Adaptations – Biology for Kids

We’ve just studied Animal Classification and Habitats. Now it was time to examine all the different ways animals adapt to different habitats.

Big Idea: In order to survive over time, animal species have to be well adapted to the environment in which they live. They need to be able to eat the food they find in their habitat, drink water, protect themselves from weather and environmental hazards, avoid being eaten, have and care for babies. They adapt to the habitat in two ways: structural adaptations (thick fur, long eyelashes to protect from sand, etc.) and behavioral adaptations (instinctual behaviors such as migration, hibernation, and travelling in herds.) These evolve over many generations of animals. Human beings can invent things (often based on ideas we got from observing animals) that help us to quickly adapt to different circumstances.

Hands-On Science

Bird Beak Adaptations. We had six stations on a table, and I made posters to accompany the activity to illustrate the idea. (Print your own posters from this PDF.) We had:

  • nectar eaters: water and a pipette to represent how hummingbirds use their beaks to gather nectar
  • nut crackers: large pliers and plastic eggs to illustrate how a toucan or parrot uses a big, strong beak to crack a nutshell (we used the plastic eggs because we’re a nut-free classroom – you could easily use a nutcracker and walnuts)
  • grub eaters: a pinecone with macaroni sprinkled into it and tweezers to show how a woodpecker could use its long thin beak to catch bugs deep in tree bark
  • worm eaters: rubber bands in a dish of split peas with curved pliers, and bits of pipe cleaners in a dish of rice and black beans to grab with needle nose pliers to represent a robin catching a worm
  • fishing birds: a fish tank net and plastic fish in a bowl of water to show a pelican’s fish catching ability
  • sharp, tearing beaks: styrofoam “fish” and scissors… showed pictures of how an eagle catches a large fish, then needs to use its beak to tear the pieces up smaller (an alternative would be to use beef jerky or fish jerky to cut with the scissors)


Kids were encouraged to try all the “right tools” with the right foods. (Great small motor and tool use practice!) And then try using them with the wrong things. Can a hummingbird crack open a nut? Never. Can a pelican catch bugs hiding in the bark? Never. An animal has to have the right features to eat the foods in their habitat in order to survive.

Note: original idea came from a workshop based on the book Growing Up Wild. There are similar activities on several websites. We put the book Unbeatable Beaks on the table for more information about beaks. If you have a child who is a fan of birds, they might like this video about bird beaks.

Math extension: If you’re working primarily with kids age 6 and up, there’s a lot of math activities we could try related to this. For example, a great lesson plan called Unique Beak Physique has a “battle of the beaks” where kids scatter seeds (or other items) and use various tools to see how many they can pick up in one minute. They then count them up and discuss which tool would make a better beak. Then switch the kind of “seed” they’re trying to get – predict how many they’ll be able to pick up, then test it out. You could also do the M&M Survival Challenge.

Snack: You could extend this activity into snack/lunch time by offering a variety of foods (soup, rice, noodles) and a variety of implements (spoon, chopsticks, fork) for them to try eating with. Can they eat their soup with a fork? Can they drink their juice with chopsticks? Talk about how humans can eat a very wide variety of foods, and that we are able to invent tools based on what we see in nature that make it easier for us to eat those foods.

Matching Game: Adaptations and Inventions: Best for ages 5 and up. I made sets of cards where one shows an animal adaptation, and another shows a related invention, and words give clues to what the match is – for example, the picture of the leopard in the grass and the man in camouflage clothing and paint are both captioned “you can’t see me.” Free printable PDF.

Sorting Game – How Animals Adapt to the Weather: Best for ages 5 and up. I made several cards where each shows multiple examples of an adaptation. For example, the “shed their coats in summer” shows 5 different animals molting. Kids sort the adaptations into two piles depending on whether it’s an adaptation to hot weather or cold. Free printable PDF.

Echolocation StationI got this idea from Bright Hub. You tape down two paper towel tubes so they are aimed at an aluminum pie plate. One child talks into one tube while another listens at another tube. The sound is supposed to bounce off the pie plate.

