There is SO much to learn about our amazing bodies! While we couldn’t pack everything in a week-long unit (trust us, we tried!), we think your child will love exploring everything from their brain to the muscles in their toes (and everything in between) through the books and hands-on activities we’ve compiled. Throughout the week, we’ll even construct a model of their body, including the majority of their body’s major systems. If you’re not able to find the exact books we recommend, don’t worry—it’s totally fine to use something similar that you already own or can find at your local library. Ready to get started? Click here to download your 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):
- From Head to Toe: The Amazing Human Body and How It Works by Barbara Sueling (or you can use any book about the human body you can find at your local library!)
- Bones: Skeletons and How They Work by Steve Jenkins
- Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: A Growth Mindset Book for Kids to Stretch and Shape Their Brains by JoAnn Deak, Ph.D.
- What Happens to a Hamburger? by Paul Showers (or read it here on OpenLibrary)
- The Busy Body Book: A Kid’s Guide to Fitness by Lizzy Rockwell (or read it here on OpenLibrary)
Optional additional books:
- Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup, and Yawn by Melvin Berger – This book makes a great addition on the day we learn about the nervous system, and it can also helpful for answering questions kids ask often about their body’s strange habits!
- The Blood-Hungry Spleen and Other Poems About Our Parts by Allen Wolf – Looking for a silly (and sometimes gross!) option for Tea + Poetry this week? Check out this book of memorable rhymes.
Supplies (use what you have, but here are links to shop if you need anything):
- paper + access to a printer (don’t have one? we like this model)
- glass jars or cups
- food coloring
- masking tape
- 1 liter bottle
- duct tape
- play dough
- bottled water
- clear dish soap
- 1 tbsp table salt
- 100 ml isopropyl alcohol
- wooden body mannequin (optional)
- roll of butcher paper
- chicken bone
- cardboard egg carton
- felt, foam sheets, or construction paper
- pipe cleaners
- 1 banana
- 6-8 crackers
- cutting board + butter knife
- 1-2 Tablespoon lemon juice (or white vinegar)
- Ziplock plastic bag
- old pair of tights or stockings
- plastic funnel
- 2 paper cups (one with a 3-4″ hole cut in the bottom)
- rubber gloves
- tray or container to contain the mess
- permanent marker
- 2 colors of crepe paper
- tape measure
- watercolor paper (white cardstock can also work)
- watercolor paints + paint brush
- dot sticker (or you can cut a circle out of construction paper)
- 3 paper towel tubes
- 2 long balloons (like you would use to make balloon animals)
- yarn, wire, or long twisty tie from garden staking
- hole punch or scissors
- mitten (for visualization)
- wax paper
- 1 raw chicken wing
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!
There are so many parts of our amazing bodies to explore! We’ll begin with an overview of some of our body’s most important systems, beginning with the book From Head to Toe: The Amazing Human Body and How It Works (or whatever human body book you already owned or were able to find at your local library). (-) If you are working with a younger child, you may prefer the book Me and My Amazing Body (or you can read it here on OpenLibrary). You may also want to print and laminate these playdough mats for them to explore the body systems along with your older child all week.
Activity 1: Today, we’ll look at two of your body’s systems, or groups of organs and tissues that work together to perform important jobs for the body. (Some organs may be part of more than one body system.) We’ll begin with the circulatory system. The circulatory system (also called the cardiovascular system)
The circulatory system is made up of blood vessels that carry blood away from and towards the heart. Arteries carry blood away from the heart and veins carry blood back to the heart. The circulatory system carries oxygen, nutrients, and hormones to cells, and removes waste products, like carbon dioxide. These roadways travel in one direction only, to keep things going where they should. (source) Let’s watch this video to learn more about your heart and the role it plays.
Next, let’s build this working model of a human heart to see it in action!
Activity 2: Another important system in your body is the respiratory system. When we breathe, the respiratory system takes in oxygen and sends out carbon dioxide. The cells in our bodies need fresh oxygen to stay alive. As cells do their jobs, they make and give off carbon dioxide. This exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide is called respiration. The respiratory system includes the nose, mouth, throat, voice box, windpipe, lungs, and diaphragm. (source) Watch this video to learn more about how all of these parts work together.
