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Spring School Programs

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Introduction                                                                                                •  State Standards (pdf)

Spring is the season when daylight hours outnumber the hours of darkness. This increase in light, longer days and rise in temperature means increased activity in both plants and animals. A naturalist-led program will unveil the activities of plants and animals as Mosquito Hill Nature Center comes to life. The following topics can be explored during the spring school program:

• Wetland Ecology
• Succession
• Edge Effect
• Life Cycles
• Soil Formation and Erosion
• Symbiotic Relationships
• Food Webs and Energy Flow
• Interdependence
• Environmental Awareness

Spring Concepts 

At the end of the field trip, students will have been introduced to several of the following concepts:

1. The variety of natural habitats found at Mosquito Hill Nature Center (MHNC), what physical characteristics make each area unique, and a survey of animal and plant populations found there.

2. The different stages of plant and animal life cycles; how living organisms are adapted to surviving in their environment and the relationships between plants and animals.

3. The concept of energy flow through plants and animals via food chains and food webs; how energy is collected and used by living organisms.

4. An introductory study of the unique geologic formations of MHNC; how glaciers and water impact the topography of an area; the importance of soils and their characteristics

Spring Vocabulary

Students may be introduced to several of these vocabulary words during their field trip:

Capillary action
Glacial erratic
Parent material
Surface tension

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1. Design a Habitat

OBJECTIVE: To help children understand the definition of a habitat

EXPLANATION: A habitat is a specific place where animals and plants live. A habitat must include food, water, shelter, and in the case of animals, a place to raise their young. Some examples of habitats are:

Rock pile

Rotting log
Dead tree still standing (called a snag)

ACTIVITY: After discussing the word habitat with the students, ask them to think of their favorite plant or animal found in Wisconsin. Next, ask the students to draw that animal in its proper habitat. Have the students stand up and tell the class about their picture. Were there any plants or animals that live in more than one type of habitat? After discussing the word habitat with the students, ask them to think of their favorite plant or animal found in Wisconsin. Next, ask the students to draw that animal in its proper habitat. Have the students stand up and tell the class about their picture. Were there any plants or animals that live in more than one type of habitat?

VARIATION: Divide the students into small groups. Let each group choose a habitat and research the kinds of plants and animals living there. Give each group a cardboard box (with one side open), toothpicks, pipe cleaners, yarn, magazines that show pictures of various habitats, and other art materials. Ask the groups to use their art materials and research collected to make dioramas of the habitats they chose. Remind them that a habitat includes food, water, shelter, and space. After they have finished their projects, ask them what animals might live there. What would the animals eat? Where would they hide? 

2. Dress a Tree

OBJECTIVE: To illustrate the different parts of a tree and how they function

EXPLANATION: Trees are living organisms that make their own food through a process called photosynthesis. While leaves play an important role in photosynthesis, other parts of the tree are equally important in keeping it alive.

ACTIVITY: On a bulletin board, draw a long, thin rectangle. Explain to the students that this will represent a tree skeleton. Just like human skeletons that have organs, etc. to keep them alive, there are many additional parts that keep trees alive. Give each child a card with one of the following tree parts written on it:

Bark (1)
Roots (1)
Leaf (10)
Branch (6)
 Nut (5) or Fruit (5)
Flower (5) if using fruit
Bud (10)
Apple tree

Note: The number in parenthesis represents the number of cards to make. Adjust the number of cards distributed by the number of students in the class.

Using various art supplies (construction paper, cloth, cardboard, beads, pipe cleaners, etc.), have the children make their assigned tree part(s). Students will then attach their tree part(s) to the skeleton in the proper location and explain to the class what function it serves.

3. Web of Life

OBJECTIVE: To demonstrate that all living things are connected through the food chain and food web

EXPLANATION: Energy stored by plants is passed along in a series of steps of eating and being eaten known as the food chain. Because most animals have more than one food source, they are linked in many possible food chains. These food chains become entwined to form a food web.

ACTIVITY: Make signs that students can hang around their necks with one of the following plants (printed on a green sign), plant eaters (printed on a blue sign), and meat eaters (printed on a red sign) on each card: 

food chain



Plant Eaters:


Meat Eaters:


First, ask a student from each category to stand at the front of the class. Have the students create one line starting with the plant, the plant eater (herbivore) that eats that particular plant, and then the meat eater (carnivore) that eats the herbivore. This is an example of a food chain.

