Anatomy is a great topic for experiential science learning for preschool and elementary age kids. It takes something that they have, literally, hands-on knowledge of – their own body – and reveals all the hidden wonder that’s underneath the surface.
You could do an entire unit just on skeletons (and we have! Just click on that link in that last sentence to find the lesson plan) You could do an entire unit just on the five senses (or even just a single sense like hearing.) But for this session, our goal was to give our students the big picture – introducing them to all the systems of the body. So we developed a lesson plan that used art, sensory play, dramatic play, books, and blocks to teach about the skeleton, muscles, the digestive system and more.
The Overview – a Coloring Book
We wanted a coloring book that would act as a “passport” to all the stations, encouraging the kids to move around the room and learn about all the different body systems. We purchased ($3) and downloaded the Human Body Systems Flipbook by Stephanie Trapp on Teachers Pay Teachers. [Note: there’s a few alternates we considered for this project: check out Totschooling’s Body System Booklet, Human Body Systems from Teacher’s ClipArt, or Human Body Systems from Toys from Trash.] I really like this one because the final product is really attractive, there’s one page for each of the major systems, and there’s a “fill in the blank” version. We created posters for the stations using the illustrations from the book, with the words filled into the blanks, so kids could find answers at each station.
Integumentary System – Hair and Skin: Art
Self Portraits: At the first station, they colored the front page of the book – a self-portrait. I made a poster for that station about the integumentary system that included these questions to guide their self-portraits: What color is your skin? What color are your eyes? What color is your hair, and how is it shaped? What color of pants and shirt do you like to wear?
Supply Note: If you do any self-portrait project in a class, it is essential to have a wide range of “skin-colored” and “hair-colored” markers (or pencils or crayons) so that every child can find one that matches them. [Note: even if the children in your class have mostly one color of skin, I’d still encourage you to represent all the colors that people’s skin comes in. The Crayola company changed the name of a crayon color from “flesh” to “peach” all the way back in 1962, but there are still plenty of places in modern American society where caucasian skin tones are viewed as “normal” and the other skin tones as “special.” Having many “skin colors” available helps to change this perception in a small way.]
If you have a big supply of crayons or markers, you may already have all the color range that you need – all the shades from apricot to mahogany. You can gather the hair and skin markers in one cup, and all the colors for drawing their clothes in another cup. We purchased a set of Crayola Multicultural Markers for skin-colors, and a set of School Smart Multicultural Colored Pencils for hair. (They didn’t have a black pencil, so be sure to add one in to the mix.) There are also Multicultural Paints and Crayons.
This coloring project may lead to discussions about race. Read my thoughts here on how and why to talk to children about race.
Fingerprints: We had a fingerprint station with ink pads. We printed a table with the teachers’ names on it and all the kids’ names, so they could all add a fingerprint to it for us to compare. We added magnifying glasses so they could take a closer look, and a poster of fingerprint patterns to compare theirs to. I’d seen several places online where people did fingerprints on an un-inflated balloon, then blew it up so that they had a much larger image to examine. We tried this, but the ink was very pale on the yellow balloon, so it wasn’t very effective. We also had out plain paper and examples of fingerprint art.
We built a muscle model with paper towel tubes, a glove, and two long skinny balloons. Find directions at Mama of Many Blessings, who includes a photo from a Blood and Guts book. [Alternatives: You could have the kids build their own models – probably do-able for a 6 – 8 year old, or younger kids can do a simpler model of the human arm, like we’ve done in our Levers class. Or you can make a really simple (but somewhat abstract model) with cardstock and rubber bands as shown on the Kings Copse website. Or a much more complicated one with pulleys, seen on Instructables.] The poster at this station included a couple diagrams to show shoulder muscle anatomy, and we encouraged kids to try flexing and straightening their arms and seeing if they can feel the muscles and bones.
With the muscle model, you could put out tools that let kids use (and feel) their muscles, such as hand weights, or Hand Grip Exerciser. We put out egg beaters. But that ended up being a problem, since the kids just carried them over to the water table to use there. 🙂
This year, we’ll ad a new activity: we’ll put out a mirror and posters which include a diagram of facial muscles and photos of different facial expressions with labels saying what muscles they use. Kids can make faces at themselves in the mirror, then use their fingers to touch their faces and notice what muscles are flexed to make that expression. Here is a PDF of my sample posters, and an image of one of them:
It would also be interesting to talk about voluntary vs. involuntary muscles.
We had a poster asking “what if we didn’t have bones” that suggested ways to learn about the skeleton:
- Look at the wood human model. It’s a simplified skeleton. See how the joints work?
- Feel your arm, hand and shoulder—can you feel the bones you see in the diagram?
