Scientists Sort/Categorize: Living or Non-Living?

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SWBAT use their observations of plants and animals to sort items into the categories living and nonliving.

Big Idea

What makes something a living thing? We know plants and animals are living, and rocks are non-living. But kids will wonder-- how about a dead leaf? How about a river? How about a zombie?

Instructional Notes


The NGSS call for students to understand patterns in the natural world of plants and animals.  To me, one of the background concepts is to figure out that plants and animals are living things.  This lesson focuses on figuring out what living means.

Also, the beginning of the school year is a great time to set the stage for success in science for the year!   Eventually, I strive for students to self-reflect and ask themselves, “Does what I wrote or drew in my journal describe my observations or new learning?”  So, in today's lesson, we'll practice reflecting as a class to model what reflective thinking sounds like.  This aligns to Science Practice #8, where students record observations and also share them.  The standard states that students use drawing, writing, and numbers in their explanations.  I love that the standard says student work should "provide detail," as my class will be talking about how accurate colors and sizes in drawing provides more information!

During the previous lesson, students wrote or drew pictures of at least 5 items observed during a classroom or schoolyard walk.  While students were recording, I looked for successful recording techniques—like labels—that I know will help other students improve their own work.  I picked a few examples that showed different ways of recording.  Students will present them during the warm-up.  I use marble composition notebooks as Science Journals, but you can always use a blank book or folder for the unit instead!

Next, in the exploration, I lead students to explore what makes something living or non-living.  

And finally, I close the day by going back to our Essential Question Anchor Chart: What does a scientist do?  It's important that students connect our activities to the Science and Engineering Practices, so that they begin to see that indeed, they are scientists!  We add to this chart throughout the unit, and it will remain posted in the classroom throughout the school year.  If you are looking for a good book to read aloud in order to start this anchor chart, try What Is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn.


5 minutes

First, as a class, I facilitate a conversation to evaluate a few journal entries from the previous day.  Science Practice #8 is all about obtaining and communicating information, and presenting student work is a great way to have students orally discuss their observations with others.

I pick as many journals as I think will move our understanding forward.  Today that was three: one with fairly accurate drawings and colors, one with labels, and one who drew boxes around each item.

I let the first graders show and talk about their work.  Then, I point out the specific strategy they used.  At the beginning of the year, they have no idea what strategies they have used!  So, it's important for me to think aloud about them.

Jalen, tell us about what you saw and recorded yesterday.  Friends, look how Jalen sounded out the word "butterfly" as best as he could.  If you couldn't tell what the drawing was, there is a word right here to help you!  Writing a word next to a picture is called a label.

By the end of the conversation or unit, I scaffold this less and ask questions like:

How did ___ give you more information about what he/she saw?  What helped you understand?  The next time we observe, what types of writing or drawing in our journal will help us describe?

See the resource video, where students make suggestions to a friend.  I make a checklist of successful communication strategies for students to reference, so that students can begin literally checking their work!  For now, I post this checklist in a central place. Eventually students will paste a smaller version right into their science journals and make check marks as they use strategies.


20 minutes

Now that students have reflected on successful ways to record observations, I give students 5 minutes or so to add to their own journals.  This is important because students will internalize the strategies the more often they use them.  I included a few videos for you of students working to incorporate new communication strategies.

Here are some video clips of students going back to their work:

Student going back to work #1 This student added labels to his work.

Student going back to work #2 "How do labels help you?" conversation with a student.

Student going back to work #3 Here a student adds descriptive words like "red" (he spelled it r-o-t).

Next, as a class, we will make a web of the items from the previous day’s walk.  Students have their journals with them on the rug.  My school district uses Kidspiration as a webbing software, but a great online one is also available at  Or, you can always use trusty sticky notes on chart paper!  (Sticky notes are a must instead of drawing a whole web, so that you can later move the items around.)

Once our web is created, I will ask:

Which of the items we saw were living?  Which were non-living?  How do you know?

I show students how to pull the virtual bubbles to one side of the web or the other.  Then, students will sort the webbed items into the categories “Living” and “Nonliving.”  If you are using sticky notes, you can rearrange them into the categories.  Or, if you have this on chart paper, grab two different colored highlighters to mark each category.

Note: Students may get confused!   Is a rock living?  Is a fallen leaf living? (Be ready for some controversy!)  We put controversial items down the middle for now.

For new learning today, I first ask students to define “living,” and “nonliving.”   Then, I fix up any misconceptions: Living things are anything that grows, reproduces, and was ever alive (so, logs and dead leaves count).    

As a formative assessment, I show a cool video for students to use with a thumbs-up (living) or thumbs-down (non-living) response.  I pause the video and have students state why they think that item is living or nonliving.  Many students have a misconception that if it doesn't move (like coral), then it is non-living; likewise, if it moves (like a river) than it is living.  This is a great time to correct those misconceptions!

Now, we can decide as a class about any confusing items from the class web.  I model for students how to glue the Vocabulary Cards into their Science Journals.  We will come back to the definitions in the subsequent lesson.


5 minutes

It's really important that students see themselves as scientists and begin connecting to the Science and Engineering Practices (the blue section on the NGSS Standards).  So, as a lesson closing, I ask students to answer the question:

Were we scientists today?  How do you know?

I add any new practices to the Essential Question Anchor Chart: What does a scientist do?.  Three Science Practices jump out at me from this lesson:

  • Good scientists ask questions! 
  • Good scientists communicate to share what they observe and learn.
  • Good scientists use their senses to learn about the world.


As a formative assessment, students will highlight one living thing on their schoolyard observations list in green, and one non-living thing on their list in red.

I will check the work to see:

  • Was the student able to distinguish between living and nonliving?