Level 2+: Desert Unit

Is it getting hot in here? It must be time for our Desert Unit! Get ready to explore this arid (and sometimes not arid!) biome as we learn more about the geography, plants, animals, and cultures found in the desert. Click here to download our weekly skills tracker.

Note: Occasionally we include project modifications (which can be useful for including younger siblings) and upgrades (for children ready for more). We’ll mark those with the minus (-) or plus (+) symbols.

What you need:

Books (find at your local library or order below on Amazon):

Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):

What to do:

We recommend doing the below lessons in this order to build on each skill your child will develop, but don’t feel that you *need* to do them in this order. Do what works for you and your child. If they love an activity, feel free to repeat! Not a winner? Skip and try the next thing. Have fun!

Phonics Guide:

New to our phonics guide? Start here. The Phonics Guide this week will highlight the rule about when to add -S and when to add -ES to pluralize a noun. As you work through the unit and throughout the week, look for opportunities to highlight examples of both endings in real life.

Lesson 1:

In this week’s unit, we’ll be diving deep into one of the most fascinating terrestrial biomes: the desert! Types of deserts are found on every continent, but the types vary wildly. That’s because what determines a desert is the amount of precipitation it receives. Most experts agree that a desert is an area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year. (source) As a result, areas like Antarctica and Greenland are also considered deserts, despite being very cold. For our unit, we’ll be focusing on the types of deserts you find in the Southwest United States. First, though, let’s do a little map work to identify all the deserts in the world. You can also read this webpage for more facts about deserts to share with your child.

Activity 1: Create a desert world map. Begin by printing this world map on a piece of sturdy cardstock. Next, let your child carefully spread a thin layer of glue over the yellow portions, and then pour sand on them. Shake off the excess and let dry to create a tactile desert map. Reference your map as we explore some southwest deserts this week!

Activity 2: While we’ve got our sand out, let’s use it to build our own desert biome with this tutorial!

Activity 3: For the remainder of our unit, we’ll be focusing primarily on the southwestern desert. Let’s get a peak at the types of animals typically found in this ecosystem in the book Here is the Southwestern Desert.

As we read in our book, deserts have a unique food web than what we find in other biomes. Let’s bring this web to life with this food chain activity. Print those pages on cardstock and cut out each plant and animal strip. On each strip, place one soft Velcro dot on the back of each plant or animal picture and a scratchy dot on the opposite end of the front of the strip. (Now you should be able to form a link with the strip, attaching the dots.)

Using the book as a reference, have your child build different food chains with the links, always starting with the sun. Discuss how the webs can change, researching any plants or animals your child is unfamiliar with.

Lesson 2:

One of the most iconic residents of the Sonoran desert is the saguaro cactus. These tree-like cacti are the largest cactus in the United States and can grow up to 60 feet, but it takes many, many years because the cactus is very slow-growing. (A 10-year-old cactus may only be 1.5 inches tall!) They typically grow branches, or arms, (up to 25!) though some may never grow arms. With the right growing conditions, scientists estimate that saguaros can live to be over 150 years old. (source)

Another amazing thing about the saguaro is its flower, which opens at night and blooms for just 24 hours, or one day. (source) Let’s learn more about these remarkable flowers in the book The Night Flower.

Activity 1: Despite living in one of the earth’s driest environments, cacti survive through photosynthesis and pollination the same way many other plants do. How do they survive with limited water? Scientists have identified a few key ways, including:

Only collecting carbon dioxide at night. All plants have tiny pores called stomata that they open and close to release oxygen and collect carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. While most plants open their pores during the day time, cacti open theirs at night when cooler temperatures will cause them to release less water. When the sun rises, the plant goes back to making the sugars it needs to survive.

A strategic stem. Not only can a cacti retain water in its stem (it even expands when the cacti has more water!), it also has a waxy outer layer to hold in moisture and grows spiky spines to prevent animals from getting to its inner moisture. In some cacti, the spines even collect rainwater to funnel to the plant’s roots!

A shallow root system. Whereas other plants typically send roots deep into the soil for stability, a cactus often develops an extensive, shallow root system spread across a wide area just under the earth’s surface so it can absorb as much rainwater as possible before it evaporates. (source)

Pretty nifty, huh? Let’s learn more about the anatomy and life cycle of the saguaro with this copywriting activity.

Activity 2: Review 2-dimensional shapes with this cacti matching game.

Activity 3: In The Night Flower, we are also introduced to a variety of nocturnal desert animals, including the bat, which is one of the saguaro’s chief pollinators. Want to see this important symbiotic relationship in action? Check out this beautiful short documentary of bats pollinating the Sonoran saguaro.

