What Makes a Mammal a Mammal?

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SWBAT describe basic needs and features of mammals.

Big Idea

Students learn about two mammals and collect information to compare.


In this lesson, we focus on mammals and their basic needs. Mammals have hair, drink milk, and have a backbone. I framed this unit around the 6 animal classes to provide a structure for students to organize the new information about basic needs and features. Click here for the introductory lesson about the animal classes. I chose to teach about mammals first for two reasons - students are usually more familiar with examples of mammals and also because humans are mammals! Since I am teaching this unit in autumn, I am going to focus on squirrels and humans as two examples of mammals. Any mammal could be used instead of squirrels.

The Essential Standards that these lessons align to are 1.L.1.1, "Recognize that animals need air, water, space, food and shelter, and that these may be found in their environment" and standard 1.L.2.2, "Summarize the basic needs of a variety of different animals (including air, water, and food) for energy and growth. Naturally, teaching about basic needs will also include a conversation about their habitat because their habitat must provide for their basic needs. For each lesson, I post both the lesson objective from the Essential Standards and a guiding question. Listen to my Explanation of Essential Standards for science. The guiding question helps students to understand the purpose behind the lesson and to connect to prior knowledge. I have found it helpful because it also keeps me focused on the objectives for the day. When I first introduce the lesson to the students, I write at the top of the board, 'What features of squirrels make them mammals? What are the basic needs of mammals?'



  • Internet/Projector

Note: During this unit, I have lots of books about all kinds of animals around in the classroom, but with the Common Core State Standards there is a large emphasis on non-fiction books. The more exposure students have to non-fiction texts, real photographs, and information about the animals, the more connections they will make to the content.

Note: To prepare for the final mammal lesson, I send home a note and ask for a baby picture of each of my mammalian students! When I get them in, I copy them in color and send back the originals and keep the copies for the third mammal lesson.


Warm Up

5 minutes

To begin this lesson, I read the essential questions to the students and we quickly revisit the six different animal classes by singing the 6 Animal Classes Song. I want to quickly focus the students on mammals, so I start a new anchor chart titled "Mammals" and I say,

"There are 4 features that animals must have to be classified as a mammal. We are going to look at a website and make a chart to remember the four features".

I use this website to teach the 4 basic features of the mammal class (warm blooded, hair or fur, drink milk, and backbone). As we look at the website and talk about each feature, I add it to the anchor chart.

Then, I show this fun song video to introduce squirrels. I want to hook the students into the lesson, and a little song and dance will actively engage them!




35 minutes

To learn about each animal, we are going to complete a "Fact Sheet" as we work so that it will be easier for us to remember the information and also so that we have a reference when we work on comparing animals in future lessons. The term 'basic needs' is on the Fact Sheet repeatedly and my students are already familiar with this term from this lesson.

Mammal Anchor ChartDuring this lesson, I give students lots of information in different ways which aligns to Science and Engineering Practice 8 (obtaining information from grade level texts and media) and ask them to record it on their Fact Sheet (communicating information and ideas). We have done a lot of preparation to work in our science journals with diagrams, labels, and details, so they understand that this work needs to be accurate and detailed. While they write on their Fact Sheets, I add to our anchor chart to provide accurate spellings for students. I say,

"We have done a lot of work in your science journals with diagrams, labels, adding details and using accurate colors and spelling. Today, we are going to complete a Fact Sheet about squirrels. To get the information we need, we are going to watch a few short videos and then read a book together about squirrels. Let's look to see what information we need to find to fill out the fact sheet".

Together, we look at the blank Fact Sheet and talk about each component. My intention is to make the Fact Sheet accessible to all students - those who can write really well and those who are still developing, and those who can draw really well and whose who are still working on those skills. After going over the Fact Sheet, I show these two videos:

Video 1 - Primary cartoon video about squirrels

Video 2 - A National Geographic video about White Squirrels

Video 3 - "Fooled by Nature" - Shows how squirrels hide their nuts for the winter and then find them again.

Watching videoAs we go through the resources together, we stop and add things to our Fact Sheets together. Eventually, in future lessons, I intend for my students to complete these Fact Sheets with a partner but for now I am also teaching the format, so we do it together.

This website has good information that we read over for more details and listen to the audio clip of squirrels. There is also a good reference to the size of a squirrel using scale, and I point that out because of the lesson we did about scale and size.

Then, I read the National Geographic Kids book Squirrels which has very simplistic but comprehensive information about squirrels. I ask questions to the class such as "What are some key features of squirrels? What are their basic needs? Where in the book can I find that information?" The questions I ask are specific to the text and also expand their knowledge of mammals and basic needs. Asking and answering key details in a text supports Common Core State Standards RI1.1.


Here are some examples of student work:

Student Work 1     Student Work 2      Student Work 3

Wrap Up

5 minutes

To make sure students understand the objectives of this lesson, we return to the guiding question and I ask, "What features of squirrels make them mammals? What are their basic needs?" This is a quick review and it is evident that students are able to answer quickly! Watch this quick review of basic needs. If students have difficultly remembering, I remind them to reference their Fact Sheet if they have forgotten any details. Then I say,

"Tomorrow, we are going to learn about another mammal - and it is the only one that can fly! Some people thing it belongs to the bird class, but they are wrong! I wonder if you can guess this mammal?"

By engaging students in guessing the next animal, I am actually giving them some background information for tomorrow's lesson. As they guess, I give them hints like "They have wings!" and "They sometimes live in a cave or a tree" and "They hang upside down to sleep!" Of course, the answer is bats!

Formative Assessment

After the lesson, I look at each student's Fact Sheet from today to determine who understood the content and who needs more support. This unit is structured so that students have multiple opportunities to learn the information so for students who are still learning to write legibly I ensure that most of the information is also on anchor charts in the room. If students have not fully completed their fact sheet, the next morning for morning work as the students come in for the day, they can work with a friend to get the rest of the information. Also, if a student is absent during the unit, they catch up with a friend the same way.

If I notice that students are recording incorrect information, the following day I will more explicitly model how to complete the Fact Sheet so that they have a guide to follow and I also  review any misconceptions that I see before I begin the next lesson.