Ocean Life Lesson Plans

Students learn about life in the ocean with lessons that connect science, art, and environmental topics.

By Jennifer Sinsel


ocean life lesson plans

The Earth stands out from the rest of the planets in our solar system because more than 70% of our surface is covered with water.  By far, most of this water is found in Earth’s oceans – home to a wide variety of life forms for the past three billion years.  Many students are fascinated by the mysteries of the ocean, its hidden depths, and the science fiction-like creatures that inhabit it.  One of the most popular projects within my marine unit involves the study of ocean life.    

The three main groups of marine life are plankton, nekton, and benthos. Organisms are placed into one of these groups according to where they live and how they move. Plankton are organisms that float at or near the ocean’s surface, and are often divided into two groups:  phytoplankton (plant-like) and zooplankton (animal-like). Nekton are free-swimming creatures, such as whales, sea lions, and sharks.  Benthic organisms live on the ocean floor and include kelp, crabs, starfish, clams, and sea anemones.

Many of these organisms are in danger due to pollution of our oceans. Ocean pollution includes oil spills, industrial waste, and debris such as plastic that can be mistaken for food or cause animals to become entangled and die. One way to integrate the concepts of pollution and ocean life involves creating a “Marine Life Mural” in your classroom. 

Several days before the activity, ask students to bring in materials that are commonly found washed up on beaches. Examples include plastic bottles, bottle caps, string, rope, plastic soda rings, aluminum cans, empty lighters, old light bulbs, and old toys.  Obtain three large sheets of blue butcher paper and label them Plankton, Nekton, and Benthos. Students can use the recycled materials to create ocean creatures and glue them in the correct locations.  In my classroom, plastic sacks have become jellyfish, pop bottles transform into fish, bottle caps become clams, and multitudes of plastic soda rings are cut and painted to look like seas of kelp. Each organism can be labeled with its name and, depending upon which concepts you are studying, additional terms such as producer and consumer.  Students love the connection to art, and the hands on aspect of the lesson really cements terminology in their minds. In addition, by collecting recycling materials that can harm sea life allows students to make a small difference in protecting Earth’s oceans!

Ocean Life Lesson Plans:

Ocean Life Food Web  Students construct a food web representative of the Gulf of California. They use pictures to depict all of the organisms in the appropriate level of the web (producer, primary consumer, etc.)

The Great Plankton Race  Students construct plankton models from materials of various shapes and densities to simulate adaptations that slow sinking. They race their models and calculate sinking rates. They discuss the importance of these small sea creatures.

The Water Column: Where Do Ocean Animals Belong?  Students examine three broad ocean habitats-the intertidal zone, the open ocean, and the abyss-and find out about some specific adaptations animals have made in each of these regions. They design games to help other students match species to their ocean.

Human Disturbance of Marine Environments Students conduct three different hands-on experiments that demonstrate some of the threats to marine ecosystems. They discuss their findings with the class and ways to combat the problems.

Elementary Science Guide

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Jennifer Sinsel