Adaptations Station: We put out our “whose ears and whose nose” games from a previous week, plus the books Mouths and Eye to Eye so kids could look at a wide variety of animal adaptations in each of these categories.

Art / Craft Activities

Animal Headbands: We used felt, fake fur, pipe cleaners and a hot glue gun to make animal headbands. I had a poster filled with photos of lots of examples of types of headbands they could make. (See them on Pinterest.) This was not an independent kid activity for this age group (3 – 6). They needed a lot of adult support with the project.


Note, you can order really cheap Plastic Headbands from Amazon.

You could also make animal noses with egg cartons and elastic bands.

Animal Costumes You could make a wide variety of costumes from items in the recycling bin. Use the book Fraidyzoo for some great inspiration! They build costumes from bubble wrap, cardboard, oven mitts, mops, umbrellas, empty water bottles and more. Here are some of the illustrations from the book – click on any thumbnail to see a bigger image:


Face Paint: We provided Face Paint and photos of lots of ideas for animal face paint. The kids could have done their own face painting, but none did, so I painted several faces. Here’s my son, also modeling his kitty ears headband.

Painting: We encouraged kids to paint an animal camouflaged in its habitat.

Free Play

Sensory Table: We put up a poster showing “animals that dig” with photos of several burrowing animals, all of which have clawed feet. Then we filled the bin with sand, some “rakes” to act like claws and a couple styles of shovel, so they could see which was easier to dig with.

Water Table: I made two little paddle boats. One with plastic spoons for paddles (to represent a duck’s webbed feet) and one with plastic fork paddles (“chicken feet”). The idea was to show how much better the webbed feet are at propelling something through the water. The forks were actually almost as good as the spoons… I could have maybe broken out the middle tines. I invented the paddle boats… I don’t have a full tutorial, but here’s the basic how-to: Cut two arch shapes out of corrugated plastic. Use electrical tape to tape two pencils to the arches. Then spread a rubber band out over the middle. Cut the handles off two plastic utensils. Tape them together, one facing up, one down to make the paddle. Then insert this paddle in between the sides of the rubber band. Twist it up tight, then let it go in the water. (Click on picture for bigger image.)


Hibernation / torpor cave: This was a great excuse to build a fort with tables, blankets and our 4-way Tunnel. We also threw in a few puppets of animals that hibernate (chipmunks, bats, hedgehogs) or go into torpor (bears, skunks, raccoons). [Learn here about the difference between hibernation and torpor.] Then we just let the kids play there.

Ideas for Demos

Blubber: An easy but messy activity is to show kids how animals like polar bears and whales can survive in very cold arctic water. Either: have your child dip one finger into Crisco – then put a bare finger and the coated finger into ice water… which can they hold in the water longer? Or: fill one big ziplock with Crisco. Put another empty ziplock inside it and tape the edges. Then kids can use this “blubber glove” to test the ice water. More details on Steve Spangler’s site.

Duck Feathers: Ducks produce an oil that coats their feathers so they repel water. That way their feathers don’t get saturated with water, which might make them too heavy to float. Here’s how to demo the idea: Have three plastic cups of water. Hold up a cotton ball, saying that it represents a bird with feathers. Drop it in the water. It sinks. Explain that if the feathers fill with water, they get too heavy. Then tell kids about “duck oil” – dip the cotton ball in some vegetable oil so half is coated. Say that the coated part is the duck’s bottom and the dry part is the head. When you set this in the water, it flips so the oil side is up… uh oh, duck’s head is in the water! Ask the kids what to do. They will [hopefully] suggest dipping a whole cotton ball in oil. Do so, and add it to the water. It floats! The oil repels the water. Source:

Opening Circle

Intro to Theme: “Last week, we learned about habitats. We said that every animal needs these things from their habitat – there needs to be food, water, a place to sleep, a way to be protected from the weather, and a way to hide. So, a polar bear does well in the arctic – why? [they answer, or I say, because it can eat the fish, eat ice for water, burrow down in the snow to sleep, and their thick white fur protects them from the weather and helps them hide]. A camel does well in the desert, why? [they may say, or I will, that they eat thorny desert plants, they need very little water, they have thick eyelashes and nostrils that close to protect them from blowing sand, and their brown fur blends with the sand to help them hide.]  But would a camel do well in the arctic? Would a polar bear do well in the desert? No, because they have evolved adaptations [write on board] to their habitat.

