National Agricultural Literacy Curriculum Matrix
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Terrariums: A Look at the Living and Nonliving World
3 - 5
1 hour, plus ongoing observation and discussion
Students will observe the interactions between living plants and other living and nonliving things in a small terrarium environment. They will also learn about farms and discuss similarities between the terrarium environment and the farm environment.
- 2, 2-liter bottles for each student or group of students
- Razor blade
- Terrarium Building Checklist
- Moist potting soil
- Small pebbles or aquarium rock
- Water in a spray bottle or crushed ice
- A variety of seeds will work, but agronomic or crop seeds are inexpensive and germinate quickly. Recommended seed varieties include wheat, soybean, popcorn, and bean seeds; these may be available from your local grocery store. Seeds for terrariums are also available for purchase from agclassroomstore.com.
- Paper funnel (can be made by students)
- Terrarium Observation Log
- If It Weren’t for Farmers PowerPoint
Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)
weather: the state of the atmosphere in regard to heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, clearness or cloudiness
water cycle: the series of conditions through which water naturally passes from water vapor in the air to being deposited (as by rain or snow) on earth’s surface and finally back into the air through evaporation and transpiration
transpiration: the process by which plants give off water vapor through openings in their leaves
terrarium: a transparent enclosure used for keeping and observing small animals and plants indoors
soil: a mixture of minerals, organic matter, water, and air, which forms on the land surface and can support the growth of plants
organic matter: the component of soil made of plant and animal material that has decomposed to varying degrees
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
- A farm is an ecosystem because it is made of living and nonliving things that interact and exchange energy.1
- The farm ecosystem is unique because humans control many of the interactions among the things on the farm.1
- Farmers need to understand how things on their farms interact (their farm ecology) in order to make choices about how to raise their crops and animals.1
Background Agricultural Connections
Interest Approach – Engagement
- Review with students the difference between living and nonliving things.
- Tell students that you’re going to go for a walk to observe living and nonliving things. Ask them to bring a notebook and something to write with. Pause in a couple of locations on your walk to give them time to observe and write down two lists—one of nonliving things they see and the other of living things they see.
- Ask students to share some of the living and nonliving things on their lists. Are any of the things on their lists connected? Do they interact with each other?
- Tell students that in the following activity, they are going to explore the connection between living and nonliving things by building their own miniature ecosystem.
Activity 1: Terrariums
- For efficiency and safety; cut the 2-liter bottles prior to the activity. Decide if you will have each student create their own terrarium (they will prefer this) or make the terrarium as a group.
- Remove the label from each bottle.
- Cut the bottle base as noted in Figure 1. Use a razor blade to make the initial incision and then you will be able to use a pair of scissors. Cut 3 inches (7–8 cm) up from the bottom.
- Cut the second 2-liter bottle 5 inches (13 cm) up from the bottom of
- the bottle to be the terrarium top.
- Poke air holes in the top as shown in Figure 2. Begin with three to four x-shaped patterns of holes, or use a nail to add holes (more holes can be added later if the terrarium appears too wet).
- Cut three or four 1-inch (3 cm) slits in the open end of the top so it slides into the base.
- Provide each student or group with a bottle base and top. Also make available the supplies needed to fill the terrarium: aquarium rocks, moist potting soil, seeds (about 20 seeds per terrarium, more if the seeds are small like wheat and fewer if the seeds are large like beans), and water (spray bottle or crushed ice).
- Display or hand out the Terrarium Building Checklist, and instruct students to:
- Add ¾ inch (2 cm) of aquarium rocks to the base.
- Optional: Make a paper funnel to help add the soil layer without making a mess.
- Add 1½ inches (4 cm) of moist potting soil on top of the rocks.
- Place some of the seeds around the perimeter of the bottle (so they can watch the germination and view roots) and place a few in the middle of the bottle.
- Cover the seeds with another ¼ inch (1 cm) of potting soil.
- Water the soil/seeds with a spray bottle, OR place one inch of crushed ice on top of the soil to simulate winter. It is now winter in the seasonal terrarium. Lead a brainstorming discussion about the changes that occur as winter gives way to spring. As the ice melts, the seeds are watered and the water cycle will become visible to your students. They can also note the changes of the seasons from winter to spring in this “seasonal” terrarium. Within a few weeks, the warmth and moisture will encourage seedlings to creep cautiously upward. Eventually spring will come to the terrarium with tall, viable plants.
