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Animal Characteristic Breakdown: Reaching Your Curricular Goals By Teaching with Animals [ep. 7]

Animal Characteristic Breakdown: Reaching Your Curricular Goals by Teaching with Animals [ep. 7]

Animal characteristic breakdown

Children love animals and are interested in their unique traits. By embracing this interest and teaching with animal characteristic activities in your classroom, you can reach your curricular goals in a student-driven way.

In this episode, I introduce a Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) for each grade level K-5 that can be enhanced by using animal characteristic studies. I also introduce the traits that make mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects similar and different from each other.

I talk through 6 different categories of characteristics for each animal group including:

  • Animal covering
  • How they breathe
  • How they have young
  • If they are a vertebrate or an invertebrate
  • If they are warm-blooded or cold-blooded
  • A unique characteristic for that group

The following standards are introduced as being enhanced with by teaching with animal characteristic activities in the episode:

  • Kindergarten: K-LS1-1: Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals (including humans) need to survive
  • 1st Grade: 1-LS3-1: Make observations to construct an evidence-based account that young plants and animals are like, but not exactly like, their parents.
  • 2nd Grade: 2-LS4-1: Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats.
  • 3rd Grade: 3-LS1-1: Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction, and death.
  • 4th Grade: 4-LS1-1: Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
  • 5th Grade: 5-PS3-1: Use models to describe that energy in animals’ food (used for body repair, growth, motion, and to maintain body warmth) was once energy from the sun.

Episode Highlights

  • [1:04] Next Generation Science Standards
  • [5:05] Animal characteristic breakdown
  • [5:37] Mammal characteristics
  • [7:51] Bird characteristics
  • [9:19] Fish characteristics
  • [11:06] Reptile characteristics
  • [12:51] Amphibian characteristics
  • [16:05] Insect characteristics
  • [19:07] Recap
Insects, like this butterfly, are invertebrates because they don't have backbones, unlike mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
Insects have exoskeletons instead of bones.

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Teaching science in elementary school is crucial for nurturing young minds. But as educators, finding the time and resources to create engaging lessons can be a challenge. That's where this podcast comes in. Welcome to Naturally Teaching Elementary Science, the show dedicated to supporting elementary teachers in their quest to bring authentic and place-based science experiences to their classroom. I'm Victoria Zablocki, a certified elementary teacher turned outdoor educator. With over a decade of experience coaching teachers in effective science teaching methods, I'm passionate about making science accessible, understandable and fun for educators and students alike. Join me as we explore strategies for teaching science in elementary school with practical teaching tips, insightful interviews, picture book reviews, and more. Whether you've taught for a long time or just started your teaching journey, this podcast is your trusty resource for enhancing your science curriculum. So let's grow together.

Welcome back to the Naturally Teaching Elementary Science podcast. My name is Victoria Zablocki, and I'm your host. Today I'm doing an animal characteristic break down. Animals are inherently interesting to kids, so let's take advantage of their characteristics to help you fulfill your curricular goals. Teaching the different unique characteristics of animals is applicable in pretty much every grade level, even as early as kindergarten. If your district uses the Next Generation Science Standards, also known as NGSS, the following standards can make use of animal characteristics for deeper and more thorough understanding. If we look at kindergarten, the standard K-LS1-1: Use observations to describe patterns of what plants and animals including humans need to survive. Animal characteristics are applicable to this standard because looking at certain observable characteristics of animals will tell you what they need to survive. So things like a bird's beak or an insect's coloration can tell you what they eat, or what sort of background they come from, and what they need in order to be able to survive. I'll list all of these standards in the show notes. So don't feel like you need to stop and write this down, I will make sure that they are linked in And that's where you can find all of these links, as well as any of the resources that I mentioned. First grade, the standard 1-LS3-1: Make observations to construct an evidence based account that young plants and animals are alike, but not exactly like their parents. Animal characteristics can help fulfill this standard as students learn about those characteristics that make different groups of animals unique. And then they can start to see patterns in the young and the adults of the different groups. And that will help them understand how they look similar to each other. For second grade an NGSS standard that can be enhanced with animal characteristics is 2-LS4-1: Make observations of plants and animals to compare the diversity of life in different habitats. So when your students understand the animals have characteristics that have evolved over time to match where they live, they can look at ecosystems in a different way. So by knowing the different and unique characteristics of each animal group that can help them decide where those animals live, and how they interact with those ecosystems. A standard for third grade that could be enhanced by using animal characteristics is 3-LS1-1: Develop models to describe that organisms have unique and diverse life cycles, but all have in common birth, growth, reproduction and death. So by studying the unique characteristics of animals in different groups, it starts to become apparent what the lifecycle of each group is, which helps your students to develop an authentic exploration of the topic. For fourth grade an NGSS standard that's enhanced by using animal group characteristics is 4-LS1-1: Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior and reproduction. So all of the animal characteristics that we're going to talk about today are all internal and external structures, and they will help your students see how those structures support survival growth, behavior and reproduction in the different groups of animals. And then lastly, for fifth grade, the standard 5-PS3-1: Use models to describe the energy and animals food use for body repair, growth motion and to maintain body warmth, was once energy from the sun. This standard is enhanced by knowing animal characteristics because when you're working through your foodweb unit, and you're talking about the animal characteristics of warm-blooded versus cold-blooded, it can bring to light how much energy an organism may need to obtain through consumption to be able to maintain that warm blooded or cold blooded status. So these are just a few examples of ways that animal characteristics can help you fulfill your curricular goals.

