might live in it.

Objective: To look for evidence of insects or other small creatures living underwater in a stream.

Ask the children how we could find out what kinds of stream creatures live in our stream. We could look for them in the places where they normally live underwater in a stream, noticing how many different kinds we find. Three good ways to do this are: Continue reading Stream Life – Activities

Forest Birds – Activities

FOCUS: The Atlantic Northern Forest, with its many layers of vegetation and abundance of insect prey, provides food and nesting grounds for a wide variety of birds. Whether migratory or resident, birds play an important role in the forest for they help to keep insect populations under control. In the spring, forest birds call for mates and set up territories, filling the woods with a chorus of lively birdsong. A pleasure to see and hear, these jewels of the forest are a valuable part of the forest ecosystem.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about forest birds.

Circle up in a forested area and spend a few minutes just observing. Ask children what  they notice about different places where birds might live in the forest? Note especially the different forest layers.

Materials: optional: picture(s) of Northern forest habitat, Forest Layer Diagram.

Objective: To model how birds avoid competition by foraging in different layers of the forest.

Ask the children to think about this question: Will a bird get more food if it does most of its feeding in one layer, or if it feeds anywhere in the forest? Explain that they will get to model the two ideas. Continue reading Forest Birds – Activities

Pond Life – Activities

FOCUS:  The varied environment of a pond provides homes for a rich array of plants and animals. All these pond dwellers face the challenges of life in the water – obtaining nutrients, avoiding predators, moving from here to there, getting air. The many organisms in a pond ecosystem are dependent upon each other and on the aquatic environment to meet their needs for survival.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about pond life.

Standing near a pond, take a minute to stop, listen, and look. Ask children what they notice and wonder about the pond.

Objective: To explore a pond, looking for evidence of its inhabitants and noticing the different habitats in which they live.

Pond Profile Poster
Ahead of time, make a large diagram on poster board showing a pond in profile. Continue reading Pond Life – Activities