I thought I would share some Earth Day activities for kids since for the last 16 years I have had a student group at this time of year. We were usually out cleaning up the gardens on school grounds in April, whether that be at Evergreen Elementary in the Butterfly Garden/Monarch Way Station or in the International Gardens at North Woods getting rid of winter debris.
April is unpredictable! I remember last year at North Woods International School – we were going to go outside to measure the gardens. I wanted the students to learn how to measure the space that we would have available to plant. We were then going to sketch the gardens since there were many perennials already in place, and do some math calculations. But, overnight, it snowed! A lot! Instead, we ended up talking about the Prairie Biome and how plants adapt to live in the grasslands! The students loved the unit which included doing some math involving prairie plant roots and measuring yarn on the tiled (square foot pieces) floor of the classroom.
If you live in the mid-west, I highly encourage you to talk to your kids about our plains. Did you know that approximately only 1% of our North American prairie is left? It’s true! We have lost most of our native prairie to human development. This includes things like homes, shopping malls, parking lots, and even agriculture (farming).
With some much of the prairie already gone, it becomes much more important and timely to preserve (keep) what is left by conserving (saving) it. Part of saving something is learning to care about it, and the best way to do that is visit these special lands and learn what makes them so important and unusual! (carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and habitat for pollinators.)
Think about the prairie. What is it like? Do you picture wide open spaces? Are there lots of trees or grasses and flowers? Would it be hot there in the summer? What would happen if there were high winds?
Prairie plants have adapted or “changed over time” to be able to live where conditions can be harsh. The prairie does not have many trees. Instead you’ll see a wide range of grasses and some flowering plants, like coneflowers, milkweed, puccoon, or liatris depending on the time of year. All of the plants have special features that help them to live on the prairie.
Special Prairie Plant Features
Leaves – On a prairie plant leaves are thin and narrow, helping to limit water loss through evaporation and transpiration (the way plants exchange gases). This is important because prairies get hot and dry. Preventing water loss is essential to the plant’s life. Without enough water, plants – just like humans – will die. Prairie plants are made to withstand the hot temperatures and dry conditions with have during a mid-western summer!
Roots – Roots are long, especially on grass plants like Big bluestem. The roots can be several times longer than the height of the plant. In other words, you see less of the plant above the ground, than there is under the ground. It’s not uncommon for prairie plant roots to be 2-3x in length as the plant is high!
Long roots serve several functions for prairie plants.
- They are long to be able to reach deep water. Water becomes less and less available as days are hotter and longer in the summer months. Long roots can reach water and it becomes less available.
- The roots anchor the plant in place. High winds, which are common on the prairie, could pull plants right out of the ground if it were not for the length of their roots.
- Roots prevent erosion. Most people think of the prairie as flat. And, while most of it is, there are stream beds and undulations to the land that would be eroded more easily if it were not for the roots of prairie plants holding everything in place.
While these are the function of most plant roots, the shear length of the prairie plant roots is what makes them able to perform their job in less than ideal growing conditions.
Last year, I had some prairie dropseed (a native grass) in our yard that needed dividing. What a perfect way to see the long roots, I thought to myself. I started to dig it up. I could not budge it. Finally, my husband was able to get it out. But, it was difficult for him as well! But, we had to cut the roots! They were too long to just dig out!
In 2015, we went to the National Botanical Gardens in Washington D.C.. In one of the exhibit halls, they had prairie plants and their roots on display. Check it out! The length of their roots was really impressive!
Today, Earth Day 2020, I suggest you take a walk on a prairie. Locally, we are fortunate to have many prairies available for public visitation. Here are a few suggestions:
- US Fish and Wildlife Upper Mid-West Environmental Station on Brice Prairie. Trail Map Here.
- Holland Sand Prairie (rare, environmentally protected site) in Holmen/Town of Holland.
- New Amsterdam Grasslands , Town of Holland (partially open all year- read map from the Mississippi Valley Conservancy upon arrival so you do not disturb nesting birds). Download here.
- Trempealeau Wildlife Refuge has some prairie along with wetlands. Trempealeau, Wisconsin.
Prairie, I Spy
Got Yarn? Root Activity!
Like Math? Try these!
Like ELA? Write a Prairie Haiku!
This is a great activity for a nature journal. Haiku are poems with a very simple form.
The first line has 5 syllables. The second line has 7 syllables. And, the third line has 5 syllables. Haiku feature ones observations of nature, using very descriptive words. Kids love these because they do not have to write a sentence! The end result should create a picture in the reader’s head! Here is an example:
Wide, Open Spaces (5)
Prairies full of life and light (7)
Promises Blossom (5)
© Carol Labuzzetta, 2020
Listen to these prairie inspired pieces!
Summary: A beautiful video
Cochrane, T.S,, Elliot, K., Lipke, C.S. (2014). Prairie Plants of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. Madison, Wisconsin.