Some adaptations are called structural –  something about the animal’s body helps them do well in their environment. Lots of those things we just talked about with camels and polar bears are structural – long eyelashes, brown or thick, white fur. There are also behavioral adaptations – that means the animal does something that helps them survive. Some animals handle cold by the way they act…  a bird’s instincts may tell it to migrate – to fly south to warmer places in the winter, or a chipmunk’s instincts tell it to hibernate, or a penguin’s instincts tell it to huddle up close to all the other penguins to stay warm.

And humans learn from animals – if they have a structural adaptation we like, then we invent something like it – like warm winter coats. If they have a behavioral adaptation we like, we can copy that too, like travelling south in the winter to be warmer. We could start the day in a very cold place wearing our very thick coats, then we could get on an airplane and migrate to somewhere warm where we’d change into our swimsuits and go for swim.

Book: Who Has these Feet – see below.

Game – Predator / Prey Tag: Talk about defense mechanisms, play tag with each for a few minutes (teacher is predator)…

  • camouflage – they need to find a similar color in the room to hide near;
  • crawling into a small place – they were little mice who crawled into the tunnel to get away from the eagle (teacher) who was too big to get in the tunnel;
  • playing dead – when the teacher enters the room, they pretend to be dead – teacher looks and sniffs – says yuck and moves on;
  • skunk smell – show them how to “spray bad smell” using their hands – when teacher approaches, they “spray” – teacher gags and chokes…
  • tail breaking off – give them all a ring with streamers on it, or something similar. Tell them they’re lizards… when you catch their tail, they let it break off and they run away and you “eat their tail” while they “grow a new one.”

Game – echolocation. An alternative tag game. One child is “bat”, the others are insects. Give the bat a squeaky toy, and the insects get shakers. Blindfold the bat. He squeaks, they rattle back, he tries to tag one. (Source)

Closing Circle

Book: A Just So story by Kipling, or What Do You Do with A Tail Like This? (see below)

Discussion points to wrap up day’s topic: Who tried the bird beak activity? Could you pick up “nectar” with tweezers? Could you pick up the rice with a pipette? Each bird’s beak is perfectly adapted to the food that’s available in their habitat. What would happen if a bird went somewhere that wasn’t perfect for them?

About 150 years ago, a scientist named Charles Darwin was studying birds in the Galapagos islands. He and fellow scientists noticed that on each island, there was a slightly different kind of finch. From studying those finches, they developed a theory called natural selection, which is key to the theory of evolution. They believe that one kind of bird flew from Ecuador out to the islands. That bird may have eaten bugs, and nectar. But, on one of the islands, there were plenty of bugs but not a lot of flowers producing nectar. So the birds there got really good at catching bugs. And the ones who had the best beaks for bugs lived a long time and had lots of babies, who had good beaks for bugs. And on this other island, there were lots of flowers, so the birds there ate mostly nectar. On this island, there weren’t a lot of bugs or nectar, but there were a lot of nuts and seeds. The birds with the longest skinniest beaks were better at bugs, but not so good at nuts – so they didn’t live very long or have many babies. The birds with the best beaks for nectar didn’t do very well either – so they didn’t live long or have many babies. But then there were the birds with the short stubby strong beaks. It turned out those worked fine for eating nuts so they lived longer and had more babies with short stubby strong beaks. And those babies did well on the nut filled island, so they had more babies with short stubby strong beaks. And those birds with the long skinny beaks continued to not do well… Over a long period of time, the birds evolved. This island was now full of birds with the best beaks for bugs, and these had the best beaks for nectar, and these for nuts.