Next, have all the students form a circle. Hand each herbivore a string to connect with the plant they eat. After that, hand each carnivore a string to connect with an herbivore they eat. You should now have something that resembles a web. To illustrate more intricacy in a food web, use additional strings to make more connections. What happens when there is a forest fire? (Plants drop their strings) The herbivores have nothing to eat and starve. (Herbivores drop their strings) Since there are no herbivores, what happens to the carnivores? The carnivores have nothing to eat and starve. (Carnivores drop their strings) All of the plants and animals now begin to decompose, releasing nutrients back into the soil to be used by new plants. Brainstorm other happenings that could disrupt the food chain or the food web.

4. Let’s Get Dirty 

OBJECTIVE: To illustrate the different components of soil

EXPLANATION: Soil is the combination of minerals and organic matter, which forms over a long period of time. Soil is necessary for most plants to grow and usually contains other important ingredients that plants need such as air and water. Soil scientists describe soil types by how much sand, silt, and clay are present. Sand is the largest particle in soil. When you rub it, it feels rough. Silt is a soil particle whose size is between sand and clay. When wet it feels smooth but not sticky. Clay is the smallest of particles. Clay is smooth when dry and sticky when wet.

ACTIVITY: Ask each student to collect a jar of soil from around his or her home to bring to class. Have the student include a description of the area that the soil was collected (farm field, heavily wooded area, garden, side of the road, backyard, sunny area, shady area, near water, etc.) Find a place where the students can empty their jars of soil to examine. Ask the following questions:

How does your soil feel?  Dry/crumbly-falls apart easily when handled? Moist- feels damp, maybe spongy? Wet- drips when you pick it up or squeeze it?

What color is your soil? Very dark brown to black? Brown? Tan? Red? Why are soils different colors?

What kind of soil is it? Sandy- made up of grains of sand? Clay- sticks together in clumps? Loamy- made up of dead leaves or other organic matter and a bit of sand, silt, and clay?

What type of vegetation was growing near the soil you collected? Large trees? Grass? Flowers? Nothing?

Next, ask the students to refill their jars about ¾ full with their soil and the rest water. Make sure that each child has a tight fitting lid to do this experiment. After the lid is secure, ask the students to shake the jar until everything is completely mixed. Place the jars in an area where they will not be disturbed for 24 to 48 hours. After a few hours you should start to see some settling in layers. These layers will be sand (layer on the bottom of the jar), silt (middle layer), and clay (layer at the top). Why does the soil settle in layers? Soil is composed of three different sized particles. This activity allows you to separate the soil particles into visible layers to estimate the amount of each type of particle in the soil sample. This separation occurs because heavier particles settle faster.

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Post Activities

1. Watch My Back
OBJECTIVE: To help students identify a variety of animals through knowledge gained about the wildlife found at the nature center and their habitats and adaptations
EXPLANATION:  Each animal found at Mosquito Hill Nature Center has unique physical features and special habitat requirements that set it apart from other animals. One can easily recognize a fish due to its unmistakable shape, lack of arms and legs, and gills. No one would dispute that a suitable habitat for a fish is an aquatic environment. This activity helps students become more familiar with Wisconsin animals and their habitats.

ACTIVITY: Make signs, on a 3x5 note card or sticker, with a picture or the name of the following animals (one animal per sign):


Familiarize the class with each animal on the list (show a photograph if necessary) and what it eats. Afterwards, attach one sign to the back of each child (students should not be told what animal they are). Students should find a partner and look at each other’s signs. Each student should then ask their partner five yes/no questions to figure out what animal they are. Examples of questions to ask:

Do I live in a forest? Pond? Tree?
Am I bigger than a lunch box?
Do I have feathers? Fur? A Shell?
Am I a plant eater (herbivore)? Meat eater (carnivore)? Eat both (omnivore)?
Can I fly? Crawl? Run? Swim?

As students discover what animal they are, signs should be moved to their chest and they should sit down. If the student cannot figure out his/her animal after 5 questions, the student switches partners and asks up to 5 new questions. Keep changing partners until every animal is identified. Afterwards, discuss if it was difficult to identify each animal. Why or why not?

2. Creature Creations

OBJECTIVE: To illustrate how some plants and animals have adaptations to help them adjust to their surroundings.

EXPLANATION: Plants and animals have physical features that make it possible for them to live in some, but not all habitats. A duck has webbed feet that allow it to move efficiently through the water. Badgers have very long, sharp claws, which make it easier to dig underground tunnels. Prairie plants have very long roots that allow them to obtain water deep underground in sandy soils or during a drought. Milkweed plants produce seedpods that release and spread seeds via wind; hence it is easier for the plant to grow in a greater variety of habitats. These are examples of how plants and animals have adapted to their environment.

