Biology science play

Animal Life Cycles

Combining Play & STEM Learning

Playing with figurines and learning science is a perfect match. Science & Play & Learning go hand in hand. Science toys can entertain children, spark imagination, and teach them about scientific phenomena and living things. In this blog post, I share with you how to use an inexpensive toy to teach children about life cycles in a relaxed, Chillax Science way.

Science Behind Life Cycles

Life cycle is a term many scientists use to describe the phases a living organism undergoes while alive. All living organisms go through some sort of cycle, whether is a process that takes minutes or years.

Most plants, for example, go through five stages of life. That is, seed, germination, growth, reproduction, and seed spreading. These stages, of course, have specific nuances to each plant phylum and species. Nonetheless, the changes that occur in that plant organism are macroscopic (i.e., visible) at some point and to some degree.

Other kingdoms, such as animals, also undergo a life cycle. In this group, however, we typically reduce the cycle to four major stages. These are birth, growth, reproduction, and death. We can then find common life cycle characteristics for animals within phyla, class, order, family, genus, and species. For example, most insects go through four specific life stages within those four major phases. We can say that an insect’s cycle is: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. Where as an amphibian, goes through more stages: egg, tadpole, tadpole with legs, froglet, and then adult frog. Again, regardless of the specificities of the organisms’ cycle, the fact is that it experiences changes while alive.

Although the concept of an organism changing over time may seem trivial to some, it is not. On the contrary, it is core to understanding many organic and inorganic activities around us. As children become more aware of their surroundings, we can help them notice these changes. We can also guide them to research, notice similarities and differences, and describe how the human’s cycle compares to other living things. Regardless of the depth we choose to do as teachers and/or parents, we can use science to explain and normalize how living things change over time.

Teaching About Life Cycles

I strongly believe that helping children learn about life cycles is foundational in the study and practice of science. Specifically, to understand the “big” scientific claim that all living things go through a series of changes and transformations, whether visible or not. Learning about life cycles also grounds ideas of biodiversity, characteristics of living things, classification and taxonomy. So, given the importance of life cycles in science, I wanted to share with you four easy STEM activities you can do at home or with students in your classroom or homeschool.

In order to do these STEM activities, you will need a few materials:

Matching Game

We can use figurines to teach about life cycles and other foundational skills such as sequencing and visual recognition. Find free pictures on the internet about the life cycle of the lady bug. Then, print and laminate the pictures.

How to play? This is how I did it.

Once I had those ready, my youngest daughter and I played by matching the accurate insect picture and the figurine. We also used them to put the life cycle sequentially. That simple!

We talked about what she already knew about this life cycle and what are some observable differences between the actual image and the figurine. We even went outside to find ladybugs. We found none, sadly.

Did I mention that this game makes a great “on the go” activity for places requiring some wait time? Like those doctor’s appointments. You can thank me later.

You can repeat this activity with other living organisms. Use my affiliate link to get a fantastic beginner’s set that includes many animals’ life cycles.

Memory Game

A second STEM activity is memory. Memory games are great for stimulating the hippocampus of the brain. They can be a fun game regardless of age. The example here is intended for younger children, but it can be easily adapted for older children.

How to Set up and Play

I purchased two ladybug life cycle sets and some cardboard boxes. Then, I placed a single figurine of the ladybug’s life cycle in each box. My daughters and I organized them neatly, covered each box after peaking, and played memory. Easy? Yes! As you play, you can introduce proper labels and share facts about the life cycle. I call this “learning in disguise.” I also played this game with preschool children, and they were equally engaged.

You can extend this game by including other animals’ life cycles. It makes the game more challenging and fun. If this game piques interest, you can invite children to use non-fiction text to learn more about ladybugs and animals.

Imaginative Game

A third STEM game you can do with these figurines is storytelling. For decades, researchers have documented the benefits of telling stories. Stories can educate, influence, inspire, teach, convince, unite, and even divide people. Consequently, incorporating such powerful tools at home and in classrooms is highly desirable.

I did this by creating ladybug life cycle “puppets.” Glue the figurines to popsicle sticks. I recommend using strong glue (not hot glue) to attach the plastic figurines to the top of a wide popsicle. Once these dry, encourage children to create (and tell) a story using the “puppets.”

Engineering a Prosthesis

The fourth STEM activity requires breaking one of the figurines. It can be seen as wasteful, but it is a “hit” with older children. In this engineering activity, intentionally break the leg of the adult ladybug. Then instruct children to construct (i.e., engineer) a prosthesis using typical household and recyclable materials. This activity is always fun for the children. Honestly, I am always impressed with the creativity highlighted through problem-solving in how to give the ladybug a prosthetic leg.

Not ready to break a new toy? Take any old plastic insect, cut off a leg, and give the same challenge.

Other STEM Activities

You can always repeat the activities described in this blog post with other organisms. Thanks to learning/teaching stores, we have a ton of different plastic figurines available at our disposal. I have used figurines for the frog, chicken, honeybee, earthworm, butterfly, ants, and bean plant.

What other games can you play with children with these figurines? You can do the M in STEM. Have children measure the ladybug in each stage and determine the rate of growth in these plastic figurines. Then, using books, determine if the growing proportion of the figurines is scientifically accurate.

I hope the activities suggested here are helpful to you as a parent and/or teacher.

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Reizelie is a parent and a Ph.D. mom trained in science education with a passion for all things STEM. She loves learning and teaching and on her spare time she helps families create home environments that foster learning. Reizelie is committed to a healthy lifestyle and shares ideas on education, cooking, urban homesteading, and fitness.

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