Next, let’s build this working model of the lungs to bring it to life.
Activity 3: We’ll continue to learn more about your bodily systems all week. But how do all your cells know which types of organs or parts they’re supposed to become? The answer lies in your DNA. DNA is short for deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is the genetic information inside the cells of the body that helps make people who they are. It’s the instructions for how to make the body, like the code to a video game or blueprints for a house. If you used a very strong microscope, you would see that DNA looks like a twisting ladder. DNA is stored in the chromosomes (say: KRO-muh-sohms) that are inside every cell of the body. Everyone inherits two sets of chromosomes, one from each parent. (source)
It is very difficult for scientists to get an accurate photo of DNA. This video breaks down why and also gives a more holistic view of what DNA looks like inside your cells. (It gets a bit technical at parts, so if your child doesn’t understand the whole thing, don’t worry. Remind them that the important thing to know right now is the primary job of DNA and that it is found in all of our cells in the way the video demonstrates.
Did you know you can actually extract your own DNA with a few simple household materials? Let’s do it with this activity.
Activity 4: Not only has the human body fascinated scientists for centuries, it has also captured the attention of artists! The most famous example is Leonardo da Vinci, who has been called one of the greatest anatomists (or scientist who studies the body) to have ever lived. Da Vinci dissected more than 30 human corpses, exploring every aspect of anatomy and physiology, and recorded his findings in drawings. You can see some of his drawings here.
His most famous anatomical drawing is The Vitruvian Man, a drawing made with pen, ink, and paper in about 1490. It is of a male figure standing in two positions, that are superimposed (drawn over the top of each other). The figure’s arms and legs are drawn in two different positions, while the rest of the body stays in one position. The figure is drawn standing inside both a circle and a square. The drawing is based on the ideal proportions of a man’s body, and how this relates to geometry. You can see the drawing here.
Proportions are the relationships, or ratios, between the heights, widths and depths of a subject. Understanding proportion is important when drawing people because it helps to create a more realistic picture. This article breaks down how you can create a “chart” to create a typical proportion in your human drawing, using the Vitruvian principle of a person being 8 “heads” tall.
The problem with that principle, though? Not all bodies look the same! Instead, one of the best ways to learn how to draw people is by looking at real forms. So let’s do some human body drawing ourselves! This blog post shares several ideas for different ways to draw the human body, including:
- using a miniature wooden mannequin to work on proportions
- drawing family members
- drawing our own hands and feet
Try doing a few of these today or throughout the week—especially the blind contour drawing, where you draw an object without looking at your paper as you draw!
For your last activity today, create a body tracing on a large piece of butcher paper for your child, cutting it out and either letting them draw in their face or adding a printed photo of their face to the head. Don’t fill in any other details on the body…yet! We’ll be adding to this body model throughout the week.
What do you call a skeleton that didn’t hold up his body? Lazy bones! As you may have guessed, today is all about our skeletal system! The skeletal system is your body’s central framework. It consists of bones and connective tissue, including cartilage, tendons, and ligaments. It’s also called the musculoskeletal system—but we’ll be learning more about your muscles later in the week. (source) Let’s begin learning about our bones with the book Bones: Skeletons and How They Work.
Activity 1: An adult human has between 206 and 213 bones in their body! (The variability happens because some people have different numbers of ribs, vertebrae, and phalanges.) (source) Let’s begin by adding bones to our body model! You can find life-size printables of bones here. (Scroll near the bottom of the post for the printables.) Next, work on labeling some of the major bones using this printable guide.
(-) Not building a body model? Try this simplified version to analyze different sections of bone at a time: Print the bones from the pervious link, but instead of mounting them, create these “x-ray” frames and let your child label as many as desired.
Activity 2: Why do we need bones? To hold us up and protect vital organs! Let’s bring that to life with this simple activity. Begin by building a small person out of playdough like this:
Instruct your child to put the person together and try to stand them up. This will be nearly impossible unles you squish the person down to be pretty squat.