ACTIVITY: Using modeling clay, toothpicks, yarn, construction paper, beads, etc., ask the students to create an imaginary creature or plant that would be able to exist in a particular type of habitat. Some examples of habitats are a puddle, field, forest, another planet, rotting log, or an apple. Ask the students to be as creative as possible when designing their creature; the crazier the better. Remind the children that their creation must be able to obtain food and water and protect itself from predators. If their creation is an animal, it must also be able to travel and find shelter. After they have finished, ask the students to explain their creatures to the class. What adaptations do their creatures have to help them survive in the habitat they have chosen?

3. Where Do You Sit In The Food Web?

OBJECTIVE: To further explore relationships in food webs and for students to start thinking about where they “sit” in a food web.

EXPLANATION: A food web diagram shows organisms arranged by energy flow from organisms at the lowest level to the highest. Energy passes from one organism to another on a higher level through the consumption of the lower organism. There are usually at least three levels found in a food web:

Producers- green plants which make food from water, carbon dioxide, and some soil minerals using energy from the sun.

Primary consumers- consumes producers (deer eat twigs, squirrels eat nuts)

Secondary consumers- consumes the primary consumers (fox eats mice)

Tertiary consumers- consumes the secondary consumers (eagle eats bass)

Decomposers- breaks down dead organic matter (earthworms eats leaves)

ACTIVITY: With their knowledge of the food web from the nature center visit, students will now construct a food web diagram, which includes themselves (students can draw pictures or use words to describe component of the diagram). This can be a team project or students may work individually. To get them started, have the students consider the following:

1.    A student eats a hamburger.
2.    Where does the hamburger come from?
3.    What does the cow eat?
4.    What else eats grass &/or other plants?
5.    What eats insects and mice?
6.    Do we eat owls?
7.    Do we eat plants?
8.    What other animals do we eat?
9.    What do these other animals eat?
10. What eats them?

Food webHave the students “connect” the “players” in their food web by using arrows (see example at left). Arrows show energy flow from prey or plant to the predator. Explain to the students that food webs show “who eats whom” in an ecosystem.

Food webs illustrate a healthy balance of producers, consumers, and decomposers in the environment. If one group of plants or animals are affected by disease, cold weather or over population, the entire web is affected. Have the students remove one of their food web “players”. What effect does this will have on the other “players”?



4. How Does Your Garden Grow?

OBJECTIVE: To determine what effect various soils have on plant growth.

EXPLANATION: Soil particle size has a lot to do with a soil’s drainage and nutrient holding capacity. Sand particles are large in size, which means that there are large air spaces between the grains. Water and dissolved nutrients have less pore space to bond to therefore they are released immediately. Silt is finer than sand. Soils with a lot of silt make excellent farmland but erode very easily. Clay, having the smallest particles, can hold a lot of nutrients but it doesn’t let air and water through it well. The perfect soil for plants, called loam, has about the same amount of sand and silt, plus a small amount of clay and organic materials such as decaying leaves or animal matter.

ACTIVITY: If possible, have students use the soil they collected from their yards for the Spring Pre-activity: Let’s Get Dirty. Each student should be given the same type of container for their soil (empty milk cartons or margarine tubs work well) and three bean seeds that have been presoaked four to six hours. Ask each student to label their containers with the type of soil they have collected (i.e. sand, silt, clay, or loam). For more information on determining soil types, see Spring Pre-activity: Let’s Get Dirty. Next, plant the seeds in each container and place in a sunny area in the classroom, such as a windowsill. Water and care for the plantings in each container over a determined period of time, using equal amounts of water to keep the soil moist but not saturated. Ask the students to observe the growth of the plants and record any changes that occur. Which soil type produced the largest plants? The smallest plants? Why? Do you think it is possible to change the soil type in an area? Why or why not? Many gardeners add composting soil, which is high in nutrients, to their existing soil to increase productivity of their gardens. What do farmers do to their soil to produce crops every year? Some farmers either add fertilizers to their soil to increase crop productivity or rotate their crops from year to year. Crop rotation means that the farmer will plant corn one year, for example, and the next year he/she will plant beans. The corn depletes certain nutrients in the soil that the beans replace the following year.

Prairie plants found in Mosquito Hill Nature Center’s prairie live in predominantly sandy soil, which we know does not hold a lot of moisture. To obtain the water that they need to survive, these plants have very long roots &/or a waxy coating on the surface of their leaves and stems to retain moisture inside the plant. Instead of humans manipulating the soil, the plants have adapted to the soil type in which they grow. Farmers however, do not have the time it takes for their crops to adapt to soil conditions on their own. This would take many, many years. Instead, soils are usually amended to produce results more quickly.

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