[For the discussion above, I used as a visual aid the last page of the “bird beaks” poster document (see above) which has photos of different finch beaks and a picture of the Galapagos islands showing different finches on different islands.] This discussion is best for ages 5 and up… I’m not sure my three year olds followed it.

Group Game: I had a big basket of assorted tongs and tweezers and pliers. I had each child choose a tool. I explained that we would pretend these were beaks. Then I gave each child a pompom and said these were food – maybe nuts, or fruit, or bugs. The kids practiced picking up one pompom with their tool. Then I took a big bag of pompoms of various sizes and small koosh balls and scattered them all over the floor. The kids used their “beaks” to collect as much “food” as they can. They took it back to their parent. Once all the food was gathered, we counted them, then talked about which beaks were best. And how some worked really well the small pompoms but not for the big pompoms or vice versa. We talked about how if you were a bird with a small-food beak and you lived on an island with big food, you’d be in trouble. But if you lived on an island with small food, you’d do great – you’d live a long time and have lots of babies, who would all have small beaks that were good at eating small food. You can repeat this game with each child using a different tool.

A Guessing Game – How Many Feet: You could do a game where you hold up a number and kids name examples of animals that have that many feet. So, for 0, they could guess fish or snakes or worms, 2 = birds and people (though technically people have four LIMBS). 4 = any mammal,  amphibians, some reptiles. 6 = any insect; 8 = arachnids, 14 = roly-poly / pill bugs (and other isopods); 30 to 350 = centipedes. My favorite one is 1 foot which is snails, clams, geoducks, etc. The number 1 will stump most kids AND parents… unless they’re in my class, in which the bonus answer is “teacher Janelle!” since I have just one leg.

