Ecology is the scientific study of interactions among organisms and their environment, including interactions between organisms and interactions with their abiotic (non-living) environment. While the range of topics is quite extensive, for this level I chose to focus on just few – scale of organization, interactions between populations, symbiosis, and competition for resources. The activities I selected are not typically considered labs but are fun, hands-on ways in which to engage upper elementary kids in introductory ecology activities.
When the kids entered the room, I asked them to copy down the following hierarchy into their notebook. As they were underway, I spent a few moments quickly reviewing the definition of each (most of which we had covered previously) and how they built upon one another.
The kids were already familiar with food chains and the terms carnivore, herbivore, and omnivore. We thereby used a ball of yarn and a set of forest animal cards to create a food web. We sat in a circle on the floor and I distributed the cards randomly. I then asked the kids to read aloud their card (mosquito, raccoon, oak tree, bark beetle, woodpecker, beaver, manzanita, wolf, bat, etc.) and as they did so, we connected the organisms (passing the ball of yarn to one another) to show their relationships for food, shelter, etc. Once everyone was linked, we talked about how illnesses, climate change, and population declines can effect the entire web. In doing so, the kids would let go of their part of the yarn to help visualize how changes and impacts to one component of the web affect the entire ecosystem.
I first introduced the term symbiosis to the kids and then provided examples of three kinds of symbiotic relationships found in nature: commensalism, mutualism, and parasitism. As I shared examples, it soon became apparent that the kids were familiar with others, resulting in quite the lively discussion. One of my favorite ecology activities is a game from Project WILD called Good Buddies, a variation of the card game, Old Maid. After the kids completed writing the definitions in their notebooks, I distributed a set of cards to each group and we played for about 15 minutes. A variation of the cards and instructions was developed by The Science Spot and can be downloaded here, Good Buddies.[ Admin Note: I have been using Project WILD activities since my first year in the classroom and have had a lot of success with the curricula. If you ever get a chance to take part in a workshop – I highly recommend it. ]
Another fun activity from Project WILD is Quick Frozen Critters – a variation of Freeze Tag or Sharks & Minnows. In this game, students discover how competition for food affects the population and the importance of adaptation in predator / prey relationships. The goal for the prey is to collect 3 food tokens by running across the field, picking up ONE token, and returning to the ‘permanent shelter’ (prey may collect only one token at a time and thereby need to run across 3 times). All the while, the predators goal is to capture 3 prey animals by lightly tagging them as they are in motion.
- Find natural boundaries for playing field or use cones to mark out boundaries
- Disperse “food” tokens on one end of the playing field
- Place “shelters” (hula hoops) throughout playing field (3-4 depending on size of field and number of students)
Introduce the Game:
- The field will represent a forest (or other habitat), the players represent predators (2-3 students) and their prey (the remaining students)
- Explain that the object of the game is for each player to cross the field to the other side, pick up food tokens and make it back to your nest or home. The catch is that the predator is out there, lurking, trying to “eat” or tag its prey.
- There are hula-hoops scattered across the field that represent shelter areas where the prey may hide (in a forest, for example, fallen logs, a cave, a shrub, etc.) Prey may stop here to escape the predator on his/her journey to obtain food. Prey may also try to elude capture by playing dead (freezing in place).
- Upon capture, predators are to escort their prey to the sidelines and thereafter return to the playing field.
- Play several rounds so students may have an opportunity to play both roles.
- As soon as prey is captured, he or she becomes a predator. This will increase the ratio of predators to prey. Make sure to discuss how this variation affected the game.
- Have the students change the way they can move. Play a round where students can only hop, another where they can only walk, etc.
- Play this game in the shallow end of a large swimming pool. Switch predator/prey species names (hula hoops will float).
- What are some characteristics of prey species that help them escape from predators? A: schooling, fast moving, camouflage, countershading
- What are some characteristics of predator species that help them catch prey? A: working as a group, fast moving, camouflage, countershading, teeth
- Review definition of ecological terms introduced (predator, prey, population, community, ecosystem, etc.)