A Singing Circle Game about Food Chains, Energy Flow, and the Sun: Hawk in the Nest

Here’s a little circle game that offers youngsters opportunities for coordinated movement, singing, social signaling /choice, and acting even as they learn about food chains (and implicitly, energy transfers across trophic levels).   It’s designed to help them better appreciate some of the characteristics and relationships between diverse species within this biome.  It’s  a playful and celebratory structure that can be readily adapted for other ecosystems and other sets of creatures.

The Hawk in the Nest  

(Previously published in Green Teacher Magazine, Dec. 2009)

Ages:  5 – 10

Performance Expectations:  Students will be able to formulate on their own a realistic food chain starting with a hawk in the NE forests.  Older students will understand and be able to state that the sun’s energy, transmitted in the form of light / electromagnetic waves, powers photosynthesis in plants (and other tiny creatures capable of photosynthesis).  The Sun’s energy is foundational to not only the food chains and food webs of the Northeastern Forestlands, but to almost all life on Earth.  

NGSS Disciplinary Core Ideas:  PS3.A, B, D; PS4.B; LS1.C; LS2.A, B, C; LS4.B, C; ESS1.B

NGSS Practices:  2. Using models; 8. Communicating Information

NGSS Crosscutting Concepts:  1. Patterns; 2.  Cause and Effect:  Mechanism and Explanation; 4.  Systems and System Models, 5.  Energy and Matter:  Flows, Cycles, and Conservation; 7.  Stability and Change

Overview:  Circle games are a tried and true way for a group of people to have fun together.  Here’s a version of ‘The Farmer in the Dell’ that can help children understand how energy flows through a community of living beings.  It’s a singing and choosing game that builds students’ knowledge about food chains within a given habitat while highlighting the vital role of our nearest star – the Sun.

Here are the basics.  Let the players know that this game is somewhat similar to “The Farmer in the Dell.”  The melody of the song is identical – it’s just that the words are different.  To begin, the youngsters join hands and form a large circle.  One person is selected to be the hawk.  The hawk is of course a top predator in one of the many food chains which can be found in the Northeastern United States.  Since Broad-Winged Hawks, with their short, highly maneuverable wings, are especially well suited for life in this region’s mixed hardwood forests, let’s assume this hawk is a member of the Broad-Winged species.  The designated hawk moves into the circle’s center where s/he stands or swoops about being hawk-like while the rest of children (with hands still linked) begin to travel to the left singing, “The hawk in the nest, the hawk in the nest, high-ho the forest oh, the hawk in the nest.”  At the next line, “The hawk takes the – ,” everyone stops circling and listens as Hawk announces what (or rather who) he is having for supper.  If needed, the teacher prompts, “Which creature would a hawk choose – a mouