Level 1: Rivers, Lakes + Ponds Unit

Let’s hit the water this week with a unit study packed with animal and plant science! (Plus a lot of art, math, phonics work, and more!) We hope that you and your child enjoy learning about these important ecosystems so that you can then take them outside to make real life connections to the rivers, lakes, and ponds near your home. Click here to download our printable skills tracker to make notes about what you learn. 🦆🐸🐢

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

What you need:

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

Optional additional reading:

  • The Treasure Hunter’s Handbook by Liza Gardner Walsh – If your family spends a lot of time outdoors exploring streams and ponds, this is an excellent resource you will use for years. For this lesson, pages 24-34 will be most helpful. (You can also find it on OpenLibrary here!)

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

Optional bonus game for the weekend:

Keep the fun going over the weekend by playing Go Fish! We’ve linked a few different versions below that you can use to work on whatever skills your child is currently trying to master. (And don’t miss this clever hack to help your child hold their cards!)

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!

Letter of the week: W

New to the letter of the week? Start here! This week’s lessons talk a lot about bodies of water, making W the winning letter of the week! Print your letter W coloring sheet and Letter Guide. Let your child color the coloring sheet as you work through the next part of the lesson.

The letter W makes one sound: /w/ as in “water.” Reinforce the sounds with our Letter of the Week Song.

Remember, the guide isn’t a worksheet! The first page is for you, the grown-up. Use it to introduce the letter name, the sounds it makes, and to demonstrate how to draw each letter. Display the Letter Guide in your school area along with the completed coloring sheet to reinforce the lesson throughout the week.

Next, use the second sheet to create a page for your child’s phonics book. Review the book a few times each week until your child has mastered these phonics.

Lesson 1:

To introduce our unit, begin by discussing what is a habitat and what is an ecosystem. A habitat is what we call an animal’s home. An animal’s habitat provides them food, water and shelter. What is an ecosystem? Watch this video to find out.

This week we will focus on three different water ecosystems: ponds, rivers, and lakes. Let’s learn about the plants and animals that live in these ecosystems. Take a look at these pictures of different freshwater habitats to show your child the variety. What is the difference between the three water ecosystems? Although there is no official scientific measurement to separate lakes from ponds, lakes are generally larger and deeper. Lagoons connect to the ocean, and lakes do not. Rivers and streams flow and move constantly, and lakes hardly move at all. (source)

Activity 1: First, let’s take a closer look at ponds! Begin by reading Pond Circle or The Small, Small Pond to learn more about the plants and animals that live in a pond. For our first activity today, we will start a pond diorama that we will add to all week as we learn about the protists, plants, and animals that live in a pond. Begin by cutting out a cereal box and painting in the pond floor, the water, and the sky. (Optionally, you could use kinetic sand for your pond floor.) Since pond water is murky, you can make your water a light brown.

Here is an idea of what the final project will look like to give you some inspiration, but feel free to follow your child’s creativity:

Activity 2: While you have the paint out, let’s create some fish for our pond with this simple craft. When everything is dry, use a hot glue gun to add them to your diorama.

Activity 3: There is a very special life form that lives in pond water—it is called algae. But what is algae? Algae are living things that sometimes live in soil or on leaves and sometimes live on other animals like turtles. But they most commonly live in water, such as ponds, rivers, and lakes! But the funny thing about algae is that they aren’t animals or plants. They are a special living thing called protists, or a single-celled organism. Algae can be green, blue, red, or brown, and sometimes they are so small you can only see them with a microscope. Other times they can be bigger than a bus! For example, kelp can reach 200 feet long.

Algae are really important to an ecosystem because they make the oxygen animals need to live. They also are food for animals like fish. Did you know that sometimes people eat algae, too? Do you like seaweed? You are eating algae!

Let’s make our own pretend algae. Twist green and red tissue paper as you see here and glue them into your diorama.
(-)This fun sensory activity will mimic algae for younger children. Combine a little hair gel, food coloring, and glitter—and have fun!

Activity 4: Frogs are a common resident of ponds. Let’s learn about the life cycle of a frog. Start by reading about frogs in Frogs! by TIME for Kids.  Use this puzzle as an instructional tool to teach the four stages of a frog’s life.
(+) Want more? Watch this video for a real life view of frog reproduction.

Next, use your frog figurines to discuss the life cycle before adding them to your diorama. If you didn’t purchase the figurines (or just want another craft!), you can make these frogs from recycled materials.

Lesson 2:

Let’s learn more about pond life today. Did you know all life in the pond depends on each other? Let’s dig more into these relationships with the following activities.

Activity 1: First up, let’s learn about another living animal that often makes a pond their home—ducks! Begin by reading the classic story Make Way for Ducklings to introduce the mallard duck (or you can listen to our read aloud). 

