Inspiration for Education

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Build a Rainforest in your Classroom – Plants

In a previous post I talked about how I set up the beginnings of the rainforest in my classroom.  Once that was done we used our class rainforest as the jumping off point for multiple learning activities.  We used our rainforest unit to focus on studying plants and animals.  In today’s post I’m going to focus on how we incorporated plants into our classroom rainforest.  We had the kids add 3 types of plants to our rainforest, strangler figs, vines and bromeliads.

Strangler Figs – Strangler figs are one of the more interesting species of the Amazon Rainforest.  It starts out as an epiphyte (or plant whose roots wrap around a tree branch) and extends its roots down around the tree until it eventually completely surrounds the tree, establishes its own roots and kills the host tree.  Click the picture below to be taken to a great site for more information on strangler figs. 210px-Ficus_watkinsiana_on_Syzygium_hemilampra-Iluka   In our rainforest we learned about this interesting plant and then took the same type of paper twists that I had used for wrapping vines around the tree trunks. Only this time I used 4 or 5 white strands.  I  tied the paper twists to the top of the tree and let them hang down.  Then I chose one student per strand and we wrapped them around the tree, kind of like wrapping a May Pole.  I had the kids move over and under and backwards around the tree until we ran out of paper and I tied them off at the bottom.  I’m sorry to say I don’t have a picture of our classroom strangler fig.

Vines – To make vines I collected multiple shades of green and brown yarn.  Then I taught the kids how to braid.  (A useful skill that most did not know.)  We tied our braids to the legs of our desks and then the kids set about braiding a vine.  Each vine was made of two or three colors of yarn.  Kids that got really good at braiding might make a second one with more strands, to make the vine thicker.  When they were done, we draped the vines around the room.

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Bromeliads – We always learned a lot about air plants (epiphytes) in our rainforest unit.  I always liked learning about the ecosystems that can exist inside some of the larger bromeliads.  As part of our study we made our own bromeliads out of toilet paper tubes and construction paper. Here are the steps we took to make them.

Materials – Scissors, tape, toilet paper tube, 3 pieces of colorful paper and 2 pieces of green paper each measuring 6″ x 6″ , one tracer – see shapes below


Step One – Trace and cut out the 5 pieces of paper so they look like the papers below.  I created tracers out of card stock for the kids that they would use to get this shape.

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Step Two – Tape the first yellow page toward the top of the toilet paper roll. Make sure to pull it taught when you put the second piece of tape down.

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Step Three – Tape the next yellow paper on a smidge lower.  I like to line it up so that the points are off set.

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Step Four – Continue taping each layer on making sure to pull the paper taught and making each layer a bit lower and off set from the layer above.

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Step Five – I found that a few kids would have trouble getting the papers taped on tight enough and the papers would feel loose and like they were going to fall off.  To help with this I often place a couple of  pieces of tape along the bottom to secure the papers.

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Step Six – The final step is to shape the leaves and petals.  I had the kids gently pull each petal down so that they stuck out instead of straight up and down.

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And there you have your bromeliad.  We would then hang these from the paper towel tube vines around the classroom, since we didn’t have any branches to hang them from.  They made a great addition to our classroom rainforest.

Check out my next rainforest blog post to find out about the animals we added to our rainforest.


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Building a Rainforest in your Classroom – Teacher Prep

Every year for 12 years my second graders built a rainforest in our classroom when we studied our rainforest unit.  It was the biggest project we undertook and to this day it is the one that they talk about when they come back to visit me.  “Remember when we built a rainforest in our classroom?” they ask. As if I could forget.  It is one of their biggest elementary memories, and one of my favorite ways to teach.

So I thought I’d take a moment to share how we built our rainforest.  I’m sorry to say that it never turned out really photogenic.  It was one of those creations that was amazing to stand in the middle of, but never looked that great when I tried to photograph it.  I’ve added a few photos here, but please bear with me on the quality.

To build a rainforest I always put up just the bare bones myself and then had the kids do the rest.  To start, I talked a local carpet store into donating the cardboard tubes that carpets get rolled on.  They turned out to be taller than my ceiling, so I sawed off the ends, and there I had my tree trunks, wedged between the floor and the ceiling.   photo 5

Over the years my rainforest improved, and I’m sorry to say the picture above is from the early years.  You can see in this picture that the tree is just plain cardboard color and the tree tops are a little skimpy.  However in the picture below you can see that one year I painted the tubes to look more wood colored and I changed the tree tops.

photo 1I used butcher paper to trace 5 palm leaves per tree.  Then I taped a long line of florist wire to the underside, to help them poof out a bit.  I taped all 5 leaves to a square of paper and when I put the trees up I wedged the leaves on top.  For the green vine, I bought paper twists at Joann Fabrics.  You pull them mostly, but not completely, open and they give you a crinkly viney look.    I always had 5 trees set up in my room.  Four of the five trees were set up just like the one above, but the middle one did not have a vine on it.  Check out my next rainforest post to find out why.

Another part of the forest that I set up was vines hanging from tree to tree.  I used to hang paper towel tubes on a string for my vines, you can see them in the first picture, but some later team mates started taking long swaths of brown butcher paper and crinkling it into ropes and they looked much more like real vines.

The last step of set up was the waterfall.  To make this I took a long piece of blue butcher paper and stapled it to the wall.  I had it come out into a little pond at the bottom.  Then I took blue saran wrap and covered the whole surface to give it a shiny watery look.

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I think the best part of about setting up the rainforest is that I used to do it in secret over winter break.  The kids would walk back into the room in the first week of January and be totally enthralled. They just couldn’t get over how much the room had changed.  I love to surprise the kids and watch their faces as they see the first steps of the new learning adventure they are about to embark on.

Check out my next post to see how the kids added to these basics to create their own rainforest details.