Animal Adaptations

For this week’s session of Inventors-at-Home, we’ll study how animals adapt to their habitat – the environment in which they live.

The Big Idea To Teach

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 habitats, 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 (gills, thick fur, long eyelashes to protect from sand, etc.) and behavioral adaptations (instinctual behaviors such as migration, hibernation, and travelling in herds.) Adaptations 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.

If you use videos in your family, here are a couple good options to introduce this topic:

  • Crash Course Video has a 4.5 minute video called Living Things Change which is a good overview.
  • Adaptations at Animal Wonders (11 minutes) is like a virtual field trip to the zoo, where they show live animals and talk about their defense mechanisms.
  • Mystery Science episode Why do Woodpeckers peck wood is a 15 minute long video-based activity where children watch videos of animals (quail, raccoon and woodpecker), then mimic their behavior. Good for 3 – 6 year olds.

Ways to Explore Adaptations

Pretend Play – Hibernation / Torpor

Build a fort with tables, blankets, couch cushions… If you have them, add in a few puppets or stuffed animals that hibernate (chipmunks, bats, hedgehogs) or go into torpor (bears, skunks, raccoons). [Learn here about the difference between hibernation and torpor.] Then just let the kids play there.

Sensory Play – Digging

If you have something a child can dig in (a sandbox, the garden, a tub filled with a sensory material (rice, dried beans, sand, potato flakes, oatmeal), then give them a variety of things to try digging with. Include a couple things like rakes that act like claws. After they’ve played a while, ask: Which work best? Show them this 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.

Sorting: Match Adaptations and Inventions

Best for ages 5 and up. Print the cards and cut them apart. Half the cards show an animal adaptation, and the others show a related invention. Children match them up.  Free printable PDF.

Guessing Game: Whose Ears?

Here’s a guessing game you can play on screen or print out about “which animal has these ears” or that nose. If you want to learn lots more about ears, check out my science of sound post, which links to videos about how hearing works, and instructions on how to make different shaped ears out of paper to see how shape affects hearing.

Craft – Make Animal Costumes

You can make headbands from paper or masks from cardboard, use facepaint, or build costumes from recyclable materials. Check out my post on DIY Animal Costumes for lots of ideas to get you started. As you make the costume, talk to your child about why the animal looks like that… why is the giraffe’s neck long? why does the zebra have stripes? why does the monkey have a long tail? This will help them understand how animal adaptations help the animal to survive.

Active Game – Predator / Prey

Describe a defense mechanism, and an animal that uses it. Then play tag with that mechanism for a few minutes (the parent is the predator)… Repeat for other adaptations.

  • camouflage (zebra, giraffe, fawn, and so on) – 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 a tunnel (or under a piece of furniture) to get away from the eagle (parent) who was too big to get in the tunnel;
  • playing dead (possum) – when the parent enters the room, they pretend to be dead – parent looks and sniffs – says yuck and moves on;
  • skunk smell – show them how to “spray bad smell” using their hands – when parent approaches, they “spray” – parent gags and chokes…
  • tail breaking off – give them all a cloth to tuck in their pocket (like flag football). 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 parent or other child 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)

Engineering – Webbed Feet

Make 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 is to show how much better the webbed feet are at propelling something through the water. Cut two arch shapes out of thick plastic. Use electrical tape to tape two pencils to the arches. Then loop a rubber band over the middle of the pencils. Cut the handles off two plastic spoons. Tape them together, one facing up, one down to make the paddle. For the other boat, do the same with two forks. 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.)


Experiment – Learn about Blubber

An easy but messy activity is to show kids how animals like polar bears and whales can survive in very cold arctic water. Have your child dip one finger into Crisco (or lard or butter) – then put a bare finger and the coated finger into ice water… which can they hold in the water longer? More details on Steve Spangler’s site.

Experiment – Learn about 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. 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:

Exploring Camouflage – Art, Games…

Camouflage is an important protective mechanism for prey animals as it helps them to hide in their environment. It’s also an important tool for predators as it helps them sneak up on their prey! Here are some ways to teach your child about it:

  • Art: Paint an animal camouflaged in its habitat
  • Handout: Do the I Spy camouflage game (on your screen or print it out)
  • Painting: Learn about how to tell apart cheetahs, leopards, and jaguars, then fingerpaint the different spot patterns
  • Play a camouflage game – have them choose a stuffed animal in their bedroom, then figure out the best place for it to hide in the room
  • Active Game: Do a camouflage hunt – take some of their toys and hide them inside, or outside in the yard, then have them hunt. (Note: anytime I hide things for a kid to find, I count how many items I have and remember where I hid them!)

The Bird Beak Challenge

In our online class, we’ll introduce the bird beak challenge – there are several ways to play it, but each explores how birds have many different shapes of beaks, and each is perfectly adapted to eating a certain kind of food, and fairly useless with other types of food.

Storybook Theme

A novel approach to this topic would be teaching adaptations using Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. There’s a great lesson plan at We Are Teachers.

Kids’ Books about Adaptations

[Note: The book title is linked to Amazon where you can purchase the Kindle version or a paper version – it’s an affiliate link, so I do receive a small referral fee. If it says KCLS, that means the King County library has an ebook version. YouTube is a link to a video of someone reading the book aloud.]

  • Who Has These Feet? (KCLS, YouTube) by Hulbert and Brooks. A fun read-aloud for kids age 3 – 6. 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.” There’s also Who Has This Tail (YouTube)
  • What Do You Do with a Tail Like This? (KCLS, YouTube) by Jenkins and Page. Lovely illustrations. Good read-aloud for ages 4 – 7, although for 4 – 5 year olds, don’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.”
  • What Do You Do When Something Wants To Eat You? (KCLS, YouTube) by Jenkins. Same author as above. 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… 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 with lots of animals that aren’t commonly seen in kids’ books.
  • How Many Ways Can You Catch a Fly? (KCLS) 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 Jenkins’ other books, this is a good next step.
  • Creature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do also by Jenkins and Page. (YouTube) Age 6 – 9. Each page includes a large close-up 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? … I’m a male sheep, and to impress females I have to fight with other guys. We bang our heads together…” “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 book as my “starter” book. (Here are printable masks to go with this book. This video has ideas for a game to go with the masks, where you add environmental challenges to an animal and ask the children how the animal would need to adapt.)
  • Eye to Eye: How Animals See The World by Jenkins. Yet another book by Jenkins,  best for 8 – 10 year olds. 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.”
  • If You Hopped Like A Frog by Schwartz and Warhola.  (YouTube or YouTube) This is more about math than about adaptations.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.” For example: “If you swallowed like a snake, you could gulp a hot dog thicker than a telephone pole….”” Or “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 middle and high school math classes to make ratios / proportions more entertaining.
  • One Is a Snail, Ten is a Crab: A Counting by Feet Book by Sayre. (YouTube) 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. (YouTube) 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. This is a full text of Kipling’s tale, with illustrations. These are too long to read in a class, setting, but I have loved reading them to my own children because 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.”)
    • 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… I did find recordings here, but I haven’t tried them. Or here is Sterling Holloway, the voice of Winnie the Pooh reading the story.

What if you don’t believe in evolution?

On Amazon, I noticed that some books on habitats and adaptations 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. However, some parents may choose to talk about bio-diversity as a sign of God’s hands in creating a vast array of creatures uniquely suited to their unique habitats.


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