Now, let’s give the person some bones! Cut a couple of straws into four 3-inch pieces and one 1- to 2-inch piece. Use the longer pieces to attach the legs and arms to the torso and the small piece to attach the head.
Now, try to stand your person up! It should be much more successful, thanks to their strong skeletal system.
Activity 3: Often when we think about skeletons, we think of a lifeless bunch of bones. But bone is a living, growing tissue! It is made mostly of two materials: collagen, a protein that provides a soft framework, and calcium, a mineral that adds strength and hardness. This combination makes bone strong and flexible enough to hold up under stress. Bone releases calcium and other minerals into the body when you need them for other uses.
Think of your bones as a “bank” where you “deposit” and “withdraw” bone tissue. During your childhood and teenage years, new bone is added (or deposited) to the skeleton faster than old bone is removed (or withdrawn). As a result, your bones become larger, heavier, and denser.
For most people, bone formation continues at a faster pace than removal until sometime after age 20. After age 30, bone withdrawals can begin to go faster than deposits. If your bone deposits don’t keep up with withdrawals, you can get osteoporosis (ah-stee-oh-puh-ROH-sis) when you get older. Osteoporosis is a disease in which the bones become weak and more likely to break (fracture). People with osteoporosis most often break bones in the hip, spine, and wrist. (source)
Would your child like to see what happens to bones when they lose more calcium than they gain? Let’s bring it to life with this experiment!
Activity 4: One of the most important systems of bones within your skeletal system is the spine. The spine lets you twist and bend, and it holds your body upright. It also protects the spinal cord, a large bundle of nerves that sends information from your brain to the rest of your body. The spine is special because it isn’t made of one or even two bones: It’s made of 33 bones in all! These bones are called vertebrae.
There are different types of vertebrae in the spine and each does a different kind of job:
- The first seven vertebrae at the top are called the cervical vertebrae. These bones are in the back of your neck, just below your brain, and they support your head and neck. Your head is pretty heavy, so it’s lucky to have help from the cervical vertebrae!
- Below the cervical vertebrae are the thoracic (pronounced: thuh-RAS-ik) vertebrae, and there are 12 in all. These guys anchor your ribs in place. Below the thoracic vertebrae are five lumbar vertebrae. Beneath the lumbar vertebrae is the sacrum (sapronouncedy: SAY-krum), which is made up of five vertebrae that are fused together to form one single bone.
- Finally, all the way at the bottom of the spine is the coccyx (pronounced: COK-siks), which is one bone made of four fused vertebrae. The bottom sections of the spine are important when it comes to bearing weight and giving you a good center of gravity. So when you pick up a heavy backpack, the lumbar vertebrae, sacrum, and coccyx give you the power. When you dance, skip, and even walk, these parts help keep you balanced.
In between each vertebra (the name for just one of the vertebrae) are small disks made of cartilage. These disks keep the vertebrae from rubbing against one another, and they also act as your spine’s natural shock absorbers. When you jump in the air, or twist while slamming a dunk, the disks give your vertebrae the cushioning they need. (source)
Let’s bring this into the real world with a hands-on model of the spine! Use this tutorial, and then you can add the spine to your model when your child is done playing with it.
Today, we’ll learn more about another body system you use everyday—the digestive system! What Happens to a Hamburger? (or read it here on OpenLibrary)
Activity 1: Let’s bring the digestion system to life with a few hands-on activities! First, collect these items:
- 1 banana
- 6-8 crackers
- cutting board + butter knife
- 1-2 Tablespoon lemon juice or clear vinegar
- Ziplock plastic bag
- old pair of tights or stockings
- plastic funnel
- 2 paper or Styrofoam cups (one with a 3-4″ hole cut in the bottom)
- tray or container to contain the mess
- permanent marker (optional)
Start off by showing your child the banana and cracker. Ask them what happens when we eat our food. (The simple answer is the food goes in our mouth, then reaches the stomach, through the intestines, and out the other end as poop.) But why does it look so different when it comes out? It comes out a different color, texture, and, well, it smells! Basically, all the healthy ingredients have been absorbed by your body as the food was broken down and all that is left is the leftover, unused waste.
