Learning Human Anatomy Basics with Paper Dolls (Day 1 of 3)

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SWBAT identify the major systems of the body: system name, components, and functions

Big Idea

Hook kids into the study of human anatomy and physiology using student created paper dolls!

Notes for the Teacher

This is a 3 day lesson series that is my students' first introduction to the systems of the body.  I like starting with this paper doll activity because the systems can be quite complex.  Using an extended drawing activity that slows down student thinking and appeals to their happy early childhood memories of coloring while they begin to grapple with complex terms and how they relate to one another helps us tackle this large topic area in a very short period of time.  Our school has a very popular upper level Human Anatomy and Physiology course and as a result, the introductory biology class tends to focus on molecular biology concepts rather than emphasize the body and other larger scale systems.  This project helps me to give students a taste of what it is to come for them later on in their high school career.

On Day 1, students are introduced to resources about the human body systems and begin to brainstorm their paper doll ideas.  The class also reviews basic concepts of hierarchy and organization within living systems:  cell, tissue, organ, organ system, organism.

Standards: SL.9-10.1SL.9-10.1aSL.9-10.5RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4RST.9-10.5HS-LS1-2XC-SF-HS-2

On Day 2, students collaborate during studio work time to complete their paper doll booklets.

Standards: W.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1SL.9-10.1aSL.9-10.5RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4RST.9-10.5HS-LS1-2XC-SF-HS-2

And during Day 3, students share their projects with the class and make deeper connections with each system.

Standards: W.9-10.2dSL.9-10.1SL.9-10.1aSL.9-10.5RST.9-10.2RST.9-10.4RST.9-10.5HS-LS1-2XC-SF-HS-2

After this lesson series, we spend time digging into the essential concept of feedback loops and then work on a multi-day project activity involving specific body systems.  This is a short unit, but one that students report being impacted by and enjoying as an end of the year experience before school lets out for the summer.  And because they are now much more confident learners than they might have been at the start of the academic year, students feel comfortable taking on more independent roles in learning this new material.

The Classroom Flow: Introducing the Human Body

25 minutes

1.  Ask students to briefly discuss the following prompts in their lab groups:

What do you currently know about the systems of the human body?

What system do you most want to learn about and why?

2.  Using the spokesperson protocol, have students briefly share out their responses.  This primary goal of this step is to quickly generate student interest in and curiosity for this upcoming unit and to give you the teacher some ideas as to what to focus on and highlight in the classroom with your specific students.

3.  Ask students to discuss the following prompts in their lab groups:

  • What is the difference between human anatomy and human physiology?
  • What is a system and how is it different/similar to a cell, a tissue, and an organ?

4.  Introduce the concepts of anatomy (structure) and physiology (function) of human body systems.  As a review of concepts introduced in the first semester, put the words organ, organism, tissue, system, and cell on the board and ask students to popcorn out responses to your questions:  Which of these words is the smallest unit in an organism?  Which represents the largest component of an organism? Clarify and correct any issues with the student version of hierarchy/levels of organization in organisms.

  • Note:  If your class used our earlier lesson on the levels of organization in living systems, you can bring out some samples of these projects to activate student prior knowledge about this subject. Alternatively, you photos of my class projects found within the lesson!

5.  Pass out the human body systems key information document.  Tell students that they will be watching a short, 8 minute video giving some basic information about each system.  They should record relevant information on their document.  Tell them there may still be blanks spots and that they will all be filled in by the time this unit is completed.

6.  Show the video clip.

7.  Allows students a few minutes to share out their document responses in their lab group.  You can compare student answers to the master document as a reference point throughout this lesson series.

  • Notes:  I do not distribute the master document until the end of the unit.  The purpose of this activity is for student exploration.  As stated above, it is not my expectation or intention that they would know all of the information by the end of the day.  As students complete this project and our next Human Body group presentation project, they will become more comfortable with the information and be able to fill out their document unaided. 
  • In general, students will understand the basics of each body system with the exception of the immune system and endocrine system.  For all systems, you will find that the level of detail they can describe will increase over the course of the project and unit.

The Classroom Flow: Describing the Paper Doll Activity

10 minutes

1.  Tell students that they will start their exploration of the human body by creating some paper doll models to help describe the basic parts of each system.  Pass out the paper doll activity document.  Allow students to read the basic directions to themselves and then go through the assignment expectations as a group.

  • Note:  I keep this introduction very short: a) Students are to create a paper doll for each body system.  b) They will find the parts of each system that they need to include on their dolls on their activity document.   c) They can use the paper doll template you provide or make their own.  The best way to really show students what they are going to do is to provide examples.  See my short video of student work samples below!  The samples show a wide range of approaches to the project in terms of visual appeal, but all of them contain the basic expectations outlined on our document.  

2.  Pass out the Human Body Systems Overview document.  Tell students that they will be able to utilize this document, the supplemental powerpoint slide presentation, and our textbook along with any other text or web based sources as they work to complete their paper doll activity.

3.  Pass out the sample paper dolls template.  Remind students that they may use this template or create their own.  Point out the classroom resources available to them:  textbooks, other texts, colored pencils, markers, scissors, rulers.  Take any clarifying questions that students might have.  


  • I make many copies of the sample template to store in the classroom and for students who create their own template, I offer to make copies for them as well.
  • Typically students do not have questions at this point and are eager to get started.
  • I don't allow internet use during our class studio session time for this project.  I find that there tends to be more productive collaboration opportunities when each student is not tied to their individual devices and so I request that students save any web based source searches for their time outside of class.   

The Classroom Flow: Student Brainstorming and Research

15 minutes

1.  Tell students that with the remaining class time that their job is to decide which template they are going to use, begin creating their own template if that is in fact what they would prefer to do, and begin to investigate their resource materials before our work tomorrow creating our paper dolls.

Note:  In order to help facilitate this studio time session, remind students of the following expectations:

  • Studio time is not a study hall session; work in class is expected to be about the project.
  • Students can work with a partner to help answer questions, find resources, or brainstorm ideas.
  • Studio time is a great time to check in with your teacher for additional help.


2.  While students look at resources, discuss ideas with each other, or begin to draw their original templates, circulate with words of encouragement, enthusiasm and to answer clarifying questions that might come up as students begin to read through their resource materials more closely.  This is also a time that you might be able to recommend an especially great source for a specific system among your personal/classroom collection of books.

  • Note:  The most typical clarification question that students ask at this point is about the reproductive system and if they need to make both the male and female version.  I remind students that they should make the system that fits their paper doll and that this is also the guideline for the endocrine system as well.


3.  Tell students that they will have additional time in class to work on their projects.  

Now on to Day 2!