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Schoolyard nature study activities for ecological education in florida backyards and schoolyards

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Eco-Cognizant, Inc., Environmental Consulting & Environmental Education m c k dlBCe




 Eco-Cognizant, Inc.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents 2

How To Use This Activity Guide 3

Conceptual Framework For Development Of Activities In Ecological Biology 5

47. Seeds On High 75

How To Use This Activity Guide

(1) Question. Each idea below begins with a question, followed by a brief description of the activity.

(2) The time frame varies. Most activities are proposed for a 45 60 minute period, ideally (but not necessarily) preceded and succeeded by discussion in the classroom. Other activities involve a shorter time commitment on a particular day, but require the commitment of time slots on successive days, weeks, or months.

(3) Needed. This section attempts to list whatever you might need to round up before starting the activity or experiment. It may include especially good plants or animals whose presence is required for the exercise. Very few activities involve any special equipment other than sharp eyes and students’ natural curiosity. The classroom would benefit, though, from a 5-X handlens for each student, and clipboards, paper, and pencils for each pair or group of students.

(4) Season. The season when the activity can take place is indicated as F (fall: beginning of school to early November, mid-December, depending on the year); W (winter: end of fall, whenever that is, to approximately March 1); S (spring: from approximately March 1st to the end of school); and A (any season or all year). When two seasons are given, the one not in parentheses is the better time. Obviously, most Spring and Fall activities can also be done in Summer. I’ve tried to disperse activities as thoroughly as possible, but there are fewer for Winter.

(5) Framework. The codes following each entry refer to the Curriculum Framework that begins on page 7. The first code is given with its title. It is the “primary theme” of the activity. “Secondary themes,” often scarcely less appropriate than the “primary theme,” are indicated in code in parentheses. Many other “secondary themes” are possible. These activities span most areas of the Curriculum Framework, although there is a high density in I-3-C-ii, in II-5-A, and in II-6-B.

(6) Background Information. Each activity or idea is treated in several sections, including Background Information, How To Do It, and Notes. As written, some of these sentences or ideas may sound inordinately complex and sophisticated. Perhaps they deal with very abstruse concepts that even many ecologists don’t fully understand. If you don’t try to look beyond the concept, however, you will find the actual conceptual content to be quite logical and obvious to anyone with a reasoning mind and the capacity to observe.

(7) How To Do It. These instructions roughly outline the procedure.

(8) Notes. Miscellaneous asides that may relate activities to one another or mention obstacles.

(9) Discussion. Here you will find material to ponder as a group and separately. The questions posed relate not only to the specific activity, but to ecological theory in general.

(10) Copyright. Permission is granted for educators and individuals to copy this information specifically for teaching and learning. However, this publication or any part thereof may not be reproduced in any way, shape, or form, to be sold for profit. Exceptions to this must be granted in writing by Maria Minno, 600 NW 35th Terrace, Gainesville FL 32607-2441, (352) 375-3028.

Conceptual Framework For Development Of Activities In Ecological Biology

Goal: The goal of these activities is ecological literacy through local natural history and inquiry-centered science. In other words, our goal is to teach concepts and principles of ecology (ecological biology) through exploring and testing questions about organisms and environments commonly encountered.

Utility: Activities should be distributed widely over the topics below, which emphasize current approaches to field ecology.

Note: A bulleted and boxed statement indicates topics that particularly pertain to people.


1. Perception: Taking the organism’s point of view (or of smell?). The introductory activities of any program should focus here. The purpose is to encourage students to observe other organisms and then, based on these observations, to conceptualize how other organisms (e.g., squirrels, birds, insects and other arthropods, lizards, vascular plants) perceive their environment.

  • Do people see (and smell) the world “as it really is?” How our senses, size, and use of time bias our perception

2. The non living environment as viewed by plants and animals.

A. Microhabitats and microclimates, good and bad (Investigate special features of microhabitats/ microclimates, including those that ameliorate general ambient conditions and those that exacerbate physical stress)

B. Hierarchy and scale: “graininess,” or, what’s coarse for the grasshopper is just fine for the cow. (Relates back to the topic I-1 idea of “grain size” and how different organisms view the same “grain structure” differently).

C. As different as day and night: Diurnal changes. (Note: Changes in light regime, temperature, humidity, perhaps predation pressure.)

D. An ant for all seasons: Seasonal changes. (Note: Activities here might involve, for example, regular monitoring of climatic and microclimatic features.)

E. Artifacts: Long term changes, or the importance of history. (Activities would involve evidence of Pleistocene events; evidence of Paleo-Indian effects; artifacts of recent land use patterns; tracing the recent origin of plant and animal populations present on campus or in backyards.)