In the desert, there are many advantages to being nocturnal (active at night) as opposed to diurnal (active during the day). The biggest advantage is that being active at night helps many warm-blooded animals avoid the extreme heat during the day. Nocturnal animals have special skills that enable them to survive and find food in the darkness, including enhanced vision, hearing, and the use of echolocation. Let’s play this online seek-and-find game to learn more about how some Sonoran Desert animals thrive at night.

Activity 4: Want to make your own cactus? Scroll down on this page to the Pop Up Cactus Craft and get crafting!
(-) Working with a younger sibling? This playdough cactus is a great way to work on some fine motor skills!

Lesson 3:

Of course, it’s not just plants and animals that make the desert exciting. The land itself is often rich with geological phenomena! One example is the desert canyon. Let’s learn more about these stunning landforms (and the life they support) in the book Over and Under the Canyon.

Has your child ever seen a canyon? If not, this video takes you on a brief tour of Antelope Canyon and Horse Shoe Bend in Arizona, USA.

Activity 1: So, what causes these amazing canyons to come to be? The answer is a series of geological events. In our Level 2: Rocks Unit, we learned about the three types of rock we find in the earth, igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary. Above the older igneous and metamorphic rock are layers and layers of sedimentary rock. As tectonic plates bump and shifted billions of years ago, the result was something called “uplift,” where lower rocks are shift upward to create high plateaus, or a flat, elevated landform that rises above the surrounding area on at least one side (source).

The final action in forming a canyon is erosion, typically by a water source like a river. The resulting erosional valley has extremely steep sides, frequently forming vertical or nearly vertical cliff faces. For millions (or sometimes billions) of years, a river will carve away at these rock faces forming a deeper and deeper canyon through an erosion process called downcutting. In downcutting, the water acts like a bunch of tiny chisels chipping away at the rock over time. This means that canyons are still being formed—in another million years, they will likely look very different! (source)

Let’s bring this process to life with a STEAM activity! Follow this simple tutorial to create your own canyon.

Activity 2: Let’s let some beautiful desert canyon landscapes inspire our math activity today! In this printable, you’ll find 9 skip counting puzzles, but don’t feel like you need to print them all. Print whichever skip counting numbers your child is working on or ready to tackle. (We recommend printing the puzzles on cardstock or other stiffer paper and using a paper cutter to make cutting the puzzles quicker and easier!)

Activity 3: Several artists have been inspired by the beautiful colors of deserts and canyons. One example is “Sunset, Canyon de Chelly” by Edgar Payne. Edgar Payne was an early American Impressionist artist who painted landscapes and was specifically drawn to California and the American southwest. You can read more about his life here. Many of his landscapes were painted in “plein-air,” a term that means painting outside. Today, let’s do our own plein-air painting! If you don’t have anything right outside your child might want to paint, see if you can travel to a nearby park or other outdoor space for inspiration. If you aren’t able to get outside, look at some of these photos of the Sonoran Desert and try painting near an open window. 😉

Lesson 4:

Does your child know what a folk tale is? A folk tale is a story that is passed down from generation to generation, often without a specific author (so it is said to be authored by “folk,” or the people.) Folk tales tell about different parts of life, entertain, teach a lesson, or explain things that people might see in nature. Often, folk tales stem from a certain culture, but they are retold so often the stories can become part of different cultures. (source) Today, we’ll read a folk tale inspired by a resident of the southwest desert in the book Soft Child: How Rattlesnake Got Its Fangs.

Activity 1: Let’s use our book to work on increasing your child’s understanding of story structure. Print this story map and work with your child to see what they have retained from the story. If your child is writing freely, you can have them fill out the map themselves, or you can scribe for them as they tell you the answers orally.

Activity 2: No matter how you think the rattlesnake came to be, it is a truly fascinating animal. Watch this brief video to learn more about how their rattle actually makes its signature sound. Next, Make this rattlesnake craft that really rattles!

Activity 3: Have you had a chance to work on this week’s Phonics Rule? Let’s bring it to life with our Avoid the Snakes! Phonics Game.

Our rule today will help young readers and writers understand how to pluralize most nouns. In most cases, you add -s to the end of a noun, unless it “hisses,” in which case you end it with -es. You will hear this hissing sound if a noun ends in -s, -sh, -ch, -x, or -z. For example, think of the word “box.” If you just add -s, the word has a long hiss sound at the end: boxsssss. Instead, you add -es to make it “boxes.”

