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environmental science interactive activities

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A collection of fun, active, and engaging games to help children of all ages learn about the environment.

Environmental education games are not only fun, but can help explain complex topics and relationships found in ecosystems. The following games have been selected according to their suitability in both formal and non-formal situations and their educational value. Please enjoy trying them out and don’t forget to have fun!

Bat and Moth (Dolphins and crabs, etc.)

Introduction.

An ideal time for this activity is at night, however, it can be played during the day. Always play on flat even ground without obstructions.

Begin with the question, “How do bats find their food in the dark (or dolphins find their food beneath the sand or in murky water)?” Discuss how finding food using echolocation works, clarifying details and correcting misconceptions. Echolocation or bio-sonar is the ability of some animals to locate objects using sound waves. They emit a range of sounds and listen for the echoes. Many animals, including cetaceans with teeth and some bats, make use of echolocation to orient themselves and detect prey. Many of the details of echolocation are not completely understood, so research on echolocation continues.

  • Have the participants form a circle where they can join hands.
  • Everyone in the circle are trees that surround an open meadow where the bat hunts insects to eat.
  • Select two volunteers, one to be the bat, the other the moth.
  • Blindfold the bat.
  • The bat claps and the moth claps back as they move about within the circle with the bat trying to tag the moth.
  • Upon being tagged, the moth becomes the bat and a new moth is chosen.
  • Play until everyone who wants to gets a chance to be the moth.
  • Remind everyone that throughout the activity the trees” are the bat’s protectors making sure s/he remains safe within the circle.

What happens to a specie that uses echolocation when it encounters excessive noise in its environment?

Environmental Education Games and Activities

Migration Hopscotch

An ideal location for this activity is a beach where a hopscotch diagram can be drawn in the sand. Ropes on grass, chalk on pavement and a set of carpet squares can also be used depending on the type of open space available.

The participants are all birds (pick species that migrate) flying from their summer habitat in Canada to their winter habitat in Mexico along their annual migration route (the hopscotch diagram). Summer habitat is at one end, winter habitat the other. While making the trip, the birds have places to stop, rest and sometimes eat (often a wetland or body of water) where they layover before resuming their migration.

  • Have the players go through the hopscotch court once—from Alaska to Mexico--to start.
  • Before round two, explain that a housing development was constructed while they were wintering in Mexico and mark one of the squares with an “X” to indicate it is no longer available to land on.
  • Before each successive round continue to take away squares to represent loss of habitat to pollution (e.g. spills & dumping), and land-use conversion (resorts, marinas and more housing developments) until players can no longer successfully complete a migration.
  • If a player jumps and lands short or misses the intended square they are eliminated. If no player can complete a migration the game ends.  

What happens to a specie that can no longer complete its annual migration?

Owls, Mice, and Shrubs (aka Seals, Fish, Kelp, etc.)

The object of play is for the MICE to successfully hide under (get to) a SHRUB without being caught (having their flag taken) by an OWL. Each SHRUB can protect only one MOUSE. However, OWLS can catch as many MICE as time permits. The game is played in 30 second rounds, with data recorded after each round.

  • At least 25 participants (maximum of 50)
  • a dozen bandanas (for every 25 players)
  • a large sheet of graph paper
  • three colored pens/pencils

Set-up consists of creating three groups of participants in concentric rings around each other. In the inner ring are the OWLS (~15%), surrounded by a ring of MICE (~35%), with the remaining participants (~50%) in the outer ring acting as SHRUBS. The MICE hang a bandana from their belt or pocket. Record the number of players in each group on the data sheet.

Each round of play begins when the activity leader yells “HUNT!” The MICE run for cover among the SHRUBS while the OWLS chase after them. The SHRUBS hold out their arms as if they were branches for the MICE to hide beneath. After 30 seconds play is stopped. First data is collected according to the following parameters, then the transformations outlined below occur and the next round can begin.