- Build with the Zoob—it has ball & socket joints like a shoulder or a hip.
- Feel the gloves. How are they different? (One glove was filled with plastic pellets like a floppy beanbag. The other had a popsicle stick “skeleton” and plastic pellets.)
- You could also add in a door hinge to illustrate hinge joints, and a spine model made with egg cartons and pipe cleaners.
We made “hand x-rays” by gluing q-tips on black paper. You can learn about this activity, and find books about skeletons, and activities like vertebrate/invertebrate sorting, a skeleton floor puzzle, using poster tubes to show why elbow joints matter, and more in the Skeleton theme post.
Circulatory System: Water Table
The site I Can Teach My Child had a great idea: Fill the water table with: red water beads to represent red blood cells and white ping pong balls to represent white blood cells. They made craft foam rectangles for platelets – we used white pompoms, because they were closer in shape to pompoms. We also colored our water yellow to represent plasma. Note: my proportions are not right in this picture… ideally our proportions would match blood: 55% plasma, 44% RBC, 1% WBC and platelets. I was disappointed in our water beads, which were closer to pink than red. One of my 7 year old students pointed out that I should have some bright red water beads for the oxygenated blood, and some dark reddish purple water beads for the de-oxygenated beads.
We added a water pump to represent the heart. I also think it would be really fun to rig some kind of tubing you could pump water beads through! (If anyone designs one, let me know!) We added a poster showing diagrams, microscope images, and electron microscope images of blood cells.
Respiratory System: Science Exploration
I made a lung model with a water bottle, three balloons, and a straw. Science Sparks has directions for the simplest version – it would be easy for kids to make their own. The Smithsonian Maker Lab book has a tutorial for a more sophisticated lung model using two balloons. Ours was somewhere between the two designs. A tip: The directions online had a variety of ways of inserting the straws in the bottle and creating an airtight seal – Science Sparks holds the straw in with clay, Maker Lab punches a hole in the lid, then you’d likely have to seal that with tape to be sure it was air-tight. I used a balloon – on the bottom of the bottle, you’ve put basically a balloon with the top cut off, so I used the top of the balloon to seal the top. I cut tiny slits in it, forced the straws through the slits, stretching the balloon around the straws, then taped that on top of the bottle.
I had a poster that explained how the lungs work and how the model illustrates that, and we encouraged them to try out the model. Then we encouraged them to use the air in their lungs to fog up a mirror, and use the air in their lungs to blow a feather into the air. You could also have them blow up balloons, use a straw to blow a pompom, blow bubbles, or blow out candles.
I wanted to bring in something about genetics. I designed two eye color worksheets: one was a basic graphing tool, where kids (and parents) could mark what color their eyes were. [This was just an opportunity to play with a basic math/science skill of graphing data.] The other encouraged the kids to compare their eye color to a parent’s eye color to see if they matched or not. This could have then led into a discussion of how your eye color is more likely to match your parents than not, and that brown eyed parents typically have brown eyed children and so on. (Now of course, it’s not as simple as was once thought, but we’re teaching preschoolers here, so we sometimes simplify the science to get a basic idea across.)
Nervous System: Matching Game
I made a simple brain map that shows what part of the brain interpret which stimuli, and control which actions. And, I made a matching game that describes 8 stimuli and 8 responses… things like “when you smell yummy food…” and “you eat.” (Click here for the free printable PDF of the brain map and the nervous system matching game).
I also designed an electrical model using Snap Circuits and littleBits that shows a cycle of stimulus (a light sensor or sound sensor), traveling through the “nerves” (wires) and then triggering a response (a buzzer or a light) in the brain. This would tie back to our electricity unit of the previous quarter. Find more details here on the nervous system model.
I ordered the Human Organs TOOB. We buried the organs in a sensory tube full of oatmeal and added scoops and sifters. When kids fished out an organ, they could match it to the cards from this human body printable from Living Life and Learning. (Thanks to Natural Beach Learning for the idea of using the TOOB and these printables together.)
Digestive System: Snack Time Demo
We had a couple posters about the digestive system at the snack table. The snack was tortilla chips. While the kids ate, we did this demo: we crushed some tortilla chips in a bowl (“the mouth), using first the edge of a fork to represent the sharp cutting teeth in the front of the mouth, then squashing them with the tines of the fork to represent the molars, talking about how we break down the food into smaller bits to make it more digestible. Then we added water to represent saliva. Then we scooped the mixture into a plastic baggie (the stomach). Then we mixed in some green water (bile). Then we talked about how the body absorbs the nutrients. Then we poked a hole in the bag and drained out some liquid (urine), then cut a bigger hole and squeezed out the solid waste. Then the kids proceeded to tell poop stories for the rest of snack time. There was lots of laughter from the snack table!
