Investigating Local Ecosystems


Desired pages of the online field journal, found on the American Museum of Natural History website.

Investigating Local Ecosystems


To investigate the habitats of local plants and animals and explore some of the ways animals depend on plants and each other.


In order to learn about the living environment, young children should begin with direct observation of their immediate surroundings, such as a backyard, schoolyard, or local pond. As students observe their environment, they should have many opportunities to record and communicate their findings using words and pictures. In this lesson, students will observe living organisms in a local ecosystem and create detailed drawings and descriptions of them.

Although hands-on experiences are essential, the Internet offers many resources for student exploration and discussion. It also gives students opportunities to observe environments and organisms that are very different from those near at hand. The final section of this lesson offers a few Internet resources to extend the ideas of this lesson.

Planning Ahead

Before you start the lesson with your students, you may want to go to the One Inch Square activity and print out enough copies for each of your students. In order to print out the activity sheet, you should click on the printer icon at the bottom right side of the window the activity sheet appears in.


Discuss characteristics of living organisms with students.

Ask students questions such as:

  • What makes something a living thing?
  • Are you a living thing? How do you know?
  • What do living things need in order to stay alive? (e.g., food, water, air)
  • What are examples of living things in the classroom?
  • What are some living things outside?

You could present students with a living plant or animal as an example and ask questions such as:

  • Is this alive? How do you know?
  • What do you see as you look at this [plant or animal]?
  • What do you hear? Smell? Feel?
  • How can plants and animals be like each other?
  • How can they be different?


Have students observe one or more local ecosystems, such as a schoolyard, backyard, neighboring lot, or local pond. In order to focus students’ observation, it may be helpful to rope off a specific area. Have students count and record the number of living things that they encounter in this area. Encourage students to look for examples of living things interacting. Have students draw or write about the living things that they observe.

Students can create a field journal using words and pictures to document the living things that they encounter, along with any relationships that appear to exist between them. The American Museum of Natural History offers an online field journal with questions that can be used to guide student observation, as well as sample journal pages that can be printed out.

Encourage students to compare and discuss their findings. You may wish to construct a classroom graph, showing each living thing and the number of students who observed it. You can also engage in sorting (classifying as plants or animals) and counting lessons (finding the total number of living things observed by the class) related to student findings.

Use this One Inch Square Project, originally created for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Cool Science for Curious Kids site. Tell students that they are going to observe the same outdoor area, but this time they will be looking through the one inch window.

Have students cut a one inch square window using the worksheet and instructions provided at the site. Allow students to look around the classroom using the one inch window. Encourage them to physically get closer to the things that they are observing. Allow them to share their observations.

Then ask students:

  • Will the outside area look different when you look at it this way?
  • Why might it be important to look more closely at a smaller area?
  • Do you think that you will still be able to find some living things in this much smaller area?

Have students return to the same outdoor area. Ask them to count and record the number of living things that they observe in one square inch. Again, encourage students to look for examples of living things interacting.

Have students draw or write about the living things that they are observing, as well as answer the questions on the website (found by clicking on the "Click Here" button at the bottom of the page). Allow them to share their findings, and discuss the importance of close observation and some of the tools that scientists use. You may wish to follow up or extend the lesson by allowing students to use hand lenses.


Assess student understanding by the observations and descriptions recorded in their field journals. In addition, have students describe (in words and/or pictures) at least two ways in which living organisms interacted in the outdoor area they observed.


For a lesson on observing leaves in local ecosystems, see the Science NetLinks lesson, Look At Those Leaves! in which students observe, measure, and sort tree leaves.

 As students observe the compost bin above you can help them begin to gain an awareness of the existence of organisms that are not readily observable to the naked eye. Visit Microbe Zoo—Dirtland for more information on what is happening beneath the soil.

Read The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Although this is a fictional book, this story can lead to a good discussion of some of the threats to the living environment, from air and water pollution to deforestation. It also illustrates the relationships between living organisms within an environment. Students can work in a class or teams to:

  • Retell the story using words or pictures. Change some of the actions of the characters to create a "happy ending." What would need to be done in order for the plants and animals to survive?
  • Create a plan of action for rebuilding the living environment at the end of the story.
  • Have students identify those aspects of the book that are fantasy and those that are similar to reality, based on what they've learned through observation of the living environment.

Visit Biomes of the World on the MBGnet website. Have students compare the plants and animals featured in each biome with those they have documented in their own journals.

Ask students:

  • Is what you see the same as what other kids would find in their backyards?
  • Which biome looks most like the place where you live?
  • Which biome looks least like the place where you live? Have students find an unusual plant or animal that lives in this biome. What’s unusual about this plant or animal? Why might it look the way it does?

Students might work in team to create a diorama of one of these biomes or they might create an imaginary animal that has a special feature that enables them to survive in a biome with harsh conditions such as the desert or tundra.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards State Standards