Now, let’s look at real life pictures of the Mallard Duck here. As you share the pictures, be sure to read the captions to your child so they can learn more about these beautiful birds. Then make this duck craft and add it to your pond diorama.
(-) Handprint duck craft. This simple, tactile craft is perfect for younger siblings or little learners. All you need is paint, construction paper, a feather, and a googly eye.

Activity 2: Food web activity.

Activity 3: Now that you and your child can identify so many living things that live near ponds, this would be a great time to go and visit a real one. Can’t make it to a real life pond this week? Watch this video and this one to review all that you’ve learned about ponds.

Lesson 3:

Let’s explore some more of the animals that live in ponds and rivers. 

Activity 1: Explore turtles with this video about turtles and this video about the turtle life cycle. Then get some fine motor practice while you create this turtle craft. Add it to your pond scene once it’s complete!

Activity 2: One common plant often found in ponds is the water lily. Water lilies are plants that grow in still or slowly moving water, including streams and the edges of lakes. They have floating leaves often called lily pads, and frogs like to sit on them. (source)

Today, we’re going to use lily pads as the inspiration for a little frog subtraction. You will need green craft foam (or construction paper), a permanent marker, and frog figurines. If you didn’t purchase the frog figurines, you can use green pom poms, counters, or something similar as you’re manipulative instead.

Begin by cutting a few “lily pads” out of green craft foam (or you can use construction paper). On each pad, write a simple subtraction problem using numbers 1-10 (or whatever numbers you child is working on).

Add the starting number of frogs to each lily pad and let your child work at subtracting the number depicted to find the correct answer.

Note for parents: If this is your child’s first time working with subtraction, start with small numbers. For example, put two frogs on the lilypad and ask your child, “If there are two frogs on the lilypad and one frog jumps off into the water, how many frogs are left?” Follow your child’s lead. Remember, you are introducing a new concept and it needs to be concrete before you include the numerical values that match the math concept. Once your child understands the concept, write the numerical value on the lilypad and try the same problems again. If they understand the connection, great! If not, don’t be discouraged. This is a really complex concept! Come back to it again tomorrow or later in the week until it clicks. Remember that everyone gets these concepts at their own pace, and it’s not a race. Just have fun with it!

(-) Not ready for subtraction? Try this fun counting modification instead.

Activity 3: Do some pond word building. Print out these pond word picture cards. Get out your moveable alphabet or the letter cards you have printed from past units, like the Snowball Letters from our Level 1: Arctic Unit. Here are a few different ways to work on word building:

  • if your child is still mastering letter recognition, show them the whole card and have them match their letter manipulatives to the letters they see on the card.
  • Using another card, cover the first letter of the word on the card. Tell your child to name the picture and then try to sound out the first letter. To show their answer, they can place one of their manipulatives on the covered letter.
  • If your child has a stronger grasp of phonics, only show them the photo. Ask them to name the picture and then try to build the word phonetically.
  • Want more? We love this IG highlight from our Montessori contributor, Juli Williams, on how she uses a moveable alphabet to teach her children to read.

Activity 4: Finish up with some pond-themed Tea and Poetry! The Sing a Song of Seasons poetry book has some beautiful illustrations and poems about frogs on pages 82 and 83, or you could read this poem.

Lesson 4:

Rivers. Rivers are different from ponds because the water is moving, not still. Read the picture book Where the River Begins to begin today’s lesson.

Activity 1: Have your child build an indoor “river” with some inspiration from our tutorial.

Activity 2: A super fun animal also found in rivers is the river otter! Let’s make our own river otter craft while learning some facts about these playful animals. You will need this river otter template, brown cardstock or construction paper, a brown paper bag, scrap paper or other fill material (recycled plastic grocery bags work great!), a rubber band, and glue or tape.

First, stuff the brown paper bag about 2/3 full with your fill material. Next, gather the opening and tie it off with the rubber band to create a tail.

Print the template onto brown construction paper or cardstock and cut out the face and feet. Glue or tape these onto the bag body to complete your otter! You may also wish to create a piece of green kelp using construction paper or tissue paper for him to hold.

We have also included a baby sea otter you can print on a separate piece of paper for your paper bag otter to hold, if desired!

Share these facts about otters with your child as you put together your craft:

  • River otters have short legs with webbed feet. 
  • They have dense fur that keeps them warm.
  • They are found living in rivers, streams, and lakes. 
  • River otters are mammals.
  • They eat a variety of animals, including fish, crustaceans, amphibians, snakes, water insects, snails, worms, small mammals, birds, eggs, frogs, turtles, and any aquatic invertebrates.
  • River otters can hold their breath for up to 8 minutes while under water.
  • Otters always wash themselves after every meal.
  • River otters can dive to a depth of 60 feet.
  • Baby otters are called pups. (source)

Activity 3: The cattail is a common plant seen along rivers. You can show your child a real one here.