After explaining the rule to your child, tell them you’re going to play a game where they have to find the snakes! If a word becomes a hissing “snake” when you add -s, they will know to add -es instead. Begin by printing these sheets and cutting out the rock strip. You will cut out the two dotted rectangles on the left side and then fold the strip in half on the solid line. It should look like this:

Next, cut out the noun strips and tape them together to form one long strip of nouns, like this:

We’ve included an extra page with blank strips so you can add more words if your child wants more. Cut out the “s” and snake “es” tiles and set to the side.

Next, slide the noun strip through the cut out rectangles so the first noun is in the middle. Close the “rock” to hide the first word and present the game to your child.

Tell you’re going to lift the rock and read the word, and then together you’ll figure out if the word is a “snake.” If it’s not, use the “s” tile to pluralize the word, like this:

If it is a “snake,” use the snake “es” tile to pluralize the word. In either case, read the newly pluralized word out loud.

Repeat the game for as many words as your child would like!

Note: If you plan to work with water beads tomorrow, let them start soaking tonight. They take 6-8 hours to fully expand.

Lesson 5:

Life in the desert means all kind of challenges for plants and animals…but also for people who live here! In today’s book, we’ll learn the true story of a woman named Darlene Arviso who helped members of her community survive life in the desert. After you read, you can show your child this video of the real Darlene Arviso.

Activity 1: Does your town have a water tower like the one where Darlene Arviso lives? Has your child ever wondered what it is or how it works? Let’s find out! Essentially, water towers are simple machines. Each one is designed to hold enough clean water to run that particular city for a day. When the region needs water, water pumps utilize the pull of gravity to provide high water pressure. Because they work with gravity, they have to be taller than the buildings they’re providing water to in order to reach the highest floors. Each additional foot of height in a water tower increases water pressure by .43 pounds per square inch. (source) This video explains more about the placement of water towers and how they work.

Finally, let’s bring it to life with a STEM activity! Build your own water tower with this simple tutorial.

Activity 2: Next, let’s do a little 10 frame work. You can use any small manipulative for this, but these water beads are fun for our theme! Next, print 2-4 of these ten frame work mats (and laminate or put in a large sealing plastic bag, especially if you’re working with the water beads). Now, here are some ideas for how to play with your 10 frames!

  • Use a pair of dice to roll different numbers and have your child build them them in the 10 frames.
  • Use a deck of playing cards and flip up two cards. After your child builds each number, have them add them together using the 10 frame.
  • After doing the previous activity, draw another card and have your child build and then subtract the new number from the previous sum.
  • Build numbers in the ten frames and have your child identify them and write them on a separate piece of paper.
  • Do sums or differences with numbers you build on the 10 frames.

Activity 3: Another notable element of the Southwestern United States is its food! Southwestern cuisine (sometimes called ‘Tex-Mex’) has its roots firmly in Spanish and Native American culture, and it has struggled to gain respect among fine dining aficionados due to its complicated history. Here are the main points to share with your child, or you can read through the linked source article for more details if your child is interested:

Adapted from Tejano (or Mexican people living in Texas) home cooking, Tex-Mex cuisine made its way to a larger audience for the first time in San Antonio in the 1880s, largely thanks to the cheap, delicious food dished out by a group of women known as the “chili queens” in the city’s plazas. By the time of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, fairgoers were able to purchase the delectable meat, beans and chili pepper stew at the “San Antonio Chili Stand.”

Even as the popularity of chili, nachos, enchiladas and fajitas spread to other parts of the United States, these dishes were still considered Mexican food until the early 1970s, when cookbook author Diana Kennedy inadvertently turned Tex-Mex into its own regional cuisine. In her 1972 cookbook “Cuisines of Mexico,” the English-born author made a clear distinction between “authentic” Mexican food served in Mexico and the stuff served north of the border. Having spent decades studying and transcribing the recipes and cooking techniques of her beloved Mexico, Kennedy had no use for the “mixed plates” served in Mexican restaurants north of the border.

Though chefs and fans of Tex-Mex food were insulted by Kennedy’s characterization, it was her work that popularized the term and put Tex-Mex squarely in its own category as an American cuisine, with its own distinctive flavors. (source)

Use the history of this cuisine to encourage your child to think critically. What do they think: Is southwestern food truly a unique cuisine? What are the different perspectives to consider?

Finally, let’s sample some southwestern flavors today by making this child-friendly recipe: nachos! You can choose to top them however you like, but this recipe gives you a good starting point and some suggestions. (You can even make your own chips using this frying recipe or this air fryer version.) While your nachos bake, you can share with your child the legend of how they came to be from this article.

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Published by The Learn + Live Letter

The Learn + Live Letter is a play- and project-based homeschool curriculum for children ages 3-12.

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