Signs of Fall

Signs of Fall

Students will use their senses to observe signs of fall in the prairie, woodland, and water habitats, identify strategies animals have developed to cope with winter and give examples of animals that use them.


  • Animals- pictures, study skins, puppets (see below)

Introduction: Turn on your Senses

Hearing: Rabbit Ears
Have students cup their hands behind their ears and let them listen for 30 seconds. Have the students share what they heard.

Seeing: Eagle Eyes
Have students make little circles with their thumbs and first fingers and place this in front of their eyes like glasses. Let the students look with their “eagle eyes” and describe the different colors that they see.

Smelling: Fox Noses
Have the students smell the air around them and have them describe how it smells to them.

Touch: Raccoon Paws
Have the students wiggle their fingers. Have them touch their hair, pants, sidewalk, and face. Explain to the students that they will be touching things that are soft, hard, damp, dry, etc.

Students will not be tasting the park today. The only tasting students will do will be eating snacks or picnic lunches.

Discussion: Review the rules for the hike

  1. Stay with your group leader.
  2. Please don’t pick up the plants (leaves and flowers). Explain that the naturalist may do some picking but that the students shouldn’t.
  3. The naturalist will lead the hike and will rotate groups so that each group gets to go first at least once.
  4. Don’t pull on the prairie grasses because they will cut your hands.
  5. Remind the children that they are visiting someone else’s home (all of the plants and animals that live in the park) so they need to treat it with respect.
  6. School rules apply.

Activity (can be done at the beginning or after the hike begins)

What are some signs of fall?
Leaves turning color and falling, cooler weather, shorter days, need to wear warmer clothing like jackets, pants, mittens and hats, school starts, crops are harvested, pumpkins ripen, Halloween, Thanksgiving. Animals also know that fall is here and winter is coming, so today we will learn how animals are getting ready for winter.

Activity: Hike the students through the prairie

Walk the children through the prairie. Walk slowly so that they can really experience walking through a tall grass prairie. Find a place to sit in the prairie. Have students use their ‘rabbit ears,’ ‘eagle eyes,’ and ‘fox noses’ to experience the prairie. Have students describe the prairie (windy, hot, full of grass, noisy, buggy, sunny, etc)

Discussion: Prairie Grasses

Cut examples of switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass. Ask students how they liked walking through the prairie. Explain to them that this is what Iowa looked like long ago when the settlers came in their covered wagons. If they had been a child coming across the prairie, they would have been expected to walk behind the wagon all day. Talk about the three main grasses of the prairie.

Indian Grass– is one of the tall grasses of the prairie. It is also called moustache grass and looks like wheat.

Big Bluestem– gets its name because of its redish-blue stem. Its seed head reminded settlers of the foot of a large bird (show turkey foot). Have students guess. This grass is also called turkey foot grass.

Switchgrass– looks like a small Christmas tree. This grass was found in many of the first schools in Iowa. If children were misbehaving or had not learned their lessons then they might be ‘switched’ with switchgrass. Ask the class if we should send some switchgrass back with their teacher.

Discussion: Prairie animals

The animals of the prairie can be discussed using black bags. Put the animal skin or puppet into the black bag and then have a student come up and place their hand in the bag and describe how it feels, how large they think it is, and try to guess what the animal is. Show the animal and it’s picture after the students have guessed what it is.

Mouse- mice on the prairie are very busy gathering seeds and storing them so that they will have food to eat once the snow comes. Mice are active all winter long.

Caterpillar- caterpillars that change into monarch butterflies. At this time of the year, monarchs will flock together and migrate south to Mexico where there are warmer temperatures. Show the monarch specimen. Can you think of other animals that migrate? (robins, ducks, geese, pelicans, etc)

Groundhog- groundhogs at this time of the year are waddling around because they are so fat. All summer they have been eating and eating so they could put on lots of fat. They need this fat because when it gets colder they will go into their dens and will sleep all winter long. What do we call it when an animal sleeps all winter long? (Hibernation) In the spring, when groundhogs emerge, they are no longer big and fat but are small and skinny. They have had to live off their body fat for the winter.

Continue hiking through the prairie up to the ridge. Allow each group the chance to run through the prairie by having the groups run from the ridge to the sign post at the top of the hill. Have students put on their ‘eagle eyes’ and look across the valley. Have the students describe what they are seeing. Hike to the bottom of the hill and enter the woodlands.

Activity: Sensing the woodlands

At the base of the hill stop the children and have them put on their ‘eagle eyes,’ ‘rabbit ears,’ and ‘fox noses.’ How are the woodlands different from the prairie? (Less grass, more trees, more shade, smells earthy, less wind, cooler, more colorful.)

Discussion: Woodland Animals

Chipmunks- There are many chipmunks here. At this time of the year the chipmunks are very busy preparing for winter. Have the students role play how chipmunks are getting ready for winter.