Reviews of Recommended Books

  • Who Has These Feet? by Hulbert and Brooks. A fun read-aloud for my students, age 3 – 6. It’s a guessing game.. it shows an illustration of feet and says “who has these feet?” Kids guess, then you turn the page for a picture of the full animal and info about how their feet help them adapt to their environment. “Who has these feet? A duck has these feet. A duck has webbed feet so it can go fast in the water.” A nice introduction to the idea of adaptations.
  • Mouths (Let’s Look at …) by Sideri and Noble. This is a series of books, with titles including Hands, Eyes, and Feet. These books are aimed at younger children than any of our other adaptations books – great for ages 2 – 5. Illustrations of children’s faces, which are especially appealing to young children. What I love about this series is that as the text gives information about animal adaptations, the pictures show how humans use tools to accomplish similar tasks – exactly our theme of the week! For example, where it says “Butterflies have special mouths, then let butterflies suck up food”, it shows a picture of a butterfly sucking up nectar and children sucking juice through a straw. Where it talks about the pelican’s beak, it shows a child with a fish net.
  • What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? by Jenkins and Page. Lovely illustrations. Good read-aloud for ages 4 – 7, although for 4 – 5 year olds, you probably wouldn’t read all the details. It has a two page spread showing the nose (or tail, ears, eyes, feet, mouth) of five various animals, and asking “What do you do with a [nose] like this?” On the next two page spread is a picture of the whole bodies of all five animals, with information like “if you’re a mole, you use your nose to find your way underground” and “if you’re an alligator, you breathe through your nose while hiding in the water.” At the back of the book, there are more details on each animal. By lucky coincidence the book tied into some of the activities we had done… the ears page showed jackrabbit ears, and we’d talked in the previous week about how those help keep these desert animals cool and it showed bat ears which tied into our echolocation activity. On the tails page, it showed a skunk tail and a lizard tail, and tied in perfectly to our defense mechanisms game.
  • What Do You Do When Something Wants To Eat You? by Jenkins. Same author as above… this book has a higher vocabulary level though, so best for age 5 – 8. Talks about defense mechanisms. Would be a great follow-up to our defense mechanisms game, as it shows / reinforces some of the things we’ve already talked about, and adds more, like “the pangolin protects itself by rolling into an armor-plated ball. The basilisk lizard is known in South America as the Jesus Christ lizard. It can escape its enemies by running across the surface of ponds and streams, using its large feet and great speed to keep it from sinking in the water.” Engaging book. An Amazon reviewer complains that “it uses a lot of animals that children wouldn’t recognize.” I think one of the roles of non-fiction books in our children’s lives is to broaden their exposure to the world, so I consider this a benefit to the book, not a downside.
  • How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? also by Jenkins and Page. Age 6 – 9. One page spread asks a question / poses a problem and shows several animals. The next page details all their solutions to that problem. For example: “How many ways can you use a leaf? A tailorbird sews a leaf into a pouch that will hold her nest and eggs. Stepping from one lily pad to another, the lily trotter [bird] can walk over the surface of a pond… An orangutan uses a large leaf as an umbrella.” You’ll also learn how animals snare a fish, hatch an egg, dig a hole, and eat a clam. Quite good – if your child enjoyed What do you do with a tail, and what do you do when something wants to eat you, this is a good next step.
  • Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do also by Jenkins and Page. Age 6 – 9. Each page includes a large close-up illustration of an animal’s face, and asks a question, then the animal “answers” that question. “Dear bighorn sheep: don’t those huge horns get in your way? They can be a pain. But I’m a male sheep, and to impress females I have to fight with other guys. We bang our heads together, and my big horns help me win.” “Dear giraffe: why is your tongue purple? …. so it won’t get sunburned.” A fun collection of trivia, but I’d choose another Jenkins and Page as my “starter” book, such as What do you do with a tail.
  • Eye to Eye: How Animals See The World by Jenkins. Yet another book by Jenkins, but this one is best for 8 – 10 year olds… the text might even aim older than that but older kids less likely to enjoy the picture book format of it. This book focuses just on eyes, with great up-close illustrations. Sample text: “At the back of the housecat’s eye is a reflective layer called a tapetum. This layer bounces light back through the cat’s retina, improving its eyesight in dim light. Like most predators, cats have forward facing eyes.”
  • Whose Food Is This?: A Look at What Animals Eat – Leaves, Bugs, and Nuts by Allen, Alderman and Shea. This book has the same illustrators but a different author as one of our habitat books, Whose House Is This? For ages 5 – 7. One page shows a lovely illustration of food, and asks “Whose food is this…” The next page shows an animal eating that food. Example: “Whose food is this, dangling from a tree? This is a fruit bat’s peach. A fruit bat flies from tree to tree, eating peaches and other fruits. The bat chews the whole fruit. It swallows the soft, sweet parts. Then it spits out most of the pulp, seeds, and peel.” The illustrations are appealing, as is the format of asking a repeating question and then offering the answer. But, some of the answers would be inscrutable to a young child… even when I as an adult look at a picture of wheat “scattered about an African field”, I could not begin to guess that it is the ostrich’s food.