What I plan to do for the rest of this episode is to break down six characteristics that make mammals birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and insects unique from each other. There are many different characteristics that make animals special. But in this episode, I'm just covering six for each vertebrate group and insects, including their covering, the way they breathe, how they have young, whether they're a vertebrate, or an invertebrate, whether they're warm-blooded or cold-blooded, and then also one specialized characteristic that makes them incredibly unique.

So to start off, we're going to talk about mammals. I like to start teaching students with mammals, because it's easiest for them to relate to, we see them regularly, animals like squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks, etc. And we're also mammals. So it might take your students by surprise to know that we're animals and that we fall into the group of mammals. But because we're mammals, we can understand those characteristics rather easily. So some of the characteristics that are unique to mammals are the fur covering. So either fur or hair is used to insulate bodies, to protect skin, and then they can also provide color for camouflage into the surroundings. Another characteristic that is important to mammals is that they have lungs for breathing, so they can't breathe underwater. But some mammals have actually adapted to hold their breath for longer periods of time, like the North American Beaver, and River otters. Another characteristic of mammals is that they have live birth. So the mother has an amniotic sac that develops with the fetus that connects them to the mother, and that's where they sourced the things that they need. Most, if not all, of the rest of the animals that we're going to be talking about, utilize eggs for birth. This is a unique characteristic to mammals. There is one exception, the monotremes, which is a unique group of mammals that lay eggs. And the platypus is an example of a monotreme. Another characteristic that is unique to mammals is that the babies drink the mother's milk. And this is actually where mammal comes from is the mammary glands. So the mother produces milk, and then the baby drinks that from birth. Mammals also belong to the group vertebrate. And that means that they have a backbone. And so the backbone protects the spinal cord, which passes signals from the brain to the rest of the body. And all of the animals that we're going to be talking about today are vertebrates, or have backbones, except insects. And then the last characteristic I want to hit on for mammals is the fact that they're warm-blooded, or another term is endothermic. And that means that they can maintain constant body heat, regardless of their surroundings. They do that by consuming other things, using that energy to be able to create their own heat within their body and thus maintain their body temperature.

Alright, so the next animal that I like to move on to when I'm teaching animal characteristics, is birds. And that's because birds are warm-blooded, just like mammals are. So there's a bridge between mammals to birds and the fact that they're both warm-blooded. Another characteristic for birds that is special is that they have that feather covering, which provides insulation protects the skin, and also provides color for attracting meats or camouflaging into their surroundings. As I mentioned before, they use eggs for birth, and so one or both parents end up making a nest to help protect the eggs. And then usually the mother will sit on the egg to insulate them until they hatch, and then the egg provides the nutrients that the baby needs to grow until it's fully developed. A unique characteristic of birds is that they have a specialized bill for eating. So, as an example, predator birds like owls and hawks have hooked bills for eating other animals or woodpeckers have thin wedged bills for pecking into wood to find insects. So, they've evolved over time to have a specialized beak that has a certain shape and a certain strength to be able to specialize in eating whatever it is, is their primary food. Birds also have wings for flying and flying helps birds avoid predators, it helps them find food from a different perspective, and it helps them move long distances when food is scarce, like migratory birds like geese, and songbirds. And birds are also vertebrates, which means they as well have backbones.

