Beavers are a true keystone species in our region. They transform small forest streams into sunny ponds that provide habitat for both their families and a wide variety of other plants and animals. At the same time, beavers’ homesteading results in the recharge of water tables and the reduction of erosion and sudden flooding events along major rivers. Their activities ultimately produce a patchwork of sediment-rich, biodiverse beaver meadows and wetlands all across the Northeastern Woodlands.
These fellows, whose scientific name is Castor canadensis, are the largest and most intelligent rodents in North America. They live for up to fifteen years and can weigh up to 50 pounds. They participate in complex family lives, and are monogamous. Their engineering accomplishments are the direct outgrowth of their durable, cooperative family structures. Bachelor beavers do not build dams. Instead, they range about looking for food, new dwelling places, and a partner. Once paired, the beavers can share the work of impounding streams, storing food, and constructing elaborate lodges to shelter babies (all parts of ”niche construction.’) Young beavers are blind and very helpless at birth. They need to spend at least two years with their parents’ for nurture, learning, and protection. During these years, they acquire skills for building and maintaining dams and lodges, harvesting bark from trees, avoiding enemies, and and even caring for the young. (Yearling beavers are actively involved in tending their baby brothers and sisters.)
In this project (probably best for 6 to 9 year olds), your students can imagine and express some of their understandings of the results of these animals’ activity: “what it all looks like.” A 3-D visual arts project like this offers both time for quiet reflection and assimilation/ accommodation of new information, and also very tangible motor and aesthetic challenges. The basic instruction is simply, “Design an ideal wetlands habitat for a family of beavers.” Encourage the youngsters to add additional plants and animals to the basic few pictured here. Maybe they’ll want to make a habitat to take home and share with their own family. Perhaps, they’d like to work together – and this might take the form of someone who’s “good at drawing and cutting out hawks” trading them with their friends who have similar skills regarding the drawing of bears. Alternately, the variation might be a simple collaboration of two or three children building one habitat diorama. An art project like this can work for youngsters who would like to be talkative and social at this particular time of their day, or for those who prefer a more contemplative, silent approach. Just be attentive to your youngsters and suggest folks move around to different tables and spaces as appropriate. Be prepared for surprises such as a request to gather twigs and use modeling clay for building the dam and lodge, or a call for construction paper for a collaged river and fish. I truly hope you’ll be able to endorse such innovations.
In terms of foundational science knowledge, try to help your students understand the role that ‘keystone species’ such as beavers play in sculpting N.E. forest biomes. Note how they transform their physical environments and enable other creatures to flourish (including a wide array of wetland plants and invertebrates – not just mammals and birds, etc.) Despite their small numbers, beavers make it possible for certain distinct constellations of living beings to thrive in ways that would be impossible were these ‘keystone species’ eliminated. They significantly affect the hydrology and soil formation processes that occur in the N.E. forests. You might mention additional keystone species in other regions such as elephants, prairie dogs, corals, or wolves to name a few. If your class is ready to consider this, you might even mention us humans. How can we live our lives so that it will be possible for other earthly creatures to continue living well on this beautiful planet?
Here’s the PDF for this diorama.EB Beaver Family Diorama
On this website, you’ll also find several lively games related to beavers including a singing, circle game for K – 3rd graders which features an acting and guessing component . It’s called “When the Beavers Build their Dam.” There’s also a chasing and collecting game that would work well with this project for 3rd and 4th graders. It’s called “Parental Care,” and is actually suitable for older students too. Those games are described in a pdf accessible on a page titled Natural Start Alliance Conference: Traditional Games Workshop – A Draft of the Activities Collection “Circling the Sun, Racing the Wind.” The playing descriptions also include correlations to the Next Generation Science Standards. An audio version of a melody for the game “When the Beavers Build their Dam,” is available separately on the page titled “Natural Start Alliance Conference Traditional Games Workshop – Song Lyrics and Melodies ‘There”s a Mosquito in these Woods’ and ‘When the Beavers Build a Dam.’ ” Combining visual arts projects with a field trip and a lively game or two can create a very enjoyable and memorable learning experience for all involved!