Learning About Animal and Human Migration

Students can gain a greater understanding of human and animal behavior by studying migration.

By Jacqueline Dwyer

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Animal and Human Migration

Migration is a fascinating aspect of animal and human behavior, and it is an excellent way for students to gain a greater understanding of themselves and the natural world around them. What follows are some suggestions on how to teach students about this topic.

Take a Look at Animal Migration

You can begin teaching students about migration by focusing on animals. Since the reasons for animal migration are as diverse as the animals themselves, you can break down the topic to make it easier to study. One way to do this is to place animals in groups according to whether they migrate by air, sea, or land. Once you have helped students identify how each animal migrates, students can plot each animal's path on a world map. They can attach yarn to the map at the start and end point of each animal's migration. Next, you can ask students to convert the distance each animal traveled into miles, and graph the results.

The Basics of Animal Migration

Most animals rely on their internal biological clock to tell them when it is time to migrate. This can be a difficult concept for younger children to grasp, so take the time to review the seasons, weather patterns, and how the number of daylight hours changes throughout the year.

You can also turn studying migration into a game. My son pretended to be an Arctic Tern and piled on extra layers of clothes. This simulated the large amount of fat the bird stored before his journey. He then navigated through various obstacles in the house until he reached his destination. He shed layers of clothing as he went to show how the bird uses its fat stores as it travels.

Older children might enjoy charting animal migration on a wall map. Students can show how far an animal travels each day by drawing to scale the path each animal takes. You can also teach students how to use equations to calculate speed, and ask them to record how fast a particular animal travels as compared to another.  You can extend the activity further by asking students to determine which animal travels the fastest, and the slowest, while covering the same distance.

The History of Human Migration

Human migration is an interesting topic to study, but it needs to be broken down into manageable sections because it can become overwhelming for students. You can begin by taking a historical look at the first documented movement of people from East Africa to locations throughout the world. This is also a good time to have students start to compile a glossary of terms. Ask them to contribute to it as they go along. I guarantee it will be a useful resource when they have trouble remembering the difference between similar sounding terms, such as emigration and immigration, and internal and external migration. It’s also important for children to understand the reasons why people move from one country to another. My own children divided a piece of paper in two and listed the ‘push’ factors, such as war, famine, and job shortages on one side, and the ‘pull’ factors, such as climate, job, and educational opportunities on the other.

An Appreciation of Different Cultures

In addition to the tangible, measurable effects of migration, you can have students talk about the emotional aspects. You can encourage empathy for, and an appreciation of, different cultures by letting your children examine an immigrant population of their choice. My daughter chose to study Greek immigrants in the U.S. She cut out pictures of Greek women in traditional dress. On separate pieces of paper, each woman “told” the reader about different aspects of Greek culture. She included descriptions of Greek food, literature, music, and dance.

Another child interviewed and recorded the memories of a local deli owner. He then relayed his findings to us. Another student read immigration-related stories in the newspaper. He became interested in the small, but growing, number of second-generation immigrants who are moving, or considering moving, back to their parents' native countries for professional and personal reasons. He made a Venn diagram, noting the reasons people were moving to each country, including such things as job availability, the standard of living, and issues involving ethnicity and heritage. It increased his understanding of human migration and also gave him empathy for the immigrants involved. What follows are more animal and human migration lessons and activities.

Animal and Human Migration Lesson Plans:

Monarch Migration Mapping

Students study the migration patterns of the Monarch butterfly. They listen to a migration story and create a map.

Animal Migratory Patterns

This is a long-term project in which students study the migration patterns of local animal species. They keep a journal to record their findings.

Migration: Reasons to Move

Students look at the various reasons why people move around the world. They interview an immigrant who has moved into their community.