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Study the Water Cycle with Terrariums: Lesson Plan for Middle School

An Open And Closed Terrarium


Terrariums are fascinating tools for the study of ecosystem principles with children. A number of ecosystem types can be created depending on plant choice and as they can be easily constructed as a closed system, they make the perfect living system for studying concepts such as the water cycle. Terrariums are extremely simple to make and thus they are very suitable for scientific inquiry at even a young age. Because of their simplicity, students with some basic lab safety preparation can get their hands dirty and create their own living experiment.

Study The Water Cycle With Terrariums Lesson Plan

Title: Study the Water Cycle with Terrariums

Overview: Students will create their own terrariums to investigate the stages of the water cycle and to observe the effects of this cycle on plant growth.

Subjects: Science, Language, Math

Grade Level: Grades 6-8, However, this lesson could be modified for grades from 3 to 8 varying the level of observations collected.

Suggested Time:

  • Monitoring of the terrariums will cover two to three weeks including one 40 minute science block to set up habitats and 5-10minutes daily in order to observe plant growth for changes.
  • Five 40 minute science blocks; two or three 40 minute language blocks


  • two suitable containers per group or for class set of terrariums
  • gravel
  • activated charcoal
  • sterile potting soil
  • seeds of fast germinating plants (eg. radish, lettuce, beans)
  • plastic wrap and wide tape (or rubber bands) or lid for one container
  • two thermometers (strip thermometers which can be adhered to inside side of terrarium would work best)
  • worksheets


  1. Identify the stages of the water cycle.
  2. Explain each stage of the water cycle.
  3. Students will make connections between the various stages of the water cycle.
  4. Students will learn that water moves on earth in a continuous cycle.
  5. Students will participate in the making of a terrarium using safe lab practices.
  6. Students will formulate a hypothesis and observe the world from a scientific perspective.
  7. Students will develop inquiry skills by observing, analyzing and recording data of their daily observations at an appropriate level of precision and in an organized manner.
  8. Students will communicate the results of their investigation using age appropriate language, vocabulary and technology and tools.

On-line Resources:

Order of Activities:

  1. Watch the You Tube video, "Water Cycle Song". Together read the "Water Cycle Reading Activity" and then have them fill-in the "Water Cycle Worksheet" provided below. This same video can be played while making the terrariums and at various times during the observation process as it is a great tool for learning the vocabulary and processes involved in the water cycle.
  2. As a class, discuss the various forms of water - rain, sleet, snow, ice, vapor - in the environment. Link those forms to how they are created during the processes of evaporation, condensation and precipitation.
  3. On the smart board or overhead, post the instructions for making the terrarium. A reference site, instructions and class checklist are provided below.
  4. After cleanup, emphasize with the students that they will observe their terrariums every school day for the next two to three weeks. A student observation chart is provided below. Provide the chart to the students along with the Lab Report work sheet and discussion questions they will answer at the end of the observation period.
  5. Students will complete a quiz on water cycle vocabulary around day 3 of observations.
  6. During the middle of the second week, have the class watch the second video provided and complete a water cycle diagram.
  7. On the last day of observations, allow each group time to work on the conclusion, discussion and application questions. Each group will also graph the temperature data for each terrarium having date on the x-axis and temperature on the y-axis. Data for both terrariums are to be presented on the same graph. Access to computers and internet would be helpful at this time. This part may take two or three 40 minute periods.
  8. Allow each group time to prepare a presentation to present their results to the class. They may choose traditional bristol board presentation or a power point presentation.
  9. Students will write a Water Cycle Test

Activities to be Evaluated:

  1. Water Cycle Quiz 1
  2. Water Cycle Lab Report
  3. Water Cycle Presentation
  4. Water Cycle Test

Activity 1: Water Cycle Song Video

Activity 1: Water Cycle Reading

Water cannot be created or destroyed. The water found on earth today is the same water present since earth's beginnings. The water cycle or hydrogeological cycle forms an immense circulation system continually recycling water. It operates in the atmosphere as well as on earth's lands and water bodies.

