Outdoor Science Lab for Kids

What You Need


Refer to the book for materials specific to each lab.

  • Classroom copies of Outdoor Science Lab
  • Invertebrate (and plant) identification book (Northern America) or free apps, such as  iNaturalist, Leafsnap, Insect Orders
  • Magnifying glasses
  • Measuring tape
  • Scissors
  • Several jars and plastic containers
  • White sheet
  • Stakes, ice pop sticks, or garden markers (4 per group)
  • String or yarn (about 16 feet or 5m per group)
  • Sunscreen and bug spray
Outdoor Science Lab for Kids


To explore invertebrate communities while learning about tools and methods used by ecologists to study ecosystems.


This lesson is based on the book Outdoor Science Lab for Kids – 52 Family-Friendly Experiments for the Yard, Garden, Playground, and Park, by Liz Lee Heinecke. It was a finalist for the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books and Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The book inspires students and family members to explore the natural world with experiments in ecology, physics, earth science, chemistry, solar science, and botany. The engaging and kid-friendly experiments are easy to perform and require relatively inexpensive materials. Each experiment is accompanied by suggestions for creative enrichment and brief explanations of the underlying science.

In this lesson, students take a closer look at the ecosystems around them, focusing primarily on invertebrate communities, which make up a significant fraction of the biomass in a healthy ecosystem. They perform experiments in small groups to learn about these creatures and study their diversity while practicing methods ecologists use to study ecosystems.

The Outdoors Labs student sheet familiarizes students with the scientific method by encouraging them to think like scientists, dissecting each experiment into question, hypothesis, results, and conclusion.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

Grade 3


Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.


Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect.


Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).

Grade 4


Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.


Explain events, procedures, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text, including what happened and why, based on specific information in the text.


Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.

Grade 5

Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.

Explain the relationships or interactions between two or more individuals, events, ideas, or concepts in a historical, scientific, or technical text based on specific information in the text.


Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.

Planning Ahead

Students are encouraged to work in groups, so it should be sufficient for group members to share a copy of the book. If you only have one copy of the book, perhaps you can project the pages you want to read as introduction onto a screen and make copies of the experiments students will do outdoors. The experiments are on these pages:

  • PART 1: 36-37 (Lab 10), 100-101 (Lab 36), 102-103 (Lab 37), 104-105 (Lab 38)
  • PART 2: 38-39 (Lab 11), 110-111 (Lab 40), 114-115 (Lab 42), 118-119 (Lab 44)

Other pages covered by the lesson: 10-11 (science journals), 35 (invertebrates), 109 (ecosystems).


To begin this lesson, introduce students to the concepts of ecosystems. First, students should exchange a few ideas of what they think an ecosystem is. Afterwards, students can use their Outdoor Science student esheet to watch the video Ecosystems from Scholastic. Then, they should read page 109. Both the book and the video provide a basic review of what an ecosystem is. Students should answer the questions on the Ecosystems & Invertebrates student sheet (you can find answers to the questions on the Ecosystems & Invertebrates teacher sheet):

  • What is an ecosystem?
  • What does an ecosystem consist of?
  • What do “abiotic” and “biotic” mean?
  • Why are healthy ecosystems important?

Make sure your students understand that healthy ecosystems support diverse communities of species.

After the discussion, introduce your students to invertebrates. Explain that they will capture and observe these creatures to learn more about the ecosystems that surround them. Read page 35 with your students and the first paragraph of the Encyclopedia of Life Invertebrate webpage. Students should answer these questions on their student sheet (you can find the answers on your teacher sheet):

  • What characterizes invertebrates?
  • How many of the animal species we know today are invertebrates?
  • What animals are invertebrates?
  • Which of these invertebrates can you find on land? And which ones might live in your backyard?


The lesson has two parts, which can be completed on several different days. If time is short, you can skip Part 1. The experiments in each part also don’t have to be completed all at once and can be spread across different classroom periods.

In Part 1, students experience hands-on how biotic and abiotic factors determine where animals prefer to live. Part 2 focuses on activities that introduce students to the tools and methods that scientists use to monitor invertebrate populations and overall diversity.

For some of the labs in Part 1 (LABS 36-38) and Part 2 (LABS 40 and 42), students won’t see the results of their experiments until a few days or weeks later. They can easily set these experiments up in advance.

For all activities, you can take your students to any nearby area with diverse vegetation. Alternatively, assign some of the experiments as homework that students can work on in groups in their own backyard or the backyard of a friend, relative, or friendly neighbor.

When outdoors, ask probing questions as you move from group to group and help with the set-up, the data collection, and the identification.

At the end of each experiment, students should reflect and read “The Science Behind the Fun” column in the book.

Do Not Touch! – And Other Precautions
Before you go out, show your students which plants they should stay away from, like poison ivy and poison sumac. Project the Do Not Touch! image onto a screen and/or make copies that students can take with them outdoors. Instruct them not to pick up insects and spiders with their bare hands unless you know they don’t bite or sting. If there are ticks in your area, take precautions and have students do a tick check after they return.

If you skip some or all of the experiments in this part, students should still read the column “The Science Behind the Fun” that follows each experiment. The labs are split up into two categories:

  1. Labs teaching about the abiotic factors that determine where creatures thrive best
  2. Labs teaching about the biotic factors that determine their preferred environment.

