Pond Pockets: Sunfish, Painted Turtle, Damselfly, and More!

This is a simple but enjoyable (and instructive) activity that helps focus youngsters’ attention on the wonderful creatures who live and thrive in fresh, unpolluted water. From sunfish to damselfly larvae, from tadpoles to turtles, all kinds of amazing beings make their homes in ponds and wetlands. Try this project after a visit to such a beautiful place. You’ll be creating a versatile little pouch in which youngsters can store and carry home images of various creatures that they might encounter in such a biome. This project can be augmented and customized in many ways, a few of which will be described later.

Hopefully, this activity will be proceeded by a ‘field trip’ that offers time to explore, observe, discuss, and perhaps even catch (and release) a few of the creatures. Now the children can return to their campground or school to make this project that will ideally help them better remember the living beings that they’ve met.

(And by the way, the best field trips are, in my opinion, those that offer participants opportunities to reflect quietly, to explore for a while on their own, to listen to the birds and the wind, and to imagine. Often, they’ll include time for music and an active game, or for a poem or legend to be read or retold for that particular occasion under the sky. Ideally, such field trips are structured so that the children themselves can share with their peers and older teachers their particular discoveries – even as those discoveries are happening. And then, at the conclusion of the adventure, verbal or visual accounts of the day are constructed to aid in memory and social expression. )

Here you can see some of the supplies and a completed Pond Pocket in the center.
The ‘Golden Guides’ from St. Martin’s Press are outstanding references and I heartily recommend them for classroom and field trip use!
In this view, you can see how a sponged pond pocket looks after it has been folded up along the dotted line, and just before the glue is applied along the two vertical edges of the ‘water.’ There is a space for students to add their names to the upper right corner.

In this case, following some time passed near a wetland or school water garden, the youngsters are invited to create a small pretend pond, lake, or pool by folding and glueing a sheet of paper. Next, they can fill the ‘pond’ with little paper cut-outs of creatures that might be living there. For this activity, we’ve included a very basic Pond Pocket page to color and fold. It is decorated with cattails and tree swallows, two common species of wetland in the Northeastern Woodlands of N. America. The page also features a scalloped edge that can be trimmed to represent the little waves that moving air temporarily creates on the water’s surface. If the youngsters are quite young, you or another helper could cut out this page for them or you could advise them to simply skip the waves and cut smoothly from one side to the other – as if the wind were not blowing at all and water was very still (please demonstrate to them how to do this as well as using verbal instructions.) Yet another variation would be to substitute a piece of plain paper for the pond. Many four-year-olds will be able to fold the lower part of the paper up (leaving some extra paper at the top uncovered for carrying). They can then use glue sticks or paste to join the edges of the two vertical sides together to form a serviceable pocket. The cutting, folding, glueing, and transforming are all excellent exercises for slightly older youngsters. Such activities do indeed help develop good fine motor hand and eye construction skills – as well as perseverance. That said, please keep in mind that this project could be a little challenging for some youngsters whose capacities in such areas might be slower to mature. Just help such individuals as unobtrusively as possible, or encourage other students at their tables to lend a hand, or do the project with older ‘buddies’ if you think most of your students might find this overly frustrating. When the various steps have been completed, encourage the children to use their imaginations and pretend that these pockets represent the underwater world of a freshwater pond.

Perhaps the youngsters will next transform their ponds into more complex blue green realms using sponges pressed into stamp pads or dipped into thin films of tempera (or watercolors) on palettes that you – or they – have prepared.  The blue color could represent / symbolize liquid water, and the green could represents the tiny microscopic beings who are photosynthesizing. These microorganisms might include the cyanobacteria or protists who are busy capturing solar energy and filling the ponds with life, extra oxygen, extra carbon dioxide, and energy-rich substances such as bits of protein, sugar, fat, and starch. 

Depending upon your students age and interest, you might mention to them (as they prepare to sponge paint) that these little green, single-celled beings (who are far too tiny for us to see without special devices such as microscopes and compound magnifying lenses) can only exist because they’re able to harness some of the Sun’s precious light energy. These single celled organisms use this light energy (also known as electromagnetic energy) to put together / craft nutritious food molecules.  This process is called “photosynthesis” – from the Greek words meaning “putting together with light.” Thus, the activities of these tiny beings form the basis for the energy chains and food webs in the pond or stream. (All of which just shows that even small creatures can be very important!) Indeed, these tiny, floating, photosynthesizing bacteria and protists, together with their larger green relatives (the multicellular plants such as cattails, pond lilies, elodea, bladderwort, etc.) are providing the food (i.e. the stored chemical energy and needed materials) that will eventually sustain all the other varied beings living in this biome. They essentially are making food from sunlight that will eventually be providing food / nourishment to all the other living beings – from single-celled organisms who can’t photosynthesize to the larger, more easily observed wetland creatures such as herons, beavers, frogs, fish, and salamanders.

Line drawings of some of these bigger animals can be found on the other page / pdf of this project. These images will look much more lively once the youngsters have colored or painted them and carefully cut them out. (Remind them they’re welcome to cut the creatures out with bubbles of blank paper surrounding their actual forms. Part of the usefulness of this activity is that it provides an opportunity for children to think about visual and motor strategies for generalizing and approximating space around complex smaller parts. Some students might include the names of the beings as well as their outlines. ) The completed creatures can then be stowed away within the depths of the “pond” to be carried home. Later, the children can ask family member to GUESS who lives in these little wetland habitats. (They can also ask younger children in another class or on the bus-ride home to try the same.) Students should be encouraged to dramatically extract the various beings hidden in the “water,” once the correct names are provided. Alternately, the challenge might be for their friends to identify each creature as the first student lifts creature it out of the ‘pond.’ In this way, youngsters can review with others the names of some of the pond dwellers and perhaps begin larger conversations about wetland biomes. For older children, you might use the word “habitat” to describe the pond, but be aware that such a word will not convey the cozy feeling that “home” evokes, and thus is less helpful in nurturing empathy.

By the way, the second page of the project does contain one flowering aquatic plant amid the array of animals. This is an odd little plant that is both an autotroph and a heterotroph. It’s a type of bladderwort (my best guess is that it’s a specimen of Intermediate Bladderwort) and it grows in New Hampshire’s ponds and lakes. Interestingly, it is capable of trapping and digesting small organisms in the pouch-like protuberances that grow on some of its floating branches. Thus it could occupy two tiers on an energy pyramid diagram!

And of course, this basic activity could be improved in many ways. What if the youngsters drew and colored their own creatures? What if they cut out other drawings or photographs from magazines or calendars of freshwater wetland species? What if they drew pictures or assembled photographs of the beings to be found in a rocky Atlantic seacoast tide pool and designed a pocket to represent the tidal zone.

Another art alternative: Could the students make their ponds / folders / envelopes from sheets of swirling, patterned paste papers? Paste papers are made using rice paste and tempera or acrylic paint which is then patterned by drawing combs through the thick colored paste when it’s first wet. In this case, the children would have the fun of creating beautiful paste papers even as they learned about yet another use for rice – that famous water-loving plant that has been feeding people all across the globe for thousands of years.

This project could also be conducted as a team effort. The children could fold bigger sheets of colored paper into much larger “lakes,” “ponds,” “tide pools,” or “salt marshes” and then fill those with cut-out representations of a wide array of species who are adapted to the unique habitat that they are studying.

From my perspective, projects like these can be very helpful teaching tools. As long as your students are learning about the marvelous world of nature, developing their own kinesthetic and aesthetic capacities, sharing their discoveries with others, and having fun in a constructive and prosocial way, then these enterprises (with their many variations) are highly worthwhile.