  • Is all the world an artifact now? Effects of long term subsistence level use of habitats by humans, versus massive effects. (Point out relatively “natural” effects of some forms of anthropogenic disturbance, versus massive landscape transformations, pollution, and massive effects on plant and animal populations.)

3. How to make ends meet in your home grain: Traits of organisms that enhance survival and reproduction.

A. How to find a mate, and how to make it socially.

i. Plants (Pollination and plant reproductive systems).

ii. Animals (Behavioral ecology of mating systems, etc.).

B. Finding a place to raise young.

i Plants. (Seed “tactics;” seed germination in a patchy environment.)

ii. Animals (Nesting, oviposition, host plant choice, etc.).

C. Finding food, water, and favorable temperature.

i. Plants (Activities involve leaf “tactics” and light/ moisture regimes; plant life form “tactics” [vines vs. epiphytes vs. trees vs. herbs vs. shrubs]; root “tactics;” nitrogen fixation; ants as nutrient gathering devices; surviving unfavorable seasons; fire)

ii. Animals (Foraging ecology/behavior and all associated concepts; surviving unfavorable seasons)

  • • How do people affect other organisms’ search for food and water?

4. Multiplying like rabbits: Successful reproduction and population growth.

A. Why do populations grow? (Activities focus on population change)

B. What stops populations from growing forever? (Activities focus on limits to growth)

C. How are populations patterned across the landscape? (Dispersion patterns, their [proximate] causes and consequences)

D. How do individuals, or their babies, get from one patch to another? (Migration, dispersal, and dispersal of propagules).

  • How do migration routes of people (roads, trails) affect migration routes of other organisms?


5. Interactions between a hungry organism and a food organism that “doesn’t want” to be eaten.

A. Animal predators and prey: Ecology (Ecological aspects of predator prey interactions, such as prey finding, prey escape, population dynamics, etc.; also include insect parasitoids here, and parasitoid host interactions, because these can be fairly easy to investigate).

B. Predator prey “coevolution”: Behavior, morphology, warning coloration, crypsis, and mimicry. (All the flashy natural history that we can pack in here, with a good sound scientific base).

  • Why have humans been so hard on predators?

C. Animal predators and plant prey: Seed predation, ecological aspects.

D. Seed predator seed interactions. (Traits of seeds or parent plants that lessen the impact of predation; traits of seed predators that enhance seed location/consumption).

E. Vegetarian animals and fodder, ecology (The ecology of herbivory, particularly by insects: leaf miners, stem borers, sap tappers, strip feeders, pit raspers, root munchers, gall growers, and other herbivores)

F. Fodder fights back: Plant herbivore “coevolution.” (Traits of vegetation that inhibit herbivory; traits of herbivores that enhance fodder finding and fodder consumption.)

  • Does fighting fodder form favorite foods? Agro ecology. (How have humans “reversed” evolution of plant protection, thus rendering seeds and/or foliage palatable AND vulnerable? How have some agricultural practices rendered plants more ecologically vulnerable to pest attack, as opposed to agricultural practices such as intercropping (compare the protection conferred by intercropping and other practices to that of pesticide use, some types of selective breeding, and monocultures).

G. Fodder fights back with a vengeance: Enlistment of predatory insects as mercenaries. (Attraction and sometimes support of bellicose/ carnivorous insects through extra floral nectaries, lipid rich food bodies, etc.).

H. Parasites and hosts. (Botflies, screwworms, ticks on domestic animals, and related phenomena might provide good activities.)

I. Disease (in a very broad sense). (The effects of disease on plant and animal populations: The concept of epidemiology).

6. Interactions between a hungry organism and an item that “wants” to be eaten.

A. Fruits and fruit eaters. (Numerous activities are possible here, including those involving repeated monitoring of phenologies, fruit removal rates, fruit colors, etc.)

B. Flowers and pollinators. (Numerous activities, at many different conceptual levels of ecology, are possible.)

  • “Keystone organisms:” what happens when the birds and bees go? (Effects on plant populations, on community structure and dynamics, on other phenomena when frugivores/ pollinators are disrupted.)

7. Interactions between a hungry organism and items that are dead (so, they really don’t care what happens).

A. Decomposers.

B. Detritivores.

  • Why fruit rots and meat spoils

8. Interactions between two hungry organisms who like the same things.

A. Interspecific competition (Possible activities would involve flower feeding insects, ants, other highly conspicuous frequent interactors—no vertebrates, no plants except for competition for pollination).

  • Competition in human society. (Discussion of “interference” and “exploitative” competition in a human context).

