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A Fun Activity for Teaching Ecological Succession

Finding a good ecological succession activity that explains it well and can really show students the changes that take place is difficult. As the teacher, it seems like such an easy concept to grasp, and for most of the students, it is. They can tell the difference between primary and secondary succession in a diagram, and for the most part, they have a fairly good grasp of how it all works. And check out my earlier post!

But I wanted them to really see the effect of ecological succession. Unfortunately, this is not a topic where I could take them outside to observe it! So I really spent some time thinking about an activity that could specifically show the changes over time and the effects.

An Ecological Succession Activity That Works

I thought about how ecologists work out in the field. They establish quadrats to study the organisms within a specific area. They catalog the organisms and will often go back over years to observe the changes. So I wanted to come up with a way to do this in an activity.

In the area where we live, there are a lot of farms. Consequently, there are a lot of farm fields. It’s very common to drive around and see abandoned fields, with tall grasses and shrubs taking over. If you live here for a long time and drive past those fields occasionally, you will see ecological succession taking place. It’s a relatively fast change and is an excellent example of ecological succession in action.

That seemed like a perfect example to use in my activity. 

Image of ecological succession in overgrown field with a fence.

Math, Graphing, and Analyzing

There are 6 quadrats in the activity, all with different types and numbers of trees. They represent a 100-year period of time, which is pretty realistic. So students count the different numbers of trees in each quadrat and calculate the percentage of each type. 

Above is a page of the lab showing two of the quadrats. You can see how students can count each tree type and then calculate percentages. Each of the six quadrats represents a different time period.

Their next task is to create two line graphs. One represents the canopy and the other represents the understory. 

The graphs can look a little daunting since they have to graph the percentages of each of the 6 types of trees. I had them use 6 different colors for each tree and graph one tree type at a time. It’s just too confusing otherwise! 

Depending on your students’ ability levels, you may want to talk them through the setup of the first graph and show them how to graph the first tree type. I usually did that and heard a lot less complaining. They actually seemed to enjoy the graphing, believe it or not!

Rigorous Questions

Once both graphs are done, students can use them to answer the analysis questions. These questions are rigorous and require some thought and understanding of the concept of ecological succession. The reason I say that this activity works is that once they answer the questions about the tree changes over the 100 years, they can more easily “see” the process of change. Some of the changes are quite dramatic on the graphs, showing some trees dropping to zero in a relatively short period of time. 

I used this activity as a required lab in my Living Environment classes. It was one of my favorites and I was always satisfied with the understanding they gained from doing it. 

If you’d like to try it with your students, I’ve put it in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. 

You might also like my other ecological succession activity … it’s a set of two mystery picture activities that are perfect for review.

And to save money, I’ve bundled them both together.

Have you found a great way to teach ecological succession? Please share in the comments below.

Hello! Welcome to my little slice of the Internet!

I’m Debbie … retired teacher, curriculum writer, nature-lover, and bibliophile. I love planners, both paper and digital … planning is my “me”time! I live in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State with my husband and our 3 furbabies. That’s me in the picture above with our two horses, Clifford and Shy … they are in addition to our other 3 pets.

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