The next animal I like to talk about is fish. And that's because you can bridge from birds to fish by talking about eggs. So fish also lay eggs for birth, but they happen to do this underwater because they're underwater creatures. So some fish will actually glue their eggs to plant matter; some will lay their eggs in the water column; some will actually create nests like birds, but they do that in the sediment and then lay the eggs in the center; and then some fish will actually hold their eggs in their mouth until they hatch. Some other characteristics of fish include the covering which is scales, and so that protects their skin, they assist with swimming through the water and it provides color for camouflaging. A unique characteristic of fish is that they have fins for movement and balance. So they can use those fins to move up and down, to stop, to turn to propel through the water, and some even have adapted fins such as the flying fish that use their pectoral fins for gliding or frogfish that use their pectoral fins for crawling. Fish happen to breathe with gills, so this is also unique to this type of animal. And gills are a special organ, they have many capillaries or small blood vessels that have blood that pulls the dissolved oxygen out of the water and then transports it to the rest of the body. And that's how fish can breathe underwater. And this is the first animal on our list that's cold-blooded or exothermic. And that means that they rely on external sources to regulate their body heat. So if the water is warm, they'll be warm. If the water is cold, they'll be cold. If they sit in the sun for a while, then they'll warm up if they sit in the shade for a while, they'll cool down. So the external sources are what helped them change their body heats. And then fish are also vertebrates with backbones.

Now we're starting to bridge into the trickier animals. So, I like to move into reptiles next, because we can bridge from fish to reptiles because of the scale covering. So fish are covered in scales, so are reptiles and reptile scales help protect the skin and then also provide color for camouflaging. Reptiles also have egg birth, but they lay their eggs on land, so their eggs need to remain dry, and they often bury them in sand or other types of sediment. And when they bury those, it keeps them hidden from predators, but it also keeps them temperature controlled. Some reptiles though, such as the Eastern garter snake can actually give live birth and don't utilize eggs. But they also don't take care of their babies after they're born. Even though they have live birth like mammals, they don't take care of their babies, the way that mammals do. A unique characteristic for reptiles is that they have claws, so they can use those claws for climbing. And they also use them for reproduction. As an example, male Painted turtles will actually tickle the face of the females in order to court them for reproduction. Reptiles actually have lungs for breathing. So unlike fish, they do not have gills they have lungs. If they're underwater, they have to surface up top to be able to get a breath and then go back down. So they're very talented at holding their breath, but they can't actually breathe underwater. However, when they're overwintering, in sediments such as soil and mud, they can exchange oxygen through their cloaca, which is a hole at their rear that will allow them to exchange oxygen subtly in order to survive the winter. Reptiles are also cold-blooded, just like fish. And they're vertebrates, just like fish, birds and mammals.

Now's where it gets really tricky. Amphibians seem to be the same as reptiles and are often confused with reptiles, but they're actually very different. If you want to know more information about how to teach the difference between reptiles and amphibians, check out my article, "Amphibians Versus Reptiles: How to Teach the Difference in Your Elementary Classroom" on my blog at I'll break down the characteristics of reptiles, the characteristics of amphibians, how they differ, a list of reptiles and amphibians, as well as examples and how to teach amphibians versus reptiles, including an active game, a Guess Who game and some worksheets as well. One difference between reptiles and amphibians is that amphibians actually have moist skin covering so they don't have scales. That moist skin, which protects their organs, provides color for camouflaging, and it can also assist with oxygen exchange, which is pretty unique. So most amphibians have lungs for breathing. However, some amphibians can only breathe through their skin, such as the Red-backed salamander. And the way they do that is their skin stays moist, or they secrete a mucus that helps their skin remain moist, and then that moisture absorbs oxygen which then moves through their specialized skin to the blood vessels right at the skin's surface, which then circulates the oxygen to the rest of the body, which is pretty interesting and pretty cool. Reptiles can't do that. But most amphibians can use their skin for oxygen exchange. Amphibians also lay eggs, however they do it in water. That's because they lack an amnion which is a membrane that covers and protects the embryos of animals. So their eggs are actually gelatinous, which is kind of interesting. And so by laying them in water, it protects those eggs from drying out and allows their embryos to develop fully and then hatch out as young amphibians are cold-blooded like reptiles and they're also vertebrates like reptiles however, one of the biggest differences is that amphibians experience metamorphosis. So metamorphosis is the transformation through stages from an immature or young form to an adult form. And they often look very different. So many amphibians actually begin their life in the water as a tadpole, and then they change over time to an adult. And that includes animals like newts and salamanders, they often start as tadpoles, and then they change to having legs, and then they change into an adult over time. And then many of these species will leave the water and move on land for their adult lives. And then they'll return to the water again to me and lay their own eggs. So the main differences between reptiles and amphibians is that reptiles are covered in scales; amphibians are covered in moist skin. They both lay eggs, but reptiles lay their eggs on land, and amphibians lay their eggs in water. And then amphibians experienced metamorphosis, where their young form looks vastly different from their adult form; whereas reptiles pretty much look the same throughout their lifetime.

