Observing the World Around Us

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Students will make specific and detailed observations about an easily obtained local insect or invertebrate and will theorize about how it survives in the environment.

Big Idea

Animals have characteristics which help them to survive in their environment. If they don't, they will slowly die off.


20 minutes

In order to teach this lesson, I either act fast when a student surprises me by bringing in a little creature of some type, or I lead the class out onto the playground in search of animal neighbors to observe. The most ordinary of animals can provide an opportunity for instant engagement.  Thus far my students have befriended several types of caterpillars, ladybugs, grasshoppers, ants, earwigs, and that's just the insects!  While I can't take advantage of every opportunity, if at all possible I try to lead them through a basic cycle of exploration, explanation and elaboration because natural curiosity is one of the ways in which the scientific process is initiated!  So, the first step of this lesson is to observe the animal, either outside or in the classroom.  I engage them with the following questions.  They write notes in their science journals.

  • What is it?  How do you know?
  • What is it doing in our classroom (in a container, most likely)?
  • What was it doing when you found it outside? (Possible habitat).
  • What observations can you make about it?  Body shape?  Size?  
  • What function do you think is served by some of the body parts that are observable?  (For example, the coloration on a caterpillar might be a warning or camouflage).


25 minutes

Students do not have to definitively identify the species they are observing in order to research it further, but it certainly helps.  There is value in specifics.  Science is specific.  There are many different ways in which students can research the animal they observed on or brought in from the playground, the bus stop, or their backyard.  The most common visitors to my class over the years have been caterpillars.  They are easy to catch and they slip under the radar when a child is entering school  Here is an example of how students could find out more specific information about a caterpillar species.

Birds are also very visible, and more often than not, the birds seen by children and/or on a playground tend to be those that are more common.  Here is a link to bird lists for each state.

Whether students explore an animal very specifically or do so at the more general level of a group (what do amphibians need, what do caterpillars need), the goal here is for them to continue to develop their ability to make specific observations and reasonable hypothesis about the behavior, physical characteristics, and possible adaptations of animals in the local environment.



15 minutes

At the end of this activity, I ask students to give either an informal presentation about the animal, either written or verbal.  I give them at least 10 minutes to reflect upon these questions and to then they present to one another in small groups as I walk around and confer with them.  `

Concluding Questions:

  • What do you know now about (the animal) that you didn't know an hour ago?
  • What larger group is this animal a part of, mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians or is it an invertebrate?  Is it an insect?  What group of insects?   Is it a different type of animal without a backbone?  
  • What did you learn about this animal's habitat?  Was it found where you would expect it to be found?
  • Is this an animal that lives alone?  In a group?

The students who are in the audience are expected to:

  • Write down 5 questions they could ask to learn more.
  • Write down 3 key vocabulary terms.  


If it is early in the year, I might have them do this verbally as I write it and project it using a document camera, or as I type it into a document that I can then share with them through Google drive.