Dramatic Play – the Doctor’s Office
In our doctor’s office, we had
- a lab coat and surgical masks (you could add rubber gloves)
- an eye chart
- an exam table (a cabinet with a tumbling mat and pillows on top, and wooden steps)
- real diagnostic equipment (a forehead thermometer, blood pressure cuff, and stethoscope)
- printouts of test results (I did google searches for x-rays, MRI’s, CT Scans, ultrasound, EEG, and EKG results)
- treatment options (crutches, a sling, a roll of gauze, a plastic medicine cup, a plastic syringe, a tube sock with the toe cut off serving as an arm cast, and lots of bandaids – you can get a box of 30 for $1.00 at our dollar store, so the kids can use as many as they want. You could add ice packs, heating pads, and lotion labelled “first aid cream”. Many teachers do medicine candy – I don’t, because I don’t want to equate medicine and candy, or imply that it’s OK to take “medicine” for fun when you’re not sick.)
- patient history forms where they can mark their complaints, doctor’s forms to order tests and write prescriptions (free printable here)
The kids had a lot of fun pretending to be doctors. At one point, we had six doctors and no patients, so a parent stepped in with lots of “owies” that needed to be diagnosed and treated.
You could cover:
- Teeth and dental health: There’s a fabulous full lesson plan here: http://mamabeefromthehive.blogspot.com/2011/03/dental-health.html.
- The endocrine system – hormones. I have often spoken to adults about the physiological effects of adrenaline vs. oxytocin and how they affect learning. (When we feel loved and safe, we produce oxytocin, and our brains have a high level of neuroplasticity – we’re open to learning. When we’re running adrenaline, we’re less open to learning – see more on brain development here.) This idea could be incorporated in a discussion.
- Germs – viruses, bacteria, fungi… At the California Science Center, they have a World of Life exhibit that has some great ways to teach this to kids – I’ll have to go back someday and take notes! I haven’t researched ideas on this, but I did run across a lesson plan for 3rd to 5th graders on viruses, bacteria, and vaccines: www.vaccinemakers.org/lessons/elementary/meet-germs.
- The reproductive system. Some of our books showed babies growing inside mothers. One showed fetal development. But, in class, we didn’t touch on reproductive anatomy or sex differences. I did encourage parents to talk to their kids about this at home, and shared recommended books with the parents. Here’s my recommendations on talking with young children about human sexuality, and a list of helpful books for kids about sexuality. The key points to cover with a child age 3 – 6:
Vocabulary: They should know the correct words to describe their body parts (e.g. penis, vulva, vagina…). This helps children to communicate with health care providers, and also helps them communicate about what happened if they experience sexual abuse.
Privacy: They should know that the parts of their body that a swimsuit covers are private. We keep them covered and don’t touch them in public. If they want to touch their own private parts, they can… in private (in the bathroom or in the bedroom). No one else should touch their private parts and they shouldn’t touch anyone else’s. (The only exceptions are that a doctor might touch them when the parent is in the room, or a parent or caregiver might briefly touch them to clean them)
- How to keep themselves clean and healthy and when they should report concerns to you (e.g. if it hurts to pee, or they haven’t pooped in a long time and it hurts)
Gathering: We’d drawn a human figure up on the board. I would point at “random” body parts and ask them what it was called, then write the name up on the board: toes, eyes, knees, ears, nose, head, mouth, shoulders. Then I wrote the word “and”. Then said: “I wrote all the words for our song on the board. What is the song?”
Song: “Head, shoulders, knees and toes.” We did the variation where the second time through, you hum for head, then say the rest of the words. The third time through it’s “hmmm, hmm-hmm, knees and toes” and so on. You could also do the variation of singing it one time regular speed and one time fast. Or choose alternate words: bussongs.com/songs/head_shoulders_knees_and_toes.php; www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2pUxxM8W3g.
Book and Demos: The Human Body (Shine-A-Light) by Brown. This was a great read-aloud for our group time, because it has a really effective gimmick where when you hold a page up to a light (or shine a flashlight on the page) a secret image is revealed (like the skeletons seen in the photo below). This book not only kept all our 3 – 7 year olds interested, the parents were also engaged. Nice overview of the human body systems. As I read through it, I also interspersed demonstrations of our skeleton hands, our muscle model, and our lung model, and reminded them of our activities about finger prints and health. Although this book is INCREDIBLY cool, it’s also kind of hard to manage reading it in a group – we turned the light off, and shined a flashlight on one side of the page to show them the picture, then shined it from behind to show the hidden picture. For next year, I’m just going to cut apart the book and laminate the pages so we can just hold them up one at a time.
