If you read my first post on teaching a plant unit using wild plants called "Wild Plants Mean Even Wilder Learning! Part 1," you might now be thinking, “I can see plants outside my classroom window, but what would I ever do with them?” This post will give you plenty of ideas for lessons using live plants, both wild and not so wild, that will turn your students into young naturalists. These lessons and activities can be used as a whole unit or as a stand-alone. Is your plant unit a little too tame? Go wild this spring!
tongue depressors — to dig plants with
plastic bags — for collecting plants
magnifying glasses — for close examination
paper — single sheets and science notebooks for notes and sketches
clear tape — for attaching plants to paper
pencils, crayons — for sketching and coloring
wild plants — for studying
petunias — six-packs for examining flower parts, if needed
straight pins — for cutting open parts of flowers and pods
Questions — It’s a good idea to keep a running list of questions and findings that come up during these activities. To spur inquiry, try asking your students these questions:
Parts of Plants — Hit the playground with a tongue depressor and a baggie. Have students gather small, whole, flowering plants like Henbit, Chickweed, Dandelion, or Shepherd’s Purse. Carefully remove the plant from the soil so the roots remain attached. Gently remove the dirt from the roots. Place the plant in the baggie. Collect one to three plants. Take plants inside.
Give each student a piece of paper. Have students identify the parts of the plant and make sketches of them on their paper. Attach the plants to the paper with tape. Label the parts by drawing lines on the paper away from the plant and writing the names. Ask them to identify flowers, leaves, stems, roots, seed pods, etc.
Dandelion Life Cycle — I like using dandelions for life cycle learning because my students are so familiar with them. Their life cycle is recognizable and easy to spot. Earlier in the year we focused on butterfly and frog life cycles. Now, students can apply that knowledge and look for the stages of the cycle in plants. It's possible to see almost every stage on the same plant. We spend some time drawing the cycle of the plant and talking about how the seeds travel and that the cycle is repeated in the plant that grows from the seed. After examining her dandelion for a while, Vittoria wrote, "Did you know that every petal of a dandelion is another future dandelion?!" Take away: Plants have life cycles just like animals.
Why Do We Call It a Dandelion? — Have each student find and bring in a yellow dandelion flower and a leaf from the same plant. Have them tape the leaf to the paper and observe it. Ask them to write dandelion and dent de lion ("tooth of a lion," from the original French name) on the paper next to the leaf. Talk about how the leaf gave the plant its name from the sharp tooth shapes along the sides of the leaf. Take away: Many of our words and names for things come from other languages. The common names for plants often come from properties or uses of the plant.
Dandelion Flower Count — Now have students look at the yellow dandelion bloom. Explain that each petal is one flower. Have them estimate how many flowers they think their bloom has and write it in a box on their dandelion paper. Then, let them carefully pull the blooms apart and begin counting. Some will choose to tally; others might put them in piles of ten. I let them decide on a method, but you can give them a specific strategy if you like. Once they have their count, have them write the number of flowers on their paper and circle it. Then have them compare their actual count with their estimation. Give them time to figure out how many more or less they actually had compared to their estimate. Have them tape some samples on their paper before getting rid of the rest. To finish, have students write some things they learned or discovered during the activity. Take away: We know that each petal is a flower because they produce seeds and we see the puffball has a seed at the end of each little parachute.
Plant Needs — Have students choose a plant in the schoolyard, place a name marker by it, and take a picture of it. Then have them mark it on their plant map with an orange triangle. Ask them to look for what the plant requires from its habitat to live and show a friend the soil, water, space, and light sources their plant uses. Does it have enough of each? Do wild plants ever grow where there isn't very much of something? Does it change how the plant grows? Take away: Plants have the same basic needs.
Flowers and Flower Parts — Read Plants and Flowers by Sally Hewitt. Purple poppy mallow would be my first choice for a good wild plant to examine for flower parts. Their large, wine-colored flowers are perfect for this activity. If there are none around, give each student a petunia flower to dissect and examine. I purchase a few six-packs if necessary. Have them use a straight pin to open the small parts of the flower, pull them apart, and identify them. Tape the parts of the flower on paper and label them for a nice display. Take away: Each seed-producing plant has certain parts in their flowers that produce seeds for future plants.
Seeds and Seed Pods — Shepherd's Purse is a great plant to use when examining seed pods. They have little heart-shaped pods that stick out from the stem and contain tiny black seeds. Students can dissect a seed pod from a shepherd’s purse plant with a straight pin and look at it with a magnifying glass. Take away: Seeds are not always stored in the same places on different plants.
Plant Comparison — Students choose two plants to examine and compare. Have them fill out the table (click on the image to the right) by describing specific parts of the plants in the specified boxes. They can use words, sketches, or both. Take away: Even though plants have the same parts, the parts look different. The plants can be identified by their differences and similarities.
Plant safety has to be talked about often. Remind students of the safety rules and what to do if they come across a plant that may not be safe.
Visual discrimination is a very important skill. Practice at identifying plants is a fun way to work on the skill. Students become more observant as they get better at identification.
If you aren't sure which plants to use, try my Playground Plant List! Every location has different plants, but some are just about everywhere. Click on the file to the right to download my list of plants.
Read more about inquiry and the use of "I noticed . . . " and "I wonder . . . " statements.
What Do You Think?