Next, we’ll walk through the six major activities of the digestive system using our materials.
The first step of digestion is called ingestion: You eat food and your saliva begins breaking down the chemicals in your food; your teeth further grind the materials as you tongue moves it around. Demonstrate this by putting the banana and crackers on a cutting board and chopping them with a butter knife until they are small enough to swallow.
Next, you have propulsion: You swallow the food, now called bolus, down your throat into a stretchy, 10″ pipe called your esophagus.
Then the food goes through mechanical breakdown, where it gets broken down by chewing and tongue movements. The esophagus muscles slowly empties food into the stomach in waves. Demonstrate this by moving your chopped up banana and crackers into your Ziploc bag “stomach” and mashing it up more with your hands.
Next is chemical digestion: In the stomach, food is stored as it is broken down by the help of muscles and gastric juices (stomach acid) into a liquidy mixture that will slowly empty into the small intestine. Open your bag carefully and add a little lemon juice or white vinegar to act as the acid. Continue to mush up the food a bit more.
Now for a very important part of digestion: absorption! In this step, the food moves into the small intestine where it is broken down even more so the body can absorb all the vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Food can take up to 4 hours in your 22-foot small intestine! (More on that later!) Act this out by cutting off the corner of the Ziplock bag and send the mush through a pair of stockings with the foot cut off. Have the stockings hang over a bin to catch the mess liquid being re-absorbed into the body as nutrients. While yoru real intestine is lined with sheets of muscle that contract and release to move the material down, in our project your child will have to serve as the muscle. (They may want to wear rubber gloves if they don’t like messes on their hands.) Have them squeeze the food down the “intestine.”
Finally, we have elimination. Anything that wasn’t absorbed along the way to get used by the body will empty into the large intestine. Like the small intestine, the large intestine is coiled up inside of you like a garden hose. The large interesting is a larger hose, about 3-4,″ and if unwound would be almost 5 feet! Demonstrate this by squeezing the food out of the stocking into a Styrofoam or paper cup with a 3-4″ small hole cut out the bottom.
The large intestine food goes through the colon, where it has one last chance to be absorbed by the body before being pushed into the rectum and out the body as poop. Use your second cup to push the contents of the first cup out into a bowl or your bin—it should look like poop! (It’s totally okay to giggle at this point!)
Activity 2: Let’s take a closer look at those super important intestines! Without your small and large intestine, your body wouldn’t be able to absorb all of the important nutrients you get from your food. But is the small intestine really small? How big is the big intestine? Let’s do some measuring with a tape measure and two colors of crepe paper.
First, let’s measure out a piece of crepe paper to represent our small intestine. Although the small intestine is narrower than the large intestine, it is actually the longest section of your digestive tube, measuring about 22 feet (or seven meters) on average, or three-and-a-half times the length of your body. (source) It’s called the small intestine because of its width, which is only about 1 inch. Begin by measuring out 22 feet of one color of crepe paper, carefully folding it in half to be about 1″ wide. Leave extended for now.
Next, use your second color of crepe paper to measure out the large intestine. The large intestine is about 5 feet long and about 3-4″ wide. (Measure out two strips of the crepe paper to create this thickness and tape them together.) Extend this “large intestine” next to the “small intestine” so your child can see the difference.
Finally, let’s add our intestines to our body model! You will need to carefully wrap both intestines into bundles to make them fit. Tape then into your model at the bottom of your body’s torso. If desired, you can also add a crumbled brown paper bag to represent your stomach.
Activity 3: When deciding what types of foods we put in our body, it’s important to consider what our body needs! The three primary building blocks of nutrition are called macronutrients. Macronutrients are the nutrients we need in larger quantities that provide us with energy: in other words, fat, protein, and carbohydrates. Micronutrients are mostly vitamins and minerals, and are equally important but consumed in very small amounts. We generally get our micronutrients along with macronutrients. (source) Let’s learn more about macronutrients.
