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Water cycle

As this image from the United States Geological Survey shows, the water cycle has many steps and can go in multiple directions at the same time. It’s a lot for students to learn! To help them, we have a great game recommendation for you to help students see the full complexity of the water cycle in action.

The Water Cycle Game was produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and could be used for grades 1+. (It might be a little complicated for 1st graders, but with proper explanation should be a really meaningful addition to your study of nature, water, or human impact on the environment.)

The game requires a little bit of set-up, but is very simple. Each student portrays a molecule of water that moves through the environment. There are markers for each of the places a water molecule can go: animal, plant, cloud, groundwater, lake, ocean, river, glacier, and soil.

Once there, students roll a die (template included online; has to be assembled before playing). Each face of the die is something that can happen to that molecule. In the case of a molecule of water currently in the ground, it could stay underground, filter into a lake, or into the river. Each student rolls a die and then moves or stays accordingly. After playing the game for 10 turns or so, the game stops and students chart where they went. It gives students a fairly complex understanding of the possibilities in the water cycle.

The full instructions and materials are available on NOAA’s website for free download.

Extensions: After doing the game, the instructions suggest extensions for math or an extension to study how pollution moves throughout the water cycle.

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In New York, the water cycle is taught in 4th grade, although in practice it often happens earlier than that. Students are taught that due to a series of forces, water cycles through the Earth and never disappears.

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The problem with this explanation of the water cycle is that it doesn’t quite account for water conservation – if water is infinitely recycled throughout the Earth, then what’s the danger of taking a 30 minute shower? I didn’t “waste” the water because it can never go away!

This very valid question requires a more nuanced understanding of the water cycle. Yes, it is the case that water never disappears from the Earth. However, human beings do still “use” water with potentially negative consequences, including the following:

  • The water that evaporates does not necessarily fall down straight where it evaporated. Water moves through the air. If individuals living the desert use up all their groundwater to water artificial lawns, the water that evaporates will rain on a different part of the world and the desert town will be even drier than it was before.
  • When humans interact with water, they run the risk of polluting the water. Whether its poop, fertilizers, soap, or something else, every time we use water to flush our toilets, water our plants, or wash our hands, we add chemicals to the water. Those then have to be filtered out before the water can be safely returned to the rivers, lakes, and oceans around us. This process of treating the water is time consuming and expensive. The less water you use, the less treatment is needed, the more water is available for future use by humans, other animals, or plants.

Like many things we teach children, the water cycle is both simple and complicated. Giving students a more complicated picture of water will help them understand the semi-paradox that no water ever disappears, and yet we can waste water.

Tomorrow, we will return to the water cycle with a great water cycle game for students of all ages.

PS: For a water cycle resource for early childhood, check out Round the Garden, which tells the story of the water cycle through gardening.

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If you are starting a garden at your school, visiting local gardens, or just learning about gardens, check out these books to supplement your classroom instruction:

City Green by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan is the story of Marcy and Miss Rosa. Marcy sees an empty lot and has the idea of turning it into something much better – a garden for the community. With Miss Rosa’s help, she succedes. The book concludes with tips about how to start your own community garden. The reading level is 3r grade, but the content is appropriate for K-3. This book could help inspire your students to get involved in a new or existing garden project.

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown tells the story of Liam who finds a hidden garden, tends it, and then decides to cultivate gardens around the rest of the city, gradually turning the grey city green. It’s a magical story that won’t teach science content, but your students will enjoy reading and can lead to great conversations about hidden potential.

Watch Me Grow!: A Down-to-Earth Look at Growing Food in the City by Deborah Hodge looks at urban community gardens, focusing on growing produce, honey, and raising chickens. The book explains the reasons you might farm in a city and has suggestions for how to make best use of space. The reading level is for 3rd grade, but younger students will identify with the photographs.

Round the Garden by Omri Glaser uses the setting of a garden to teach about the water cycle. This book is great for an early childhood introduction to water and its role in growing food.

Check back tomorrow for two more books, focusing on the White House garden.

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