Desert hotels, the saguaro

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SWBAT how the saguaro cactus is a suitable habitat for many desert animals by hearing a story and making a cactus hotel.

Big Idea

Kids often think that birds and small animals only live in trees. This lesson opens their minds to the idea that trees are not the only suitable habitat for birds and small animals.


5 minutes

I call one table of students to the floor at a time to sit like scientists. I begin the lesson by finding out what the kids already know about desert plants and animals, especially the saguaro. 

Think, Pair, Share

I ask the following questions:

  • What kind of animals live in the desert?
  • Where, in the desert, do they live?
  • Where might a bird live in the Sonoran desert?

For each question, I give the kids about 10 seconds of think time and then have them share their thoughts with their floor partner. I choose 3 random kids to share their partner discussion with the whole class. I do this so all ideas are heard and so higher achievers can model sharing information with others. 

I then show the kids a picture of the Sonoran desert on the ActivBoard. If you do not have an ActivBoard or SmartBoard, you can use a large computer screen, project to a TV, or find a suitable photo in a desert book.

After we take a few seconds to silently look at the picture, I ask a few more questions:

  • Where do you think animals might live in the Sonoran Desert?
  • Would it be hard for animals to find a place to live here?
  • Where could the animals get food, water and shelter from in this desert?

Again, we think, pair, share with our floor partners for each question. I again pull random name sticks from the name stick can to have three students share with the whole class what they talked about with their floor partner.

Once we have finished our discussion, I explain to the kids that we are going to explore the attributes of a saguaro cactus and consider why it might be or not be a good home for animals. 


I have the kids repeat after me -

       I will:

  • respect others
  • keep your hands in your laps until you are given instructions what to do
  • share the materials with everyone at the table

After we all understand the expectations, I move on to the exploration beginning with explaining what materials they will find on their tables. 


15 minutes

The students remain on the floor for the explanation of the exploration. 

I tell the kids that there is a set of materials at each persons' seat. I hold up one item at a time to show them what they will be working with:


    Individual, and one for the teacher-

  • small wax candle ( I use Shabbat candles from the Kosher section of the store)
  • 1 piece of green construction paper, accordion folded 3/4 inch folds with popsicle sticks glued on one side in each folded section
  • 8 round toothpicks, snapped in half

    Table teams-

  • small container of water
  • two eye droppers
  • small stack paper towels 
  • picture of saguaro cactus

I have the kids transition to tables one group at a time to demonstrate they are ready to begin. They do this by following the expectations shared in the engagement. When I see that all tables are following directions, I guide them step by step through the exploration of cacti. 


  1. I pose the question again, "Would a saguaro make a good home for an animal? Why or why not?" I have the kids think to themselves and then share their table teams. 
  2. I hold up my candle and ask the kids to do the same. I ask them what is used to make candles. Many yell out, "Wax!" I confirm that they are correct and then I tell them that cacti have a thin coating on the outside that's a lot like wax. I ask the kids what they think the coating does or is used for by the cacti. They share their thoughts with their table team.
  3. I hold up the eye dropper and demonstrate how to use it. I then have the kids use the eye dropper to put five drops of water on the candle. I ask them, "What happened to the candle? Where did the water go? Why do you think cacti have a wax coating?" I call on volunteers to share their thoughts about each question.
  4. I then have the kids hold up the plain side of the green construction paper and I have the kids stretch and squeeze it. I then hold up a picture of a saguaro cactus. I tell them that there is a copy of the picture at their tables and I ask the table leaders to take it out. I tell the teams to look carefully at the picture and see if they notice something. Many immediately notice that the cactus looks like their accordion folded paper. I ask the kids, "How do you think this is helpful to the cactus?" I call on volunteers. I then follow up with, "How could this be helpful to the animals who live in the desert?" I again call on random volunteers.
  5. I have the kids hold up the popsicle stick side of the green paper. I ask them what they think the popsicle sticks might represent in the cactus. I call on volunteers to answer. 
  6. I hold up the last item, the toothpick. I have the kids hold up one of theirs. I ask them what on a cactus they think the toothpick might represent. Many yell out, "Pokies!" I confirm their assumption and correct their language by telling them it is called a needle. I ask, "Why would cactus have needles? Why would they be important to the cactus?" I also ask, "Do you think the needles could be helpful to any animals?"