9. Patchiness in the intensity of biological interactions. (Activities investigate how the intensity of an interaction varies in space, e.g., with different species involved, with different “neighborhoods” or densities of the interactors, etc.).


10. Some organisms are more common than others: relative abundance (Activities would involve counting numbers of individuals in different species, showing range of abundances, and discussing causes and consequences of rarity).

11. Some places have more kinds of organisms than others: Diversity (Activities would compare species richness among sites that differ in various physical or disturbance characteristics).

12. Some patches have more kinds of organisms than others. (The concept of “isolates”, or small patches of suitable habitat).

A. Extinction and colonization. (Colonization of disjunct habitat patches, and extinction from same.)

B. Islands and diversity. (Activities would involve colonization and extinction in disjunct habitat patches separated by truly inimical habitat; oceanic islands to be discussed.)

  • Habitat fragmentation, its short  and long term effects (Extrapolation of concepts above to the community  and landscape wide consequences of habitat fragmentation).

13. Disturbance: A little goes a long way (Ecological succession, especially in terms of role of disturbance in natural and anthropogenic habitats. At least one activity would test an “intermediate disturbance hypothesis,” i.e., the hypothesis that moderate “natural” levels of disturbance actually enhance diversity.)

14. Disturbance and history: Geology, Pleistocene events, anthropology, recent land use history (Back to topic 1-2-E with new, community level perspectives)

  • Predicting the future (Predicting consequences of continued habitat fragmentation and environmental degradation)

1. Bug Eyes, Etc.

Question: How do other organisms perceive their environment?

Season: All year.

Framework: I-1.

Needed: A good imagination. A woodsy or at least shrubby edge; a meter (yard) stick or other measuring device.

Notes: The introductory activities of any program should focus on perception.

Background Information: Do people see (and smell) the world “as it really is?” This activity explores how our senses, size, and use of time bias our perception. The purpose is to encourage students to observe other organisms and then, based on these observations, to conceptualize how other organisms (e.g., squirrels, birds, insects and other arthropods, lizards, vascular plants) perceive their environment.

How To Do It: Students begin with a short discussion of

(a) their five senses and how they use them to find food and detect danger;

(b) how big they are.

Then, students have two minutes roaming across campus to find and choose an organism (plant, insect or other arthropod, vertebrate—but do not encourage the last).

Next, spend five minutes carefully observing the organism and trying to get an idea of how it perceives its immediate environment; how it senses and exploits food; how it senses, and responds to enemies.

Finally, the student spends at least 15 minutes imagining him\herself to be in the place of the organism. During this period the student tries to emulate as closely as possible how the organism perceives important aspects of its environment, and how that environment feels to that organism. Make sure the concept of “scale” comes in, if not necessarily in those terms. This part can be expressed in the form of field notes, descriptive prose or poetry (for suggestions regarding using poetry, see Dragonfly Teacher’s Companion 1(3):8-9, January/February 1997, Earth to Heaven: The Power of Observation, by Georgia Heard.) or even a dramatic presentation.

Suggestions: Some Good Ideas might include the following:

  • Plant: Sense light striking leaves, vs. shade; take off shoes and wriggle toes in sand, trying to sense the presence of water (possible) and pretending to sense nutrients; respond very slowly to any stimulus, so that much of time is spent lagging behind stimuli; perceiving what enemies you are likely to have, and how to deal with them (not by escape or sudden movement!).

  • Squirrel

  • Spider: Web-builder’s perception varies greatly from that of a visually oriented crab spider, wolf spider, or jumping spider.

  • Plant-munching insect

  • Plant-tapping insect

  • Other insect

  • Bird

  • Anolis lizard

Discussion: Again we focus on how an organism perceives “food,” characteristics of substrate, scale (is the organism perceiving its environment on the same scale as the child?), enemies, mates and rivals for them.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Once there were five brothers, all of whom were blind. One day they went to the zoo to see the animals. Wanting to please his customers who couldn’t see most of the caged animals, the zookeeper let the brothers into the elephant’s cage so they could touch the gentle elephant.

The first brother stroked the elephant’s trunk, and said “Why, this animal is long and slender, with no arms or legs, like the snake.” The second brother found himself standing by an enormous foot. “No, brother, this animal is stout and strong, like the trunk of a tree!” The third brother sidled up to the elephant’s tusk. Reaching out to touch it, he exclaimed, “This animal, brothers, is not what you describe, for it is as hard as a stone, and heavy!” The fourth brother, reaching up to feel an ear, mumbled “Such a creature should fly away in a strong wind; perhaps it is a giant bat.” The fifth, at the tail end, exclaimed “Peuw! This animal smells terrible, and it lashed out at me with a stringy whip!”

Extension: This activity can be concluded with a short discussion of how people’s senses and size bias them greatly when they view “natural history,” or this can be a separate exercise.

This is the kind of activity that can be repeated in many variations. If it were done repeatedly, students could choose to observe radically different roles on the different days. If they discuss their experiences or present their writing or skit to the rest of the group, students will learn from one another how a number of different organisms perceive their environment and how they move and act. This makes the following game possible.

Acting Game: We enjoyed this game with our daughter and her friends and cousins for many years! After students have learned from one another how several different organisms perceive their environment and how they move and act, they can play a funny but challenging guessing game. Restrict choices to organisms that can be found on your specific campus, and form a circle of people. Begin the game by choosing a particular organism, and acting like it. Observing students can take turns asking questions such as “what do you do in winter,” or “what do you do when a bird approaches” or what happens when the lawnmower comes,” etc. until they are able to guess what organism you are imitating. The one who guesses gets to be (or choose) the next actor.

Party Game: Older students and grownups enjoy and reinforce schoolyard nature study by doing a guessing game used as a party ice-breaker: Host/ess or teacher chooses a set of more-or-less familiar schoolyard organisms, one for each participant, and writes these on stick-on labels. Labels go on foreheads or backs of each participant (better done outside, so nobody can cheat by looking in a mirror). Can ask yes-and-no questions, only, of anybody. First to guess what his/her organism is, wins. Last is also a winner, of the booby prize.

2. The Little Green Variety Store

Question: What animals come to the various parts of a small plant and what do they do there?

Season: S,F (W for some plants).

Framework: I.l (I.2.a., I.2.b., etc. etc. depending on who’s at plant).

Needed: Good candidates for this one are Spanish-needle (Bidens), vetch (Vicia), partridge pea (Cassia), goldenrod in fall, one of our many local mints (some, such as Monarda, are better than others), Dutch clover, willow, elderberry, hairy indigo, etc.

How To Do It: Choose a small, easily distinguished, weedy plant in good flower, sit and watch it, and observe (taking notes if possible at this stage) every animals that arrives on, or is already on, the plant; its behavior; how it uses the plant; any interactions with other animals on the plant; what impact, if any, it’s having on the plant.

Anyway, students should watch carefully, keeping aware of the very different scale, but should be encouraged to shout out their discoveries (Hey, I have a spider! That’s nothing, I have 2 spiders, and one just caught a bee! Man, this plant doesn’t have anything going on . . . hey, wait a minute, what are these little white things? (oooh!). Students should see:

  • animals landing on flowers (what are they doing? what impact on the plant),

  • insects mating if they’re lucky,

  • spiders, herbivores of different kinds,

  • mites,

  • perhaps some aphids or scale insects,

  • and more.

At the end, have them draw a diagram indicating which arthropods were where and doing what; draw lines clearly indicating who’s eating what or whom.

Discussion: Why do some plants have more animals than others? a greater diversity of things that animals are doing? lots of flower-visitors but no herbivores, or vice versa? Is a single plant a complex a “variety store” for arthropods? Is each plant part analogous to a different department in the variety store? Which animals are shopping for nectar, which for sap, which for other animals? etc. etc.

3. The Village Green

Question: What are the different microhabitats on a tree, who’s there, and what are they doing?

Season: S (FW).

Framework: I.2.a. (I.1, I.2.b, and many others).

Note: Other plants could be used if necessary. This activity should come very early in a curriculum, as it opens students’ eyes to a tremendous diversity of life styles.

How To Do It: First, go out and find trees (a tree for each student, ideally, but more probably several to a tree). Stand back and look at tree as set of small habitats each with a unique set of physical (and biological) features. What’s the top of the tree like? Lots of soft green juicy stuff to eat? But isn’t it hot? bright? nutrient-scarce?

Look at the lower branches; the small twigs; the branch tips; the trunk, and imagine yourself a bird- or ant-sized organism. Aren’t the stresses and the food rewards and the hiding places etc. different in different parts of the plant?

Now, look closely at the plant. Look at fissures in bark vs. bark surface; on pine, peel off bark to discover the rich habitat underneath (don’t peel off too much). Use magnifying glasses as necessary.

Compare bark on trunk with near roots, and dig around roots for another microhabitat.

Compare bark on trunk with limbs, twigs, leaf clusters. Note how exposure, humidity, brightness, food, shelter from enemies, etc. vary from site to site. Are animals distributed at random over this complex landscape? of course not.

Look at N and S side of trunk. Are there any differences?

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