Adaptations of Animals

› Animal Adaptations

Here's a great introductory lesson to the adaptations of animals for elementary classrooms, including a song, concept map and tree map for brainstorming.  

What are adaptations?  

Adaptations of animals are special physical or behavioral characteristics that enable an animal to survive in its habitat. For example, animals in the Arctic have specially designed body features that enable them to live in cold climates.

Animals in desert or rainforest habitats might use camouflage as a way to hide from predators or stalk their prey.

They use their physical features in order to adapt and survive in their particular environments.  Many of them also have behavioral adaptations which ensure survival and the possibility of attracting a mate.

Each of the life science lesson plans in this unit will be a hands-on exploration of how animal adaptations allow animals to meet their needs for:

  • food
  • water
  • and shelter (or safety) in their specific habitat.

Introduction to Adaptations of Animals

This introductory lesson is divided into four parts that can be taught in one session or divided up into mini-lessons if you are short on time.

Part 1

I usually begin with a discussion with my students about what animals need in order to survive. We generally do this in small table groups and then share out. 

concept map of what animals need

This allows for a wider variety of answers, and it also enables English Language Learners or introverted students a platform for expression that is less intimidating than sharing with the whole class.

Now I chart student responses in a concept map and guide them to understand that all of the things animals need are provided to them in their environment, or “habitat.”

Part 2

Once students understand the basic animal needs, we take a trip outdoors to look for animals in their environment.  I pose the question, “How do animals meet their needs?” and then have the students work in pairs to observe animals meeting their needs in nature.

I provide a magnifying glass for each pair of students so they can examine bugs more closely, and remind students not to touch any creatures they find. They might notice ants carrying food, a bird building a nest, or a spider spinning a web. They work with their partner to fill out an observation worksheet.

We then return to the question “How do animals meet their needs?” with a whole-group discussion of the different ways they observed animals meeting their needs. I begin to ask the students which body features helped each animal meet its needs (e.g. – a spider’s feet, a bird’s beak, an ant’s strength, etc.) and introduce the terms “adapt” and “adaptations.”

Part 3

We have just observed animals living in the school environment. We then list other habitats where animals can live and brainstorm animals that live in each habitat. This is a good opportunity to integrate social studies and review map skills.

I use a tree map to categorize the habitats and animals that the students come up with. In the tree map pictured, I selected five habitats for my class to discuss, but you can adjust this number based on your students’ needs. This can be done in a whole group setting, or students can create their own tree maps in partners or small groups.

tree diagram of animal habitats

Another option is to divide the class up into small groups (one group for each habitat) and have each group brainstorm or research animals from their habitat. The groups can then present their list of animals to the class.

Students with special needs or English Language Learners who would benefit from an alternate activity can participate by doing a picture sort to categorize pictures of habitats and animals. We then discuss how the adaptations of animals in each habitat help to meet their needs for food, water, shelter, and safety.

Part 4

Review the lesson vocabulary (habitats, adaptations of animals).

Show the Power Point "Introduction to Animal Adaptations" to your students. This Power Point is designed to get students talking and using higher level thinking skills. For each slide that asks a question, provide ample time for students to discuss their thoughts.


Want the full size Power Point?  Grab it here: “Introduction to Adaptations of Animals” but it is read only (that just means you can't change anything in the presentation but can show it full screen on your Smart Board).


Extension Activities

  • The questions at the end of the Power Point can be turned into a written assessment.
  • Students choose a habitat and create an animal that would be well-suited to live in that environment. Students could choose to draw or make a model of their animal. They would need to justify how their animal has adapted to the environment in which it lives (e.g. – color for camouflage, thick skin or blubber for warmth, etc.). This could be turned into a class book or multimedia presentation for Open House.
  • Another option would be to have students choose an animal and explain how to adapt it to another environment (e.g. – How would a penguin have to change in order to survive in the desert?).

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