And then the last group of animals I want to talk about are insects. So I bridge amphibians to insects because insects also experienced metamorphosis. So again, those are stages of change from immature to an adult. A lot of insects experienced the typical four stage metamorphosis that we talked about in education, from egg to larva to pupa to adult; this is actually known as complete metamorphosis. But some insects experience what's called incomplete metamorphosis, which is three stages, where they move from egg to nymph to adult. An example of this would be grasshoppers. After they hatch from their egg, they come out looking like a grasshopper, but with a really big head. And then they end up growing into their size, and they look like a regular grasshopper. Those are the three different stages the egg, the nymph with the big head, and then the adults. Whereas a lot of us know about the butterfly where it hatches from an egg, it turns into a caterpillar which is the larva and then it turns into a chrysalis which is the pupa and then it eventually turns into the butterfly which is the adult. Not all insects experience four stages of metamorphosis. Some only experience three, but it's important to talk about both types of metamorphosis. So another characteristic that insects have is that they have an exoskeleton. So instead of having bones and a backbone, like all of the other animals, we talked about the mammals, the birds, the fish, the reptiles, the amphibians, insects actually have an external skeleton, also known as an exoskeleton that protects the organs from damage, and it keeps those animals watertight. And because insects don't have backbones, they're considered invertebrates. So, the mammals, the birds, the fish, the reptiles, the amphibians, they all have backbones and are grouped together in a group known as vertebrates. Insects do not have backbones and they belong to the invertebrates, along with things like arachnids, crustaceans, mollusks, and more. Insects also have three body parts. So they have a head and that's where the antennae, eyes, and specialized mouth parts are. They have a thorax where the legs and the wings attach. And then they also have an abdomen where the digestive and reproductive organs are. And they also have six legs and they're specialized for different physical activities like jumping, digging, swimming, hopping, grabbing or running, and they also have multiple segments to help with their physical specialty. Insects also have two antennae, and these can help an insect explore the world through touch, smell, and taste. They can also feel air motion, heat in vibration, which helps keep the insects safe. And then they can also help an insect follow pheromones through scent to be able to find mates or find their group like ants or moths. Insects do bridge to reptiles, amphibians, and fish because they're also cold-blooded, and rely on the environment for them to get their heat.

So that was a lot of information. We covered mammals and their characteristics, including having a fur cover, lungs for breathing, live birth, drinking mother's milk, a backbone and being warm-blooded. We also talked about bird characteristics, including the fact that they're warm-blooded, they have feathers that cover them, they lay eggs, they have a specialized beak for eating, they have wings for flying, and they also have a backbone. We talked about how fish lay eggs in water, how they have scales to cover their bodies, how they use their fins for movement and balance, how they breathe with gills, how they're cold-blooded animals, and how they also have a backbone. And then we talked about reptiles and amphibians, trying to keep them separate. But reptiles have scales, they lay eggs on land, they have claws, they have lungs for breathing, they're cold-blooded, and they have a backbone. And then amphibians who have moist skin covering, lay their eggs in water, breathe with their lungs, but some breathe with their skin, they're cold-blooded, they have backbones, and they experience metamorphosis. And then we finished off with insects who experience metamorphosis, have an exoskeleton, have three body parts, six legs, two antennae, and are cold-blooded. If you're interested in teaching animal characteristics to your early childhood learners, check out my best selling booklet set, the Animal Characteristic Booklet Bundle on Teachers Pay Teachers in my store Naturally Teaching. There are six interactive booklets that have fill in the blank vocabulary alongside interactive prompts for each characteristic. There's also two different versions of each booklet, a single-sided view and a double-sided view along with lesson plans, teacher answer sheets and printing guides. Kelly Evans gave the bundle five stars and says, "Great resource for teaching animals. The kids were highly engaged and they were able to take their little booklets home to read to their parents!" So thanks for taking time to listen today. I know you're busy and I truly appreciate the time you take to tune in. If you have any questions, wonderings or animal characteristic activities that you use, get a hold of me on Instagram at naturally.teaching, or you can email me at Thanks again for joining me today, and until next time, keep exploring, keep learning and keep naturally teaching.

Thank you so much for tuning into today's episode of the Naturally Teaching Elementary Science podcast. I hope you found it informative, inspiring and full of actionable insights to enhance your science teaching journey. Connect with me on social media for more updates, science, tidbits, and additional resources. You can find me on Instagram and Facebook at naturally.teaching. Let's continue the conversation and share our passion for elementary science education together. Don't forget to visit my website at for all the show notes from today's episode. If you enjoyed today's episode, please consider leaving a review on your favorite podcast platform. Your feedback helps me improve and reach more educators just like you. Thank you again for listening and until next time, keep exploring, keep learning, and keep naturally teaching.

Episode 7: Animal Characteristic Breakdown: Reaching Your Curricular Goals by Teaching with Animals
Animal Characteristic Breakdown: Reaching Your Curricular Goals by Teaching with Animals [ep. 7]
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