How to Teach Ecosystem Interactions with a Fun, Hands-on Lesson

A fun, interactive lesson on ecosystem interactions - blog post.

Ecosystem interactions between living and nonliving things are taking place all around us.  Come to think of it, YOU have been a component of many interactions already today.  You (living thing) interact with your phone (nonliving thing) as you scroll through this blog.  Your student (living thing) interacts with you (living thing) by giving you a high five as they walk into your classroom.  You (living thing) interact with a bottle of water (nonliving thing) as the dismissal bell rings and you realize that you didn’t drink enough today… again! 

We are constantly interacting with the people and things around us.  These interactions are much like the ecosystem interactions between living and nonliving things.  This activity will help you enhance your students’ understanding of the way organisms survive in their ecosystem by interacting with the living and nonliving components that are in it.  

Review Ecosystem Interactions

Start the activity off by reviewing the term “interaction” with your students.  Ask them to write a definition in their own words on the given handout. 

Have your students talk with a partner about some ways they have interacted with various things at school.  Let your students share the interactions they come up with.  Next, have them think about whether their interactions were examples of living vs. living or living vs. nonliving things.  

Give your students three minutes to fill in the T-chart on their handout.  They need to list living and nonliving things you would find in a forest ecosystem.  If some students seem stuck, give a few examples of your own to get them going. Examples could include things like grass, frog, squirrel, dirt, etc.

After three minutes, ask your students to share their responses. Record them by creating a large class T-chart on the board.  When they are done sharing, ask why they think they came up with more living than nonliving examples. (The plants and animals are numerous whereas the number of nonliving things is much smaller). To avoid confusion in the following activity, be sure that the students’ concepts of living vs. nonliving things are correct.  

Ecosystem Interactions Activity

  • Divide your students in half.  Gather one-half of them in a circle facing outward, shoulder to shoulder.  Ask the other half of your students to stand in a circle around the first group, facing inward. You should have two circles. Each student should be standing directly in front of another student – they are now partners. 
  • Students in the inner circle will choose a different LIVING thing from the class brainstorming list.  It’s important that they all choose living things to ensure that you won’t end up with two nonliving things paired up. 
  • The outer circle will then choose either a living OR nonliving thing from the list. This time, it’s okay if one of them picks the same thing as someone from the inner circle.
  • Partners tell each other what living/nonliving thing they chose. Then they decide together how those two things may interact with one another.
    • For example, let’s say two students are “sun” (nonliving) and “grass” (living).  The interaction between them could be that the sun gives the grass energy.  Another example of a pair may be “berry” and “rabbit.”  The ecosystem interactions between these two living things are that the rabbit eats the berry.  
    • Remember, some pairs of things may be more challenging for students than others. This is where they’ll have to really do some thinking.  For instance, if the pair is “grass” and “wolf,” they could say that the wolf steps on the grass, crushing it. This would be an example of two living things interacting.  Your students may need to get a little creative, which is another bonus.
  • After the pair of students come up with their interaction, a few pairs can share with the class. 
  • The outer circle will then rotate one spot, while the inner circle stays in place. The new pairs repeat the process.  Keep going as long as needed.
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Wrap It Up

When students return to their seats, have them turn their handouts over to the other side.  Give them some time to answer the questions on the back side of the handout.  Discuss each question in detail so you are able to use it as a formative assessment. It is so helpful to be able to gauge their understanding of ecosystem interactions between living and nonliving things.  The questions on the handout are as follows:

  • Why does an ecosystem need both living and nonliving things to be successful? (Organisms that live in that ecosystem need both living and nonliving things to survive.)
  • Think about a bear, living in a forest ecosystem. Name three ways the bear interacts with living things in the ecosystem.  Name three ways the bear interacts with nonliving things in the ecosystem. (Answers may vary).

Lastly, stretch your students’ thinking by having them complete the bottom of the handout. They will be asked to sketch the living and nonliving things in an ecosystem of their choice. They will then list as many ecosystem interactions between living and nonliving things as they can think of that would occur in their chosen ecosystem.  

After completing this activity, you can be assured that your students were engaged in a meaningful learning experience. Even more powerful is that they now have a solid understanding of ecosystem interactions between living and nonliving things.  They worked independently and shared their thoughts orally and in writing. You even got them out of their seats in order to keep their attention and interest. That’s a lot for one day! Give yourself a pat on the back… Job well done.

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Looking for more Teaching Resources for Interactions in Ecosystems?

This resource bundle has 7 different activities that can be used to help students understand how living and nonliving things interact in ecosystems. You will have everything you need for differentiation, reteaching, and test prep.

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