Journal Your Science
PAGES 10-11 – Science Journal
Read pages 10-11 with your students and then discuss the scientific method with them. They should make notes in their notebooks, but they don’t need to create a science journal. The Outdoor Labs student sheet helps students keep records and break each experiment into its components.

Once you’ve read pages 10-11, ask students:

  • How do scientists make observations from evidence? What steps are involved?
    • (Answers may vary but should primarily be based on the steps listed in the book. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

Preferred Environment – Abiotic Factors
LAB 10 – Bug House (Water and Light)
In this lab, students create connected microenvironments for pill and snow bugs to see which environment they prefer—dry, moist, sunny, or shady. Students should follow the directions in the book to do this lab.

LAB 37 – Comprehending Compost (Water and Oxygen)
With this activity, students bury compostable waste and expose it to different amounts of water and air.

  • Students should follow the “Creative Enrichment” suggestion #1 to test the effect of oxygen. They can add another compost plot and pack it tightly to reduce oxygen supply.
  • Students should make sure to cover the “dry” compost plot to protect it from rain, but allow for enough air to circulate. 
  • It will take several weeks to see results. Students can set it up in advance as an ongoing class experiment. Alternatively, you can skip this lab and just go over “The Science Behind the Fun,” reiterating that abiotic factors, like soil condition, moisture, light, and available oxygen, determine where certain creatures will thrive best. 
  • If students see any earthworms, they can watch this termite animation by BioInteractive. The role African termites and American earthworms play in their respective ecosystems is very similar!

Interactions with Other Species – Biotic Factors
LAB 38 – Plant Race (Competition)
In this activity, students create a plant seed race to see how plants compete when they grow.

  • Students should follow the “Creative Enrichment” suggestion #3. They should use two large planters to plant seeds at different densities in the two planters—one at low density with plenty of space between seeds (no or little competition), and one at high density (intense competition).
  • Using different seeds and beans (as suggested) will show interspecific competition (between species). Students also can use all the same seeds to show intraspecific competition (among the same species).
  • It will take several weeks to see results. Students can set it up in advance as an ongoing class experiment.

LAB 36 – Allelopathy Experiment
In this activity, students plant seeds to learn how some plants use chemicals to defend their space.

  • Students should check the growth every day for a few days. If this is too time consuming, you can skip this lab and just go over “The Science Behind the Fun,” reiterating that competition between and among species is an important factor that determines which creature (or plant) will survive and thrive. Both animals and plants have strategies to compete more successfully, but when new species are brought into the mix (such as invasive species), these strategies may no longer work.

Start with “Journal Your Science” below ONLY IF you skipped PART 1. Otherwise, move directly to the experiments. The labs in this part are categorized by various scientific methods and techniques: how to collect animals above and on the ground, and how to count them.

Journal Your Science
PAGES 10-11 – Science Journal:
Discuss the scientific method with your students. (Refer to Part 1 above.)

  • How do scientists make observations from evidence? What steps are involved?
    • (Answers may vary but should primarily be based on the steps listed in the book. Encourage your students to explain their answers.)

Catch a Bug – Above Ground
LAB 11 – Sweep Nets: Arthropod Inspection
This activity allows students to use sweep nets to catch and identify bugs that live on vegetation higher above ground. Students should follow the directions for this lab found in the book.

Catch a Bug – On the Ground
LAB 40 – Protected Pitfall Traps
With this activity, students create pitfall traps to catch and identify ground-dwelling invertebrates.

  • It may take a few days to see results. Students should check their traps daily, record what’s in them, and release the bugs. It’s best to set them free a few yards away from the trap to avoid trapping the same bugs repeatedly.

Count a Bug or Plant – Sampling Methods
In the next two experiments, students will learn two methods ecologists use to assess how many plants or animals live in a particular habitat.

LAB 44 – Quadrant Sampling
Students learn how quadrant sampling can be used to estimate diversity and population sizes.

  • Students are asked to count plant species. You can modify the experiment and have students sample invertebrates instead. However, if the sampling method is your main learning objective, identifying plants may be quicker and easier.
  • Follow the “Creative Enrichment” suggestions #2 and #3.

LAB 42 – Capture/Recapture:
Students catch and tag isopods to study their population size.

  • Students need to return a few days later to resample the plot.


Formative Assessment: Use the student sheets and the discussion items suggested in the lesson under Motivation and Development.

Summative Assessment: Ask students to write a brief essay about their collective outdoor experiments and how what they have learned could be applied to the world around them. Their essay could also address what else they could have manipulated or changed in their experiment to test an effect.

Alternatively, ask them to write a brief report, which should include these points:

  • What did we want to find out with our experiments? What was our research question? (Purpose and Question)
  • What did we do? (They should describe at least two sampling methods they used) (Methods)
  • What did we find? (Results)
  • How can what we learned be applied to the world around us? (Conclusions)
  • What could we study next? (Future Questions)


If a colleague duplicates the lesson, students from both of your classes could compare and contrast the data and discuss biodiversity. Alternatively, your students could repeat some of the experiments in a different area for comparison.

The following multimedia resources from HHMI BioInteractive could be used to learn more about ecosystems and the research ecologists conduct to study them:

These Science NetLinks lessons could be used as a lesson extension that explores other organisms.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

Did you find this resource helpful?

Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards