Ecosystem Evidence

By National Gardening Association Editors

We don't often take time to observe the details of the natural world around us-especially in a place as ordinary as the neighborhood or schoolyard we walk through every day. However, nature is at work out there, all around us, every day. There's an ecosystem (a community of plants and animals that live interdependently together within a similar set of climatic condition) right in front of us.

The Ecosystem Evidence activity is a fun, informal scavenger hunt that encourages children to observe and explore evidence of nature at work. Try it as a team exercise at school or camp, or as a family activity. Encourage children to be creative in their explorations, and to think of everyday objects from the perspective of the animals that are trying to "make a living" in the neighborhood. Challenge kids to see how much "ecosystem evidence" they can find-it's amazing how much they'll see when they take time to look! The following are some ideas to extend the activity.

Questions for Discussion

For older or more experienced kids, use these questions for more in-depth investigations, or to tie the activity to ecosystem studies. Students can employ evidence they gather in the scavenger hunt to determine the type of ecosystem in which they live, and its state of health.

There are no specific "correct" answers to questions 1 and 2-they are intended to foster exploration and observation, and are a great tool for inquiry investigations. Students may respond with broad descriptive categories such as: a tree, grass, and moss. Or they may be more specific, offering answers such as: an oak tree, dandelions, and a tree with skinny leaves.

1. Find three different plants. What are they? (You don't have to know their names; just describe them in such a way that someone else could find the plant you are referring to based on your description.)

If appropriate for your intended use, students could use leaf rubbings or press leaf samples to create a more definitive description of "their" plants or to add variety and scope to journals. Depending on the age/grade/skill level of your students, this should be in addition to their description with words, sentences, or paragraphs.

2. Find three different animals. What are they? In what type of ecosystem does each one live?
Remind students that there are many tiny animals right under their noses-besides commonly noted birds and squirrels, they will likely find beetles, ants, spiders, worms, isopods ("Roly Polies") and a variety of other micro-fauna.

3. What do the plants and animals that you found need to survive? What are these things called? Can they get all of these things in the schoolyard or neighborhood?

All living organisms need habitat, which is made up of food, water, and a shelter (place to live). Animals also need cover. Shelter is a specific place, and cover is a broader area, like a "neighborhood". Have students consider equivalents in their own lives: A student"s home is their shelter, but their cover includes the neighborhood they play/hang out in, their school, church, and homes of relatives and friends.

A healthy habitat includes all the things an organism needs to survive. A threatened or unhealthy habitat would be missing one or more of these essential components.

4. What recommendations do you have for improving the environment in the schoolyard or neighborhood, so that it is a better place for these plants and animals to live?

Water is often missing from neighborhoods and schoolyards. Here are a few ways to incorporate it: a birdbath you clean and refill regularly; a water garden created from a plastic-lined whisky barrel or a wading pool; or an in-ground pond. Add food sources by planting native nut-, berry-, or fruit-producing plants, or by hanging feeders. Diverse plants, including trees, shrubs, low-growing grasses, and clumping plants provide places for nests, cover-and an enjoyable environment for people, too.

Ecosystem Journal

The scavenger hunt and related questions provide a basis for creating an Ecosystem Journal, with each activity or question serving as the topic for a separate entry. Students can personalize their own journal covers, and add entries composed of notes from other activities, outdoor explorations, and personal thoughts about their ecosystem. Combine these with creative writing activities to tie literacy and science together through authentic-and engaging learning.

Discovery Bags

Discovery Bags contain tools and materials that foster exploration and discovery, and can be as simple or elaborate as you wish. Start with a bag: a sturdy tote bag with side pockets, or even a brown paper grocery bag. Add as many of the following items as seem appropriate: a clipboard and paper, pencils, rulers, tweezers, hand trowels, hand lenses or a field microscope, child-friendly field guides, and collection jars. When you call this collection of simple tools a Discovery Bag, it becomes something greater: a tool kit that fuels young scientists' enthusiasm and excitement! Use Discovery Bags to help students delve deeper in the Ecosystem Evidence hunt and related questions. Keep one on hand for family outings, or create several for your classroom and have three to four students work together from one Discovery Bag.

National Science Standards Addressed

Science as Inquiry - Develop abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry

Life Science - Characteristics of organisms; organisms and environments; populations and ecosystems; interdependence of organisms

Science and Technology - Abilities to distinguish between natural objects and objects made by humans

Science in Personal and Social Perspective - Changes in environments; natural resources, and environmental quality

Ecosystem Evidence Hunt

Do you know that your schoolyard or neighborhood is actually part of a living ecosystem?

An ecosystem is a community of plants and animals that live together under similar conditions. Collect evidence of your ecosystem using the hunt below. Find an example of the item listed on the left, and write a description of it in the column on the right. Have fun, but make sure to be respectful of nature - be sure you have permission before taking a sample of something, and don't destroy or collect the entire population of any living organisms.

  • Find:
  • Something hardf
  • Something soft
  • Something green
  • Something brown
  • Three different colors in the soil
  • Something that was once higher than your head
  • Something that lives underground
  • A seed
  • A flower
  • Something that crumbles in your hands
  • Something that has an odor
  • A leaf
  • Something squishy
  • Something that does not belong here
  • Something that you find interesting

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