- Fats: Dietary fats are essential to give your body energy and to support cell function. They also help protect your organs and help keep your body warm. Fats help your body absorb some nutrients and produce important hormones, too. (source – this link also has more information about which fats benefit yoru body and which ones don’t.) Foods high in the types of fats that benefit your body include vegetable oils (such as olive, canola, sunflower, soy, and corn), nuts, seeds, and fish.
- Protein: Proteins are one of the building blocks of body tissue and can also serve as a fuel source. Our bodies need protein from the foods we eat to build and maintain bones, muscles, and skin. (source) We get proteins in our diet from meat, dairy products, nuts, and certain grains and beans.
- Carbohydrates: Dietary carbohydrates, namely sugars, starch, and non-starch polysaccharides (NSPs), are major energy sources in the human diet that support body metabolism. Food of any plant origin, such as fruits, vegetables, edible seeds, grains, legumes, and wholegrains, are reliable sources of dietary carbohydrates for humans. (source)
It’s important to balance all of these nutrients for a healthy diet! For our final activity today, let your child create a dinner menu that includes all of these nutrients, designing the menu like one they would find at a fancy prix fixe restaurant. The menu should include an appetizer, entre, and a dessert, and they can include which nutrients the dish provides beneath each menu item. (For bonus points, have them look up the micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, the ingredients supply as well!)
If desired, help them to prepare their desired dishes sometime this week or weekend.
Today, we’ll be looking at a bodily system that is connected to all of the systems we’ve looked at so far—the nervous system! We’ll also look closely at an incredibly important organ, the brain. Let’s begin with the book Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: A Growth Mindset Book for Kids to Stretch and Shape Their Brains.
If desired, you can also read the book Why I Sneeze, Shiver, Hiccup, and Yawn to learn about some other interesting things about your nervous system!
Activity 1: Let’s add a nervous system to our body and play a little game! First, print out this picture of the brain and some potential stimuli onto cardstock. Cut out the brain and glue it onto the top of your body’s head. Next, use yarn to create a system of nerves on your body. First, tape or glue pieces of yarn to connect your eyes, nose, ears, and mouth to the brain. These represent the nerves that send messages to the brain based on the stimuli they receive.
Next, connect the brain to the spinal cord. From there, use pieces of yarn to connect the spinal cord to your lungs, stomach, hands, and feet, flowing out through the body. You should have a pretty intricate system going!
Now, play a game! Cut out the stimulus cards and present your child with each one at a time. Talk about how the stimuli enters your body, following the path to your brain. Next, discuss where the brain would send a signal next to react to that stimuli, tracing the card along your nerve system. If they want to keep playing, discuss other stimuli you could receive, such as hot sand or a fire alarm.
(+) Want to learn more about how the brain processes information? This printable “brain hat” shows you the different parts of the brain and the jobs those parts perform.
Activity 2: So how do all those messages get transmitted throughout your body? The answer is neurons! Neurons are information messengers. They use electrical impulses and chemical signals to transmit information between different areas of the brain, and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system. (source) Let’s show your child what they look like with the help of a craft. You’ll need:
- a piece of watercolor paper
- watercolor paints
- dot sticker (or you can cut a circle out of construction paper)
- a thin paint brush
- 1 paper or plastic straw
To start, create a circle of very wet paint near the top of your paper. This is the soma, or body of the neuron. Use the straw to blow out the sides to create the dendrites of the neuron, or the receiving part of the neuron. Next, use the paint brush to paint the tail (or axon, where electrical impulses from the neuron travel away to be received by other neurons) of the neuron, blowing out the end as well to create the nerve endings (also called axon terminals), which release the neurotransmitters. It should look like this:
Once the paint has dried, add a circle sticker to the middle of the dendrites to represent the nucleus, which regulates the cell’s functions.
Finally, cut your straw in half lengthwise and cut one half into several half-inch pieces. Glue these down the middle of the neuron to represent the myelin sheath, an insulating layer that allows electrical impulses to transmit quickly and efficiently along the nerve cells.