Now that we have talked about some of the characteristics of cacti, I have my kids come back to the floor one table at a time to bring all the information together into a comprehensible understanding. 


10 minutes

I transition the kids back to the carpet by calling one table at a time to come sit down. Kids leave their materials at their tables. 

Student explanations

I ask the kids to think about the things we just observed that are characteristics of a saguaro cactus. I give them 20 seconds think time. I then pose the question, "How do those things help the cactus?" "How can those things help animals?" For each question, the kids first think to themselves, then share with their floor partner. I then choose 3 random students to share what they discussed with their partner by pulling name sticks from a name stick can. 

I then ask the question, "Could a saguaro make a good home for some animals?" That is the loaded question. I want the kids to start connecting ideas. What they learned about animals while we were studying the other habitats, what they learned about the cactus, and what they know about the desert. I give the kids a few seconds to think about the question and then I call on random volunteers. As the kids answer, I require them to explain their position of whether a cactus would or would make a suitable house for an animal in the desert. I never except just a yes or no answer from students. I want them to be able to defend their conclusions based on evidence from what they've observed or experienced. 



10 minutes

I give the students a quick wiggle break then we sit back down. I take out the book, Cactus Hotel by Brenda Z. Guiberson.  I read this book to build some background knowledge to help them apply what they now know about desert animals to their local environment.

I show the kids the front cover and ask, "What do you think this book might be about?" Kids shout out random answers. I then read the title of the book, Cactus Hotel. I ask again, "What do you think this book might be about?" The answers are a little different. We begin reading. 

Throughout the story, we stop for discussions about the cacti, the animals and how the cactus is working like a hotel. We discuss the animals needs and what the cactus is able to provide for the animals. We begin to conclude that a saguaro or other cactus just might be a suitable home for some animals. 

I use a powerpoint presentation of saguaro/animal pictures to get the kids thinking about the different ways animals use the saguaro to their advantage besides just as a home. The powerpoint pictures get them thinking at a deeper level and helps them synthesize all that they've learned so far in this lesson.


10 minutes

Students transition back to tables one team at a time to complete the activity of the day. 

I have the kids look at their materials. I tell them that we are going to make our own cactus hotels. We need to start by putting a wax coating on our cactus flesh. I ask the kids how we might be able to do that with the materials we have. One student volunteers that we rub the candle on one side of the construction paper.  Excellent idea! We make it so. 

Next I tell the kids to finish gluing popsicle sticks on the back side of the green construction paper; one stick per fold. I then demonstrate how to wrap the paper to make a "trunk."

I then have the kids glue the toothpicks on the out side of our "cacti" to act as needles. In upper grades I would have them poke the toothpicks through the paper and act as "real" needles, but in kinder that is too dangerous so I have them glue them on flat. 

I then walk the room and hand out animals that are to be cut and pasted in and on the cactus. I give the kids only two minutes to get their animals in the "cactus hotel."

Once the two minutes are up, I gather the students back on the floor for a quick closure to the lesson. Students bring their cactus hotels with them and show and tell them with their floor partner. I choose three random kids present their cactus hotel to the whole class. This practice allows every student to be heard without taking up too much class time. 

As the kids present their projects, I ask each one a random combination of two of the following questions:

  • Why would your cactus make a good home for some animals?
  • What can the saguaro cactus provide for animals that other cacti can't?
  • If you were a cactus wren, a gila woodpecker, why would you want to live in a saguaro?
  • If you were a hawk, how might having a saguaro around be helpful to you?

I prompt when necessary, by providing sentence stems, layered questions to drive the thinking or allowing peers to assist. The audience is encouraged to ask the presenters their own questions to gain more information and make connections. 

Possible sentence stems:

  • My cactus would make a good home because...
  • A ________ could use my cactus to.....
  • A bird would want to live in a saguaro because....
  • If I was a hawk, I would use a saguaro to....

It is important to have kids share their work at the end of a lesson because kids can learn from each other. Every child interprets learning experiences differently. It also validates the work they've done and supports ownership of information and learning.