MICE that are caught become OWLS. OWLS that hunted successfully remain as OWLS. OWLS that did not catch a MOUSE become SHRUBS. SHRUBS that harbor a MOUSE become MICE. SHRUBS without a MOUSE stay SHRUBS. Repeat the rounds of play 12 to 18 times to ensure sufficient data is collected to reveal any patterns. Plot the data on a graph (large enough for the group to read) where ROUNDS are on the X-axis and NUMBERS are on the Y-axis. Connect the dots.  

Each line in the graph represents a population’s growth and decline over time. The lines should be fairly accurate representations of how populations of species change in an ecosystem.

Ask participants to explain the patterns revealed by the graph. Was the game successful? Why or why not? Talk about population cycles and interconnection of species. What does being tagged in the game simulate in a real forest environment?

Man tagging woman running

Generations

This activity explores the effect of consumption of non-renewable resources on future generations.

To begin discuss the difference between renewable and non-renewable resources that humans rely on for survival. You'll use M&Ms to explain that each one represents the resources humans need to survive.

Have a large bag of M&Ms (for each group of twelve participants. Put about half the M&Ms in one paper lunch bag and half into another—however, put no brown M&Ms in the second bag. Make a set of index cards with two of each for the following roles: grandchildren, children, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents.

  • Tell the great-great grandparents to take as many M&Ms (i.e. resources) as they want without looking in the bag—but not to eat them until the end of the game.
  • Have each generation pass the bag to the next younger generation, each taking as many as they want, until each generation has had a turn or the bag is empty. It is possible that some participants will not get any M&Ms. If that happens, don’t worry! (Remember you have a second bag full of “renewables” in reserve.)Ask “What would happen to the next generation to be born if the bag is empty?”
  • After discussing the ramifications of running out of resources (i.e. M&Ms), explain that the brown M&Ms are non-renewable and the other colors renewable. And that in order to stay in the game, a player must have at least one brown M&M.
  • Explain that to acquire more M&Ms participants can trade with each other at whatever exchange rate they agree upon.
  • Allow several minutes to pass as trades are conducted.
  • At the end of trading, participants without any brown M&Ms are eliminated (they get to keep their pile of M&Ms) unless a generation before them wills them an inheritance that include a brown M&M.
  • Offer to trade with the remaining players (from the reserve bag of M&Ms) at a fixed exchange rate of 1 brown for 4 of any other color.
  • After trading any player without brown M&Ms is eliminated (they get to keep their pile of M&Ms). This concludes the “game” portion of the activity.
  • Continue by discussing which type of trading the participants preferred—unregulated or fixed rate.
  • Then discuss the value of the brown M&Ms or non-renewable resources. [Historically, metals and gemstones have had the greatest value, while coal and oil where less valuable.]
  • Follow up with a discussion of leaving an inheritance for future generations.
  • Lastly, ask participants, “What is the value of clean air and fresh water?”
  • Share the remaining M&Ms with the group and enjoy.

For the Common Good

In this activity participants play a game where cooperative decisions about renewable resources must be made if all are to benefit. The game reinforces the concept that cooperation, rather than selfishness, brings more long-term benefits to society.

  • Ten “tokens” (e.g. poker chips, pennies, stones, etc.) for each participant
  • A prize (in a quantity enough for everyone)

Circle the group. From the pile of tokens, put ¼ of them into the center of the group on a sheet of paper (the pool). DO NOT EXPLAIN THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TOKENS BEFORE PLAYING THE GAME! Then read the following rules to the participants—twice.

  • The name of this activity is For the Common Good.
  • The chips belong to all of you.
  • I will hum a tune. While I am humming everybody may take tokens out of the pool in the center.
  • You may trade ten tokens for a prize at the end of the game.
  • When I stop humming, I will double the amount of tokens remaining in the pool at that time, then continue the game.
  • There will never be more tokens in the pool than there were at the beginning, this is the maximum number of tokens the pool can hold.
  • You may not communicate in any way with anyone during the game. If you do, you forfeit your tokens.