Finally, have your child label all the parts using a pen or marker. It should look like this:
Activity 3: We can’t do anything without our brain, which is why it’s so important to protect our heads, like wearing a helmet when playing certain sports or riding a bike. Fortunately, our brain also has some built-in defenses, like our sturdy skull. But there’s something else that keeps our brain safe—cerebrospinal fluid! Sometimes just called “brain fluid,” this special liquid lows in and around the brain and spinal cord to help cushion them from injury and provide nutrients. (source)
Let’s demonstrate how it protects our brain with a quick activity. You will need 2 eggs, a plastic food container (with a lid!), and some clear corn syrup. The eggs will represent our brain, the container the skull, and the syrup our cerebrospinal fluid.
First, put one egg in the container and seal it carefully. Ask your child what they think will happen if they drop the container. Next, have them hold it at chest-height and drop it on the floor! Examine the results. Why did the egg break?
Next, rinse out the container and put the second egg in. Then, fill the container with corn syrup so that the egg is surrounded. Seal the container carefully. Ask your child what they think will happen now? Repeat the experiment, dropping the container from the same height. How are the results different? (The egg should not break.) In the same way, our brain fluid helps to protect our brain from injury!
We have learned so much about the body in this unit! For our last day of activities, we will examine one more body system, the muscular system! The muscular system is an organ system consisting of skeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscle. It is also part of a larger system that includes your bones, called the musculoskeletal system. Let’s learn more about the functions of our muscles in the book The Busy Body Book: A Kid’s Guide to Fitness (or read it here on OpenLibrary). You can also watch this video for more.
Activity 1: First, let’s build a model of muscles to see how they work with your bones. Use this tutorial. (-) If you need something simpler, you can build this model. When your child is done playing what you create, add it to your human body model.
Activity 2: Want to see a real musculoskeletal system in action? Try this chicken wing dissection activity!
Activity 3: Finally, let’s work some muscles! Whether you know it or not, you have been working two of your types of muscles the whole time we’ve been learning. There are three types of muscle tissue in your body: visceral, cardiac, and skeletal:
- Visceral Muscle is found inside of organs like the stomach, intestines, and blood vessels. The weakest of all muscle tissues, visceral muscle makes organs contract to move substances through the organ. Because visceral muscle is controlled by the unconscious part of the brain, it is known as involuntary muscle—it cannot be directly controlled by the conscious mind.
- Cardiac Muscle is found only in the heart, cardiac muscle is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body. Cardiac muscle tissue cannot be controlled consciously, so it is an involuntary muscle.
- Skeletal Muscle is the only voluntary muscle tissue in the human body—it is controlled consciously. Every physical action that a person consciously performs (e.g. speaking, walking, or writing) requires skeletal muscle. The function of skeletal muscle is to contract to move parts of the body closer to the bone to which the muscle is attached.
For our final activity, we’ll try some exercises to work some of our skeletal muscles. After doing each activity, look at this chart and see if your child can determine which muscles they are working:
- Exercise 1: Give your child a small weight (2-5 pounds) or a canned food and have them hold their arm at a 90-degree angle next to their body. Keeping their elbow close to their body, raise and lower the weight from their hip to their shoulder 5-10 times. (Also known as a bicep curl!)
- Exercise 2: Have your child put their feet should-width apart or slightly wider and clasp their hands in front of them. Next, have them sit back as though they are going to sit in a chair. Once the tops of their legs are parallel with the floor, have them stand again. Repeat 5-10 times. (You may know this one as a squat!)
- Exercise 3: Have your child lie on their back on the floor with their knees bent and their feet flat. Raise their arms so their fingers are pointing at the ceiling and curl their head and shoulders up as if they are reaching to touch the ceiling. Repeat 5-10 times. (You’ve just done crunches!)
- Exercise 4: Have your child lie on their stomach on the floor and place their hands flat under their armpits. Keeping their legs and middle straight like a board, have them push the floor away with their hands. Hold this position for 2 seconds, and then slowly lower to the floor again. Repeat 3-5 times. (Yep, it’s a pushup!
- Exercise 5: Repeat the form of the previous exercise, but hold your position after pushing the floor away. Hold this position for 2-20 seconds. (Nice plank!)
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