Teaching Life Science – Hands-on Activities & Projects

Hands-on life science activities make teaching and learning more engaging. Read on for projects on structures and processes, ecosystems, traits, and diversity.

Hands-on Life Science Activities

Kids need to do science, not just read about it. Immerse your fourth and fifth grade students in hands-on life science activities!

Structures, Functions, and Processes

When teaching life science, focus on structures of living things. Explore the function of each structure, as well as processes they facilitate. For example:

  • In plants, roots pull water into the plant, the stem transports it to the leaves, which also let in oxygen. These structures and their functions facilitate the process of photosynthesis.
  • Birds’ wings (with hollow bones, aerodynamic shape, and feathers) allow it to fly.


An introduction to cells explains the building blocks of life. When upper elementary kids understand basic differences between plants and animals at the cellular level, biology makes sense. Specifically, they should know that cell walls provide support that allows plants to stand up, while chloroplasts let them make their own food.

To provide hands-on life science activities, let students look at cheek (animal) and green onion (plant) cells under a microscope. This offers a great opportunity to introduce this hierarchy: cell -> tissue -> organ -> system -> organism.


Fortunately, the study of plants also lends itself to hands-on life science exploration. As your students experiment, they’ll learn the role, or function, of each structure.

Teach life science with hands-on plant structure activities.
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  • Seeds – Let kids experience germination. First, wrap some seeds in a damp paper towel. Second, place it in a baggie. Next, hang the “baggie garden” on kids’ desks (or on a bulletin board). Finally, ask students to observe daily changes. Soon, seeds germinate. Your students will understand that seeds are necessary for reproduction. This introduction to hydroponics also illustrates that plants mainly need water and air to survive.
  • Roots – Use paper towels to simulate the purposes of roots. Go get started, roll three paper towels. Cut half of one roll in strips. The strips will act as fibrous roots. For the second roll, do nothing. This represents a taproot. Then cut half of the third roll off. This poor plant has no roots. Use rocks, rice, or marbles to secure the first two plants. However, the third must only be placed on top of the “soil.” Finally, pour colored water into the “soil.” In no time, kids will see that roots anchor a plant and pull water from the soil.
  • Leaves – For this activity, students watch a video. After taking notes on photosynthesis, they complete a cut-and-paste diagram. These activities show kids that structures in leaves make food.
  • Flowers – Students dissect flowers. From this, they learn about reproduction of flowering plants.
  • Stems – Several activities help kids understand that stems transport water. First, they use the tried-and-true celery in colored water. Second, they place ends of two paper towels into colored water – and the other ends in a middle cup.


Unfortunately, animal structures are not as easy to explore in the classroom. Furthermore, different types of animals have different structures.

Focus on Birds

Instead of studying all animals, try birds. Since they share many features with other animals (including humans), kids can transfer information. As a bonus, they have many specialized adaptations. This helps kids understand how animals adapt in order to survive. And, of course, it makes exploration more engaging.

In this animals life science activity, kids use a cooperative learning strategy, jigsaw. Using Project Beak, each child completes one set of handouts. In addition to becoming an expert at one bird body part, they learn about a specific adaptation.

When they’re done, students report back to the class. And the handouts make a great classroom display.

In this life science activity, kids learn about animal structures through bird adaptations.

As a hands-on extension, students can simulate bird beaks to explore adaptations and survival. In lab groups, each child uses a different tool (e.g., chopsticks, tongs, tweezers) as a beak. They get one minute to “eat” as many organisms as possible from a simulated pond ecosystem*. As they work, kids record data on their lab sheets. Finally, they graph their findings and draw conclusions.

When teaching life science, extend understanding of animal structures with this bird beak lab.

* For this ecosystem, I put ten sets of ten common classroom items into a container with a lid. Varying size and shape simulated different organisms. For example, my class called the cut-up rubber band a worm and the Styrofoam peanut a snail. Using a container with a lid allowed me to store the life science lab materials from year to year, as well as share with my grade-level team.

Simulate Human Body Systems

Now you can move to human body structures. Building models lets kids use hands-on life science activities. They’ll learn that each of these systems allows a different function:

  • The circulatory system moves blood to bring nutrients and oxygen to cells, as well as to get rid of waste and carbon dioxide.
Give kids hands-on life science activities by simulating human body systems.


This part of the curriculum links earth, physical, and life sciences. Kids learn that energy from the Sun allows producers to make their own food. This provides food for the entire ecosystem. Additionally, biogeochemical cycles allow matter (e.g., water, carbon, and nitrogen) to flow between Earth’s spheres (geosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere).

Beginners create food chains to illustrate the movement of energy from the Sun to producers to primary and secondary consumers, and then to decomposers.

As they learn more, kids study movement of energy and matter in ecosystems and illustrate it with food webs.

When teaching life science, show kids how energy moves through an ecosystem with a food web.

Enjoy Teaching Life Science

When you make connections with a variety of hands-on life science activities, your students will love learning about biology. What’s more? You’ll enjoy teaching it!

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