Song: Dem Bones – a spiritual from about 100 years ago that’s very fun to sing. (Here’s one version of the lyrics, a little different from the book: www.kididdles.com/lyrics/d009.html. Here’s a video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLi55MV04a8)
Book: Dem Bones by Barner has great illustrations, and the words of the song , but it also has information about each of the bones, like how the ankle bone helps us bend, flex, and climb stairs. First, we go through it quickly, just singing the words of the song. Then we go back through it slower. I point to that bone or joint on me and encourage them to examine their own bone or joint (like flexing and swiveling the ankle joint) as I read the additional facts about that bone. I also had some Zoob for demonstrating ball and socket joints, and the wooden manikin for illustrating other joints. End by singing through the song one more time, standing up and pointing to the bones. It’s a fun and memorable way to learn about skeletons. Note, the lyrics in the book end with the traditional lyrics “Hear the Word of the Lord”. If that’s not appropriate for your setting, you can adapt to “Doing the Skeleton Dance.”
Overviews of the Human Body
- The Human Body (Shine-A-Light) by Brown. See above.
- My Amazing Body (Little Explorers) by Martin. A lift the flap book. A fun and engaging way for kids to get an overview and learn lots of trivia about all the body systems. There’s too much miscellaneous info on the page to be a good read-aloud, but a nice option for the book corner.
- My Body (Little Scientist) by Rustad. A nice overview for 4 – 6 year olds. Lots of engaging photos of diverse kids in action, combined with clear illustrations showing internal systems, and engaging, easy to understand text: “My brain helps run my body…. Nerves carry messages from my brain to my body parts. The messages tell my body what to do.”
- My Body(Scholastic Discover More) by Pinnington. Good for 3 – 6 year olds. Again, nice photos of diverse kids in action, nice illustrations of key points and questions for kids: “Can you name all your body parts?” “Point to….” “What color is your hair?” “Can you fog up a mirror?”If I was choosing between Pinnington and Rustad, I’d choose Pinnington – more content.
- My Body (Want to Know) by Winters. Although this has lots of good solid non-fiction content, somehow the illustration style makes it feel a little more like a story book, which might appeal to some readers. Good for 4 – 6 year olds. Nice overview of body systems. Also includes things like different facial expressions – a little social skills info mixed in with anatomy.
- Peeking Under Your Skin (What’s Beneath) by Kenney. This is a good book for ages 6 – 9. For some reason, the big illustrations of skin are icky to me, so I prefer other books to this one. But, that’s not a reason not to consider this as a good resource. More details on bowels and urine than other books. See pictures.
- The Human Body (Magic School Bus Presents) by Green. As with all MSB books, a good discussion of the topic for ages 7 – 9.
- My Body and What It Needs (Get Started With STEM) by Owen. Good for ages 6 – 9. Nice spin on covering the body systems in terms of what your body needs. Good suggestions for questions and activities.
Potentially Sensitive Content
I encourage parents and teachers to talk about all the body systems, but some feel uncomfortable talking about the digestive system (especially bowel movements), the urinary system and the reproductive system. All of these books describe the digestive system, many being vague about the endpoint – “my large intestine helps move waste out of my body.” Brown and Owen mention poop, Brown mentions pee, and Martin makes the whole process clear in this illustration.
Brown, Pinnington, and Martin show mama bellies with babies in them (though no mention of how baby got there). Martin also covers fetal development.
Winters has an illustration showing a girl with no clothes on, but otherwise book makes no mention of reproductive system, and the other illustrations have kids in underwear.
Book Series about Individual Body Systems
There are several series that cover one body system per book. Here are three options, which I found to have good pictures, text, and be fairly engaging for young children. I would recommend the Korb series for 5 – 6 year olds, and the other series for 7 – 9 year olds (1st to 3rd grade)
The Let’s Read and Find Out About Science series includes What Happens to a Hamburger?, A Drop of Blood, Hear Your Heart, the Skeleton Inside You, and Your Skin and Mine.
Rena Korb’s “My Body” series includes My Spine, My Muscles, My Brain, My Mouth, My Nose, and My Stomach.
Tieck’s Body Systems series includes Circulatory System, Digestive System, Skeletal System, etc.
Apps and Videos
I haven’t tested these, but check out Common Sense’s reviews of these apps: This is My Body and The Human Body by Tinybop. Here’s a short video here that’s good for the older kids (age 5 – 7) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEUu-A2wfSE Or, if your kid is really excited to learn everything about the body, there’s a whole series of short videos here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLtVMs6v6Q1GaAhKyE2gBhDQevgI8DLIoR. You can also search for the Magic School Bus Presents episode on the Human Body.
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