Next, let’s make a cattail! You will need green cardstock or craft foam, a green or yellow pipe cleaner, brown felt, and tape or glue.

Begin by cutting out the bottom leaves of your cattail out of the green cardstock or craft foam. Next, cut the a brown oval out of the felt. Help your child to arrange the cattail with the pipe cleaner as the stalk (don’t forget to leave a bit sticking out of the top of the brown, fuzzy part. Finally, use tape or glue to attach all the pieces in place.

You can also add your cattail to your river diorama, if desired!

As your child crafts and plays with their diorama, you can share these cattail facts with them:

  • The common cattail grows in the backwaters of rivers and streams 
  • Cattails grow primarily in shallow waters, where their roots have access to plenty of moisture and mud. 
  • The top of a cattail emerges from the water and is characterized by a sharp, pointy spike and sword-shaped leaves. 
  • Cattails provide both shelter and nourishment to wildlife. (source)

(+) Activity 4: For older children, you can also share more about the interesting history of rivers. Tell them how people sometimes find treasures in the water and read the Treasure Hunter’s Handbook (Pages 24-34) to learn about gold panning. You can also learn about it in this video. Now try doing some gold panning at home with this messy (but fun!) activity.

Lesson 5:

For our final day of the week, we’re taking a closer look at larger bodies of water—lakes! You can start by reviewing this blog post and sharing some lake facts, or for younger children you can read Good Night Lake.

Activity 1: How are lakes made? The deepest lake in the world is found in the United States. It’s called Crater Lake, and it’s located in Oregon. Watch this video to learn how a volcano became a lake.

Activity 2: One of the activities people enjoy doing on a lake is fishing. Let’s do some fishing of our own to practice letters and words with an indoor “fishing activity.”

What you need:

  • our fish letter printable (printed on cardstock)
  • paperclips
  • a magnet
  • 1 wooden dowel or chopstick
  • string
  • hot glue gun + glue
  • masking tape

How to set up:

After printing out the fish, cut out the letters you plan to use (see below for optional ways to play) and clip a metal paper clip to each one. Build your fishing pole by hot gluing the magnet to one end of the string and tying the other to your wooden dowel or chopstick. Create your own “lake” by marking out your lake on the ground with masking tape.

How to play:

  • Practice lower and upper case letter matching. Place the lower case letters in your “lake,” and then have your child draw upper case letters from a bag or bowl. Then they can use their fishing rod to fish for the matching lower case letter.
  • Letter sound match. Place all of one set of letters in the lake. Make the sound of one of the letters, and then your child has to fish for the correct letter that makes that sound.
  • Sight word recognition. Using the blank fish cards, write down sight words your child is working on. Then, you can either have your child fish for a word and read it, or you can say, “Can you catch the fish that says ____?”
  • Fish for the letters that spell their name or other words they are working on.
  • Fish for letters that make combination sounds. (For example ch, sh, th, wh, sl, st, etc.)
  • Fish for vowels vs consonants.

Note for grownups: Don’t use this activity to “test” their knowledge but instead to reinforce what they are currently working on. Try these types of questions and responses to keep the game positive and engaging:

  • Can we fish for the word “stop”?
  • If your child fishes and finds the word “stop,” reply, “You found it!”
  • If not, say: “You found the word ‘go’! Great job fishing for the word ‘go.’ Now let’s fish for the word ‘stop.'”

(-) To make the activity simpler, use a shorter string on your “fishing rod.”

Activity 3: Let’s learn about a very famous artist from France who really loved painting the outdoors. His name was Claude Monet, and he especially loved the way light hit the water. He painted many water scenes, but his most popular was a series of paintings called “Water Lilies.” Some of the paintings were as big as a whole wall! Click here to see one of them. While looking at the painting, ask your child:

  • Can you see the shapes of the flat leaves and pale flowers on the shimmering water? 
  • Can you see how Monet has tried to capture light and reflection on the surface of the water by using dabs of white paint?
  • How does the painting change when you look at it up close versus from a few feet away?

Click this post to see a different “Water Lilies” painting. Compare and contrast the two different pictures. Ask your child which one they like more and why. Watch the video to learn more about Monet and the style he was famous for called impressionism. Then, create your own masterpiece inspired by Monet with this craft.

(+) Activity 4: If you have tangrams, you can use them to create some of these pond animal patterns.

Bonus activity for the weekend: If you purchased a Go Fish! game, play it this weekend to reinforce whatever skill your child is working on.

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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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