Scroll to Continue

The sun's energy is the driving force of the water cycle. The sun's energy causes the evaporation of water. As the water vapor rises, it cools and condenses into back into liquid water droplets. High up in the atmosphere, these droplets collect together to form clouds. When enough droplets have collected, gravity is the driving force causing the droplets to fall back to the earth as precipitation: rain, snow, sleet or hail. Some of the water sinks into or perclates into the earth. Some makes its way into bedrock and becomes stored in aquifers. Some water becomes runoff, traveling along the soil's surface back into water bodies. Plants lose water vapor through pores in their leaves. This loss of water vapor is called transpiration.

Water can travel many paths. Water can evaporate from an ocean and return to that same ocean as precipitation. Water can evaporate from that same ocean and travel many miles across the landscape, falling on a mountaintop thousands of miles away. This same water may eventually reach that same ocean through streams and rivers.

Water Cycle Worksheet

Using the Water Cycle Reading, complete the definition of the listed water cycle terminology.
























hydrogeological cycle

Activity 3: Instructions For Creating The Terrarium

In order to complete this lesson, your students will need to produce two terrariums for each working group or alternatively you could make two terrariums for the class and have each group make daily observations. For group terrariums, the students could use two large jars (they should be the same to maintain similar conditions for each terrarium), or two 2L plastic pop bottles. If you are a creating one set of terrariums for your class, then the same materials could be used or two same sized aquariums could be utilized to increase the number of students viewing at once.

Please see my hub describing the creation of a terrarium, How To Make Glass Container Terrariums . Use these instructions for creating both your terrariums with the following modifications:

  1. One terrarium will be an open terrarium having no cover.
  2. The second terrarium will be a closed terrarium and will have a cover, either the lid from the jars used or plastic wrap taped securely onto the opening.
  3. If using 2L plastic pop bottles, cut the top off of the bottles to create a larger opening to more easily pour in the gravel and soil. The top of the closed terrarium in this case would be sealed using plastic wrap.
  4. Instead of using mature plants, you will be planting seeds in your terrariums to observe the effect of the water cycle on plant growth.
  5. One thermometer will be secured to the inside of each terrarium, just suspended above soil level, so that the temperature of each can be recorded every day.
  6. If a sunny spot out of direct sunlight is not available in your classroom, an artificial light source may be used.

Prior to beginning:

  • Students will read together the terrarium checklist.
  • They will discuss safety rules.
  • They will be informed of the materials they will use.

While students are making their terrariums, the teacher will circulate to ensure proper procedures are followed and any special needs are being addressed.

Terrarium Construction Checklist


Activity 4: Charts For Daily Recording Of Terrarium Observations

 Closed TerrariumOpen Terrarium




On which part of the jar do you see water?



Signs of plant growth?



Temperature inside the jar?



Other observations



Daily drawing of terrarium - include level of plant growth and areas of moisture.






On which part of the jar do you see water?



Signs of plant growth?



Temperature inside the jar?



Other observations



Last Day Observation

Closed TerrariumOpen Terrarium

Take the plastic wrap or lid off of the closed terrarium. What does the soil feel like for each terrarium?









Activity 4: Lab Report Work Sheet

Purpose: To determine the effects of a closed system on the circulation of water in an ecosystem.

Hypothesis: If the soil remains damp and the seeds germinate and grow well, then the water cycles most efficiently in the open/closed (choose one) terrarium.

Materials: As provided in hand-out.

Method: As provided in hand-out.

Observations: See Charts below.

Conclusion: Students will state whether or not their hypothesis was supported by their observations and provide a summary of the supporting observations.

Discussion: Answer these questions for each terrarium.

  1. Did any water evaporate from the soil? Why do you think so?
  2. If water evaporated, where did it go?
  3. Did it rain in either terrarium? How do you know?
  4. If it did rain, where did the water come from?
  5. Is there anything in your terrariums that reminds you of a cloud?
  6. In the terrarium with the damp soil, why was it still damp?
  7. Did the seeds germinate in both terrariums? If so, how well did the plants grow in each terrarium?
  8. Did you observe a cycle of events in either terrarium? If so which terrarium and what were those events?
  9. Was there temperature change differences between the closed and open terrariums?
  10. If so, how were they different and what accounts for this difference?