- Place the top on the terrarium carefully. (Teacher Note: You may want to do this yourself so that the terrarium contents don’t get spilled in the process.)
- Place the terrariums in a sunny location if possible.
- Review some interactions between living and nonliving things that students might observe in their terrariums using questions such as:
- Are plants living or nonliving things? (living)
- What do living plants need to grow and be healthy? (water, sunlight, air, nutrients, and temperatures that are not too hot and not too cold)
- Are these things living or nonliving? (nonliving)
- Do plants affect any of these nonliving things? (plants participate in the water cycle by taking up water from the soil and releasing it into the air, tall plants with big leaves can block sunlight and shade smaller plants, plants take nutrients from the soil to grow, and when plants die and decompose they add nutrients back to the soil)
- Provide each student with a Terrarium Observation Log activity sheet. Explain to the students that they will be checking their terrariums regularly (it will likely take three to five days for the seeds to begin to germinate) and recording any changes on their data sheet. Ask students to look for the following things:
- What are the seeds doing?
- On which parts of the terrarium do you see water?
- Is there anything new happening in your terrarium today?
- After observing for a week or more, take the tops off of the terrariums (you may want to do this for students so that the terrarium contents don’t get spilled), and ask your students to feel the soil. Discuss the following:
- Why is the soil still wet?
- Do you think that any water has evaporated from the soil? Why?
- If water evaporated, where did the evaporated water go?
- Did it ever rain in your terrarium? How do you know?
- Where did the rain come from?
- Is there anything in your terrarium that reminds you of a cloud or
- cloud drops?
- What conditions in the terrarium help the seed to grow?
- How is water circulated in the terrariums?
- Where did the water (that you initially added to the soil) go? Explain.
- Relate what you see in the terrariums to what happens to water on Earth.
Activity 2: If It Weren’t for Farmers
- Ask your students if they can think of any ways that a terrarium might be like a farm.
- Share the PowerPoint If It Weren’t for Farmers with students. As you go through the slides, ask students to make a list of any living or nonliving things they see that are also in their terrariums.
- Discuss the items that students listed from the PowerPoint. Explain to students that sunlight, soil, water, and weather are important to the plants that farmers grow just as they are important to the plants that the students grew in their terrariums.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- Organisms like plants and animals depend on living and nonliving things in their environment.
- The interaction of sun, soil, water, and weather impacts agricultural production.
We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!
Use the Make Your Own Worm Bin instructions (located in the Essential Files) to create a classroom vermicomposting bin out of a recycled styrofoam cooler. Prepare the cooler ahead of time, and then have students add the bedding, worms, and vegetable scraps. Vermicomposting in your classroom is an effective way to engage students with a wide variety of science concepts. For more information about using the worm bin to investigate ecosystems, life and nutrient cycles, and decomposition, see the lesson Vermicomposting (Grades 3-5).
Suggested Companion Resources
- Make Your Own Worm Bin (Activity)
- The Garden Show (Musical Play) (Activity)
- Backyard Detective: Critters Up Close (Book)
- Diary of a Worm (Book)
- Dirt: The Scoop on Soil (Book)
- Jump Into Science: Dirt (Book)
- Mountains of Jokes About Rocks, Minerals, and Soil (Book)
- Rocks and Soil (Book)
- Soil! Get the Inside Scoop (Book)
- You're Aboard Spaceship Earth (Book)
- Seeds for Terrariums (Kit)
- If It Weren't for Farmers (Multimedia)
- Bottle Biology (Teacher Reference)
- Grow it Again (Teacher Reference)
- The Ultimate Guide to Gardening: Grow Your Own Indoor, Vegetable, Fairy, and Other Great Gardens (Teacher Reference)
- Is it Living... Or Is It Not? (UEN Sci-ber Text for 3rd Grade) (Website)
- School Garden Center (Website)
Agricultural Literacy Outcomes
Agriculture and the Environment
- Explain how the interaction of the sun, soil, water, and weather in plant and animal growth impacts agricultural production (T1.3-5.b)
Education Content Standards
3-LS4: Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity
3-LS4-3Construct an argument with evidence that in a particular habitat some organisms can survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all.
4-LS1: From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes
4-LS1-1Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
Common Core Connections
Language: Anchor Standards
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.