Grade Levels: K-3

This page provides information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about plant adaptations. It is designed to complement the Plant Adaptations topic page on BrainPOP Jr.

Before beginning this topic, we highly recommend reviewing the Parts of a Plant and Plant Life Cycle movies with children. This movie will build on the concepts taught in those movies, and explore how plants have different adaptations to help them survive in their habitats. For extension, you may want to explore the topics in the Habitats unit to learn about plants and animal adaptations in specific environments.

Remind children that plants need sunlight, water, air, and nutrients to survive. Explain that many plants get their nutrients—such as minerals—from soil. Living things also have ways to reproduce, or make individual organisms like themselves. Plants are found on nearly every continent and thrive in a large range of habitats—from the icy, windy Arctic to the hot, dry Desert. Plants have different ways to meet these needs in their environments.

Review with children that a habitat is a place where a plant or animal lives. The desert habitat receives very little precipitation, and many deserts can reach very high or low temperatures, depending on their location. Plants have different adaptations to respond to lack of water. For example, cacti have thick stems that store water. Many species also have spines, which not only protect the plant against animals, but also provide shade to protect against water loss. Cacti roots are often shallow and widely spread under the surface. When it rains, the roots can absorb as much water as possible. Grasslands are areas that sometimes get rain but are subjected to long dry spells. The roots of many grasses grow very deep in order to reach water and moisture down below. Some plants are especially adapted to periods of rain and drought. The rose of Jericho is a plant found in the arid regions of the Middle East. During dry seasons, the plant sheds it leaves and curls up, protecting its seeds inside. Then during rains, it can open up and grow. The plant can lay dormant for many years until conditions are just right. The Rainforests receive large amounts of precipitation and plants are adapted to shed water easily to avoid fungus and bacterial growth. The leaves of many species of rainforest plants have waxy coatings and drip tips to shed and whisk away water quickly.

Help children understand that plants find ways to adapt to changing amounts of sunlight. For example, the rainforest floor is shady because of a thick canopy above. Plants that grow near the floor often have large leaves in order to take in as much sunlight as possible. Some vines, such as kudzu, will grow and climb upwards to reach sunnier areas. Kudzu can be seen in many parts of the United States, covering taller trees, shrubs, and even buildings. Some children may have seen plants that grow toward a light source, such as a sunny window. Phototropism is the movement of plants toward light and heliotropism is the turning of plants with the sun’s direction. Examples of heliotropism include sunflowers that turn their leaves and flowers to track the Sun’s movement across the sky. We encourage you to place a plant near a sunny window and observe how the plant grows over time to study phototropism.

Remind children that many plants get nutrients from the soil. But, some plants grow in areas where the soil lacks nutrients. Some plants, such as the Venus flytrap and the pitcher plant, have adapted by using animals for food to get the nutrients they need to survive. (Many carnivorous plants are now endangered—you may want to use the Extinct and Endangered Species movie for further exploration.) Air plants have adapted to life without soil. They grow high in tree branches so they have better access to sunlight and they take in the nutrients they need from the air and rainwater. Some plants, such as the mistletoe, are parasitic. This means they grow on a host plant and steal nutrients and water. Mistletoe does not usually kill the host plant, but the host does not benefit from the mistletoe’s presence. Why might some plants steal nutrients from others? Discuss with children.

It is important for children to understand that reproduction is an important part of the life cycle. To reproduce, many flowering plants must spread their pollen to other plants. For example, when animals such as bees or hummingbirds drink flower nectar, pollen gets stuck to their bodies. They then carry it to other plants and enable them to reproduce. Flowers have many adaptations to attract animals, including scents and bright colors. Some plants use wind to help spread their seeds. Many children have experienced blowing on a dandelion and watching the seeds float away, with the help of the dandelion’s light tufts of hair. The seeds of maple trees have thin wings that enable them to spin off and float with the wind. Some plants grow fruit that have seeds inside. When animals eat the fruit, seeds pass through them and they are left behind in new places where more plants can begin to grow. The devil’s claw, or unicorn plant, gets its name from its seedpods, which have hooks that can attach themselves to passing animals. They are shaken off in new places and the seeds are dispersed.

Help children explore the world of plants! Teach them to appreciate how plants are adaptive organisms that have numerous ways to survive in their environments. Have children apply what they learn about adaptations to animals and even human beings. How have people in your community adapted to their environment?