The players will likely empty the pool at the start of the game. Each time they do, declare the game over for you cannot double zero tokens. Then collect all the tokens and start over.

At the end of each round double the amount of remaining tokens then ask each player how many tokens they have.

Continue play without allowing participants to communicate. After a few rounds let the participants talk for 30 seconds then resume play. If all players acquire ten tokens the game is over.

Renewable resources can be maintained if managed properly. When resources are not given sufficient time or opportunity to be replenished or reproduce they can be exhausted quickly—especially when demand for those resources grows as result of higher standards of living and the population increases. Non-renewable resources are limited in quantity and can disrupt a society if they are depleted without sufficiently available replacements.

The following questions will guide the debrief conversation.

  • What do the tokens represent? (Renewable resources, such as fish or trees. Non-renewable resources aren’t represented in this activity, but make sure participants understand the difference.)
  • Can the participants draw any parallels between the way the group treated the tokens and the way individuals and society as a whole use or overuse renewable resources? (Examples include overfishing leading to collapse of fisheries and deforestation leading to loss of habitat, erosion and increased siltation of waterways.)
  • How did talking about the game influence how you played it?
  • How did you feel about players who took a lot of the tokens?
  • Have you experienced a similar situation at home, with friends or in your community?
  • What sort of attitude(s) do we need to have individually and collectively to achieve the goal of the greatest common good?

Colored rocks and chalk on a table

Social Hierarchy

This activity explores the value of individuals and their respective roles in contributing to the wellbeing of each other and the success of a community.  

Make a set of index cards with different jobs/professions on them. Suggestions include: actor, artist, athlete, author, banker, business owner, carpenter, chef, dancer, doctor, engineer, electrician, farmer, historian, inventor, janitor, judge, land developer, lawyer, librarian, mayor, mathematician, mechanic, mortician, musician, nurse, pilot, plumber, police officer, programmer, realtor, religious leader, reporter, scientist, singer, teacher, and truck driver. [If you need more, substitute specific types for one generic role (e.g. biologist, chemist, physicist = scientist, etc.).]

  • Hand out or allow participants to select a card. The only instruction is for them to position themselves in order of importance.
  • Most groups will attempt to form a line.
  • The best answer is a circle where no one person is more important than another for each person contributes something of value to the wellbeing and success of the group.

Establish ground rules for keeping the conversation positive. Then debrief this activity based on participant comments.

Fruits of the Forest

This activity looks at a variety of forest-based products and activities and their impact on the ecosystem.

Sets of Fruits of the Forest cards (Available as a downloadable document)

  • Participants are divided into groups and given a set of cards to read and discuss. The cards describe common forest-based products or activities, their production or usage, and their environmental impacts.
  • The group members try to agree upon where each card should be placed on a continuum ranging from “totally acceptable use’’ to “totally unacceptable use.”
  • If consensus is achieved, group members then decide individually where to “draw the line” on the spectrum of accepting certain environmental impacts because of the benefits while rejecting others.
  • Reconvene the small groups and do a Line Up activity where people position themselves along a line representing the continuum they just used. Individuals move towards the acceptable end or unacceptable end of the line in response to a prompt for each forest-based product.

It’s important to stress that all of the forest-based products and activities are to varying degrees impacting the world’s forest ecosystems. Introduce the concept of sustainability. Discuss what practical steps people can take to safeguard forests (e.g. reduce → reuse → recycle paper products, purchase products from companies with commitments to sustainability, etc.).

Optional If time permits, discuss the experience of seeking consensus.

  • Was it difficult to reach?
  • Is everyone satisfied?
  • Are people unhappy or upset if they had to compromise their beliefs or values?

Girl looking down at playing cards in her hand and discarding one

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COMMENTS

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    Environmental education games are not only fun, but can help explain complex topics and relationships found in ecosystems. The following games have been selected according to their suitability in both formal and non-formal situations and their educational value. Please enjoy trying them out and don’t forget to have fun!

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