  1. What happened in the terrariums? Why?
  2. What changes were observed over the two weeks?
  3. How do these changes demonstrate how the water cycle works?
  4. Why was the temperature higher in one terrarium than the other? Investigate on the internet if you need help with this one!

Video To Watch For Completion Of Water Cycle Diagram

Activity 6: Water Cycle Diagram

Water Cycle Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. The water cycle consists of the following processes:
    • evaporation, precipitation, condensation, runoff, decomposition
    • evaporation, decomposition, irrigation, condensation, runoff
    • evaporation, precipitation, condensation, runoff, percolation
  2. The water cycle is powered by the:
    • moon
    • sun
    • batteries
  3. Condensation forms this feature in the atmosphere:
    • water vapor
    • oceans
    • clouds
  4. This force causes precipitation to reach the earth:
    • gravity
    • kinetic energy
    • infiltration
  5. Evaporation is:
    • the cooling of water vapor to form liquid water droplets.
    • the movement of water down a surface back into water bodies.
    • the heating of liquid water into water vapor.
    • the absorption of water into the ground to form groundwater.
  6. Runoff is
    • the cooling of water vapor to form liquid water droplets.
    • the movement of water down a surface back into water bodies.
    • the heating of liquid water into water vapor.
    • the absorption of water into the ground to form groundwater.
  7. Condensation is
    • the cooling of water vapor to form liquid water droplets.
    • the movement of water down a surface back into water bodies.
    • the heating of liquid water into water vapor.
    • the absorption of water into the ground to form groundwater.
  8. Percolation is
    • the cooling of water vapor to form liquid water droplets.
    • the movement of water down a surface back into water bodies.
    • the heating of liquid water into water vapor.
    • the absorption of water into the ground to form groundwater.
  9. Precipitation in the water cycle can be in the following forms:
    • snow, pebbles, rain
    • hail, sand, rain
    • snow, hail, rain
  10. The movement of water around the earth
    • relies on a constant supply of water from space.
    • forms a continuous cycle.
    • will stop when we have used up all of the earth's water supply.

Answer Key

  1. evaporation, precipitation, condensation, runoff, percolation
  2. sun
  3. clouds
  4. gravity
  5. the heating of liquid water into water vapor.
  6. the movement of water down a surface back into water bodies.
  7. the cooling of water vapor to form liquid water droplets.
  8. the absorption of water into the ground to form groundwater.
  9. snow, hail, rain
  10. forms a continuous cycle.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Moira Durano-Abesmo from Sagay, Camiguin, Philippines on November 04, 2013:


Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on November 03, 2013:

Moira, an orchid mix often contains activated charcoal. Otherwise you can probably create a successful experiment without it. Just be careful not to overwater your terrariums!

Moira Durano-Abesmo from Sagay, Camiguin, Philippines on November 03, 2013:

Hello Teresa! I'll be discussing Ecosystems two weeks from now and I'd like to do this activity. However, activated carbon is hard to come by in my city. What alternative can you suggest?

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on November 17, 2012:

Thanks watergeek I appreciate the link and will do likewise. I'm glad you found it interesting!

Susette Horspool from Pasadena CA on November 16, 2012:

Hi Teresa - This looks like an interesting experiment for kids. I'm going to link this hub to the one I just wrote for adults, in case they want to try the experiment themselves (lol).

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 22, 2012:

So glad you enjoyed it and that it brought back pleasant memories pstraubie48!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on September 22, 2012:

The kids really like the whole process involved in terrariums. When I taught middle school, it was one of the favorite things we did each year.

thanks for sharing an exciting and interesting lesson plan.

Teresa Coppens (author) from Ontario, Canada on September 22, 2012:

Thanks Billy. I always like students to get their 'hands dirty' in science class. They learn so much better by doing!

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 21, 2012:

I used this many times over the years in my classes; great lesson plan!

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