Gather nuts (students pretend to pick up nuts)
Put them in their den (students pretend to put nuts down)
Repeat this several times
Sometimes chipmunks stop to eat (students should pretend to eat and puff their cheeks out)
Winter comes and its cold and the chipmunks go down into their dens and sleep (students pretend to sleep)
Chipmunks do wake up during the winter (students should pretend to wake up and stretch)
The chipmunks will eat some food (students pretend to eat food)
And then they go back to sleep (students pretend to sleep)
Repeat this waking up, eating and going back to sleep a couple of times. Finally it is starting to get warm and the snow is melting.
Spring is returning and the chipmunks wake up and leave their dens (students should wake up and stretch)
Chipmunks are sleepers. Once the weather turns cold, they will go into their dens and spend the winter sleeping. They wake up periodically to feed but then will go back to sleep. They will emerge from their dens once the weather warms. Seeing chipmunks is a sure sign that spring has come.

Fox Squirrel- fox squirrels are a common animal to see at the park. What are the fox squirrels busy doing in the fall? (gathering and burying nuts so they will have something to eat when winter comes and food is scarce) Often they will bury their nuts next to large trees so that they can find their buried nuts later in the winter. However, squirrels do not remember where they have buried all of their nuts. In spring what happens to those nuts the squirrels didn’t find? (these nuts may sprout and grow into trees)

Optional activity: Fox squirrel song

Fox squirrel, fox squirrel
Shake your bushy tail (students should shake hips)
Fox squirrel, fox squirrel
Shake your bushy tail (students should shake hips)
Crinkle up your little nose ( students point to nose)
Put a nut between your toes (students point to toes)
Fox squirrel, fox squirrel
Shake your bushy tail (students should shake hips)

White-tailed Deer- there are many deer that live here. Deer are herbivores, meaning they eat plants. What do you think the deer are eating during the fall? (acorns, bark, grass) Deer get ready for winter by growing thicker fur. Deer hair at this time of the year is hollow. Hollow hair can trap more air and so keep the deer warmer during the cold winter months.

Take time to pass around the squirrel, chipmunk, and deer fur so that all the students can touch them. After touch time, then hike to the pond and find a place to sit overlooking the pond.

Activity: Sensing the Pond

Have the students put on their ‘eagle eyes,’ ‘rabbit ears,’ and ‘fox noses.’ How is the pond different? Let them share what they are seeing, hearing, and smelling.

What animals might like to live in or near the pond? (fish, ducks, snakes, beavers, muskrats, frogs, turtles, bugs, geese, swans)

What animals might come down to the pond to visit? (deer, people, raccoons, opossums, skunks, song birds, etc.)

Discussion: Pond animals

Turtle- have children look to see if they see any turtles sunning themselves on logs sticking out of the pond. Have the students role play what the turtles do during the winter.

During the fall on a warm sunny day, the water turtles will climb out on logs to soak up the rays of the sun. (pretend to bask in the sunlight)
Once it starts to get colder, turtles will swim to the bottom of the pond. (students pretend to swim)
At the bottom of the pond, the turtles will dig into the mud. (pretend to dig)
Once in the mud, the turtles pull in their legs, arms, tail, and head. (pull in their heads, legs, and arms)
Through the winter the turtle hibernates in the mud at the bottom of the pond.
However, once it starts to warm up then the turtles stick out their legs, arms, head, and tail (students do this)
The turtles dig out of the mud. (pretend to dig)
They swim back up to the surface. (pretend to swim)
Then if it is a sunny day, they will climb out on the logs and soak up the rays. (students bask in the sunlight)

Duck foot- sometimes in the fall we will see ducks on our pond.

What do ducks do during the fall to get ready for winter? (they migrate to warmer areas where the lakes, rivers, and marshes don’t freeze over so they will be able to find food)

Weasel/Ermine- After the students have pulled the skins from the black bags, have the students guess what they are (if children are stumped give them a clue “pop goes the ______”) When would it be best to be a white weasel? During the summer or winter? (winter so that the weasel, also called an ermine, blends into the snow and is well camouflaged. During the summer the brown color also helps to conceal the weasel.

Discussion: The refrigerator

Hike to the clearing, where the sumac grows along the woodland trail. Students should stay on the trail but the naturalist should walk into the clearing. Explain that this is the “refrigerator” Just like your refrigerator at home; this refrigerator has good things to eat for the animals at the park. Many animals including deer and a variety of birds will come to this clearing to feed. Continue walking and find a spot to sit along the ridge.

Wrap Up

Gather group together and review Signs of Fall. Ask what the students liked best on their hike. If the group is big and it takes too much time to ask each student, have the students shout, on the count of three, what their favorite part of the hike was.

Activity provided by:

Story County Conservation Board
Linda R. F. Zaletel
56461 180th St.
Ames, IA 50010
Story County Conservation

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Category: Group Activities

Iowa Early Learning Standards:
8.2, 9.1, 9.3, 9.4, 10.4, 12.4, 12.5, 13.2, 14.3

Related Kindernature Resources: Other Resources: