Life in the Arctic Tundra
Take your students on an imaginary expedition to the Arctic with these nine activities.
- Grades: PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8
Before you begin your Arctic studies, set up a wintry reading display of tundra-themed books. Add laminated articles or photos from magazines such as National Geographic Kids and Science World, and props such as toy animals, furry earmuffs, mittens, ski goggles, maps, and a globe. Then introduce your unit with the Animals of the Arctic Tundra Reproducible (PDF). Invite students to record their questions and discoveries in "Arctic Field Journals" decorated with their own drawings of tundra animals. You can also create a quick and easy KWL chart by having students add K, W, or L sticky notes to an Arctic map.
Many tundra animals (such as foxes, hares, wolves, and polar bears) and tundra birds (such as snowy owls and terns) grow white outer fur or white feathers to help camouflage them on the snow-covered winter landscape.
Activity: To help students understand how camouflage works, add a tundra ecosystem model to your Arctic reading center. Fill up a plastic toy swimming pool with white quilt batting, white paper strips, and crumpled white tissue paper. Have students brainstorm additional materials that they can arrange to resemble the snowy tundra. Then invite them to add photographs, drawings, clay models, and stuffed versions of some of the tundra's permanent animal and bird residents. Once these are all in place, ask students to step back to view the tundra scene they've created. Does the snowy landscape help or hinder their ability to spot the creatures? Why?
Wolf Packs and Fox Kits
Arctic wolves and Arctic foxes share many traits. Both live in groups (either packs or kits), and have an important part to play in the Arctic ecosystem. But wolves are much larger and hunt large mammals, such as caribou.
Activity: Invite students to form two teams, the Arctic Wolves and the Arctic Foxes. Encourage them to find out how their chosen animal lives and survives. What are its habits, life cycle, and adaptations to the harsh cold? What is the sound of its call? As each team presents their new knowledge to the class, have students create Venn diagrams (labeled "wolves," "foxes," "both") with words or illustrations. Teams can use the diagrams to write collaborative books on their animals, complete with team logos.
Bundled in Fur
Many Arctic animals, such as musk oxen, wolves, and foxes, grow two layers of fur to help insulate their bodies in subzero winter temperatures. The animals shed this extra layer each spring, when temperatures rise and the extra layer is no longer needed.
Activity: To demonstrate how extra fur benefits animals, fill the bottom of a cooler or tank with ice. Invite students to take turns putting on a pair of cotton garden gloves, which represent a single coat of fur. On one hand, slide a large leather glove over the cotton glove to represent an animal's additional coat of fur. Then have the student hold both hands above the ice for a minute or two. Which hand stays the warmest? Why? Give each student a chance to try this experiment.
Shallow Roots in the Soil
Only the top few inches of tundra soil thaw in the summer because the ground beneath it is permafrost. Since roots can't penetrate or thrive in frozen soil, they grow horizontally instead of vertically. This is a key reason why tundra trees' short-shallow roots don't anchor tall trees very well!
Activity: Invite students to try growing their own plants with shallow roots. Have small groups of students each put an inch of soil in a clear container and add fast-growing seeds. As students care for the plants, ask them to observe how long the seedlings thrive in shallow soil, which way the roots grow, and whether or not the plants sprout.
Willows in the (Arctic) Wind
Tundra willow trees grow to only about 6" tall and hug the ground to escape the fierce Arctic winds, which would topple taller trees. In the winter, snow blankets these little trees and protects them from sharp tundra ice crystals.
Activity: Invite students to create models to demonstrate the effect of wind on trees of different sizes. Have them twist two pipe cleaners together to create a tree trunk, leaving about 1" loose at one end to represent the roots. Have them attach and shape pipe-cleaner branches that extend in several directions. Then ask students to shape another pair of pipe cleaners into a tiny, short tree with long, low limbs and roots. "Plant" both trees in a mound of clay "soil" and press firmly onto a tabletop. Ask students to blow on the trees as hard as they can. How do the two trees respond? What happens when tall trees are exposed to strong, sustained wind?
The Dark Days of Winter
Arctic residents experience a unique phenomenon each year. For a few months every winter, the only source of light is the moon's reflection on the snow, leaving darkness both night and day. But for most of the summer, the sun stays above the horizon, making it bright and sunny throughout both day and night.
Activity: Invite students to compare and contrast the facts and myths surrounding this Arctic phenomenon with an imaginative writing activity. First, talk with students about the Inuit, the indigenous people of the Arctic region. Their communities would endure the long winter months of cold and darkness with singing, drumming, games, and storytelling, especially of myths and legends. Share with students the Inuit myth of "Crow Brings Daylight". Then invite them to write their own legends or stories about Arctic darkness using gel pens on black construction paper. Their stories will twinkle on a dark bulletin board! Once students have shared their stories with the rest of the class, reveal facts about Arctic winters with information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Arctic site.
Compact and Comfortable
Arctic animals typically have large, thick bodies (such as musk oxen, caribou, or polar bears) or small, compact ones (such as Arctic hares or Arctic foxes), and most also have short limbs, ears, and noses. This means less surface area of their bodies is exposed to the tundra's freezing temperatures.
Activity: Students can learn how Arctic animals' bodies retain body heat with this easy experiment. Fill a tall plastic soda bottle with water at room temperature. Pour the same amount of water into a short plastic tub with a larger diameter. Refrigerate both containers for about 20 minutes. Then have students measure the temperature of each container and compare. Ask: Did the temperature of the bottle's water drop faster than that of the tub's? Why?
The Tundra Comes to Life
Some Arctic animals and birds have adapted to survive the harsh winters, while others live there only in the summer. These creatures arrive in spring to raise their young and eat the abundant food. In the winter, they migrate southward to warmer climates. Every tundra animal, bird, and plant plays a crucial role in a food chain.
Activity: Ask students to each pick an animal that lives on the tundra and research more about its life cycle. Ask students: When does your animal live on the tundra? How does it fit into an Arctic food chain? Then ask them to illustrate this chain on a large sheet of paper, with a speech bubble drawn beside each animal or plant. Inside the bubbles, have students write a sentence from each organism's perspective describing how the organism contributes to the chain of life. For example, in a chain of a poppy flower, an Arctic hare, and an Arctic fox, the hare's speech bubble could say, "I eat poppies. Sometimes I become food for foxes," while the fox's bubble could say, "I eat hares, lemmings, and fish. My waste fertilizes the tundra soil."
Growing at the Speed of Summer
Summer on the tundra is very short, so plants must make efficient use of the long daylight hours. They photosynthesize constantly, using energy from the sun to make food, which allows them to bloom at a fast rate.
Activity: Invite students to explore the effect of extended daylight on the growth of plants. Together with students, prepare two identical pots of soil, and plant the same kind of fast-growing seeds (such as grass or marigolds) in both. Place one pot in an area where the plant will be exposed to the natural pattern of daylight and night, and the other in an area where a fluorescent plant light (available at gardening stores) can shine on it 24 hours a day. Then have students observe and compare the plants daily. Ask: Did extended exposure to light speed the plant's growth rate? Why?
Mackie Rhodes is an education writer based in Greensboro, NC. Her professional books include Teaching with Favorite Back-to-School Books and Teaching About Winter Holidays With Favorite Picture Books. This article was originally published in the January/February 2004 issue of Instructor magazine.