  • What Color Is Camouflage? by Otto and Lloyd. Age 5 – 8. An introduction to the idea of camouflage.
  • If You Hopped Like A Frog by Schwartz and Warhola. This is more of a book about math than about adaptations but it can fit in to this week.The book description says “introduces the concept of ratio by comparing what humans would be able to do if they had bodies like different animals.” Two examples: On a single page with an entertaining illustration: “If you swallowed like a snake, you could gulp a hot dog thicker than a telephone pole….”” Or spread over three illustrated pages: “If you grew as fast in the first nine months after you were born as you did in the nine months before you were born, you would have been a towering tot, taller than mountain tops and heavier than 2 1/2 million elephants.” In the back, there’s a detailed description of the math involved in the calculations. This is a book that three to four year olds would giggle over because the pictures and the ideas are so silly. But they wouldn’t be able to grasp the idea of proportions or imagining themselves to be all these different sizes. A 6 to 7 year old might have some grasp of the math. Reviewers on Amazon describe using it with 6th grade math classes and with high school algebra classes to make ratios / proportions more entertaining.
  • One Is a Snail, Ten is a Crab: A Counting by Feet Book by Sayre. Another “math” book, and one of my favorite math books ever. “1 is a snail. 2 is a person. 3 is a person and a snail…. 30 is three crabs or ten people and a crab… 90 is nine crabs or ten spiders and a crab…” This is a great pairing with our “How Many Feet” guessing game.
  • Unbeatable Beaks by Swinburne, Paley. Age 4 – 7. All about the variety of beaks on birds, and their uses. “A beak can pry, a beak can preen, the shape is straight, bent, in between. A beak is a spoon, a beak is a slicer. A beak is a scraper, stabber, and spiker.” Each page shows illustrations of various birds with labels indicating their species. I love this book for supplementary material on our table with the bird beak activity. I personally wouldn’t read it aloud at group time, because it’s just a long litany of ideas that may come at a child too quickly / not get explained enough to understand.
  • Elephant’s Child by Rudyard Kipling, illustrated by Raglin. Elephant’s Child illustrated by Rowe. Just So Stories illustrated by Wallace. These are all the full text (I think) of Kipling’s tale, with illustrations. While I have read the full versions to my children at home, they’re way too long for my class setting. I would LOVE to find a shortened version of the story that still kept some of the magic of the original words (“he was full of insatiable curiosity… now, you must know and understand, O Best Beloved… till he trod on what he thought was a log of wood at the very edge of the great gray-green, greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever-trees.”) but was not so terribly long… An appropriate length version of one of the Just So stories would be a great addition to closing circle for this class… combining classic literature and a little magic/myth into our science class. I would read it for the joy of it, then we’d talk about how it didn’t reflect the actual science…
    • When I was a kid, I had a record… yeah, a 33 rpm LP because I’m that old… that was Captain Kangaroo telling Just So Stories, and that’s the version I want a book of…. I did make a cassette tape of the album for my older kids…. yeah, a cassette tape, because they’re that old. Maybe I need to digitize it for my youngest child…
  • Animalium: Welcome to the Museum by Scott, Broom. This is a big book – 11 by 15 inches, 90 pages. It’s best for an 8 – 10 year old child, and would appeal to the sort of child who just loves big books – who delights in reading the encyclopedias. (And some of those type of bibliophiles start early… so I could see this appealing to some 5 or 6 year olds, even if they can’t read it or understand it yet.) The book’s cover says “Welcome to the Museum” and it is presented somewhat like an illustrated natural history museum. For example, there’s a two page spread on flightless birds, which includes detailed naturalistic illustrations of an ostrich and a cassowary and their eggs, and descriptions of each of them, similar to what you might see on a plaque in a museum. In our class for 3 – 7 year olds, it’s not anything I would read aloud to any of them but it was fun to have on a shelf and have a couple of our kids settle in to flip through and admire all the illustrations. If you’re looking for a similar style of “big book” on animals, also consider: Creaturepedia: Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth.
    • I also notice Amazon has an Animalium Activity Book…. The text description doesn’t say a lot about it, just that “myriad activities in this book challenge readers to discover something new and use their imaginations to draw, decorate, and design on every tear-out page.”

What if you don’t believe in evolution?

On Amazon, I noticed that some books on habitats had negative reviews from people that complained that they taught about adaptations, which relates to evolution, which was against their spiritual beliefs. Personally, I teach from a scientific perspective, and I do talk about natural selection / evolution. But, it is possible to still talk about habitats and adaptations without talking about evolution. Our children can clearly see that desert animals are different than arctic animals, and do well within their native habitats. It doesn’t make sense to deny the existence of bio-diversity. Some parents may choose to present this as signs of God’s hands in creating a vast array of creatures uniquely suited to their unique habitats.


3 thoughts on “Adaptations – Biology for Kids

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