“Wherever you are, you’re in a watershed,” is what we always tell students during our watershed lessons. This is one of my favorite science units because it connects students to their own backyard and it gets them interested in taking better care of the earth.
One of the most important things for students to understand is that all of the water around them is connected – even those tiny backyard streams – and that our actions directly impact the water and everything it touches.
These student-centered watershed activities will help your upper elementary students understand what watersheds are and why they should care about them.
I love to start with a photo and an “I see, I think, I wonder” kind of inquiry. A photo of dirty water, trash in a lake, or a river meeting a bay are some examples.
I also find it helpful to review the water cycle. An image like this one helps students remember that water is always moving around Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Then we discuss all the reasons water is an important natural resource – not just for people, but for other organisms and the planet itself.
Next, you can teach the watershed definition and have students brainstorm how pollution, litter, soil erosion, invasive plants, and other factors affect the water (and land) downstream.
There are tons of engaging activities you can use to teach watersheds. Here are a few!
Making a watershed model is a super helpful way to shrink this concept down for students to see. I’ve done this kind of model with large butcher paper to make it easy for my 4th graders to see. If you want to get fancy, you can make a relief map out of clay or try a model like this one.
Hands-on activities and experiments are great to include in a watershed unit. One experiment you can do is to add different kinds of “polluted” water to plants and see how they’re affected. Just add things like bleach, dish soap, and paint to the water.
I also like to have students research what watershed they live in and where all of the local water flows. If you’re in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, this video and this website are helpful resources!
Google Earth is another good resource that students can explore to see how water sources are connected and how they eventually flow to the ocean. You can start here.
Many parks departments offer field trips or assemblies focused on watersheds, too.
What Can Students Do Next?
My county organizes regular watershed cleanup events. If yours does, I’d definitely share them with your students’ families!
To bring in ELA standards, I’ve had students create media messages to raise awareness about keeping our watersheds clean. Posters and persuasive letters are great options.
And if you have time for extension activities, students can experiment with ways to clean contaminated water. (Just google “water filter science projects”.)
Need Watersheds Resources?
If you’re looking for a no-prep resource to teach watersheds, you might want to check out my Digital Watersheds Activities.
This resource includes a variety of activities in Google Slides™ for instruction, review, and extension.
It introduces students to watersheds and covers surface water, groundwater, runoff, watershed divides, tributaries, and wetlands. As they complete the slides, students will access short videos and websites for a complete watershed lesson.
Learning about watersheds is a really valuable experience for elementary students. Let me know what other watershed activities you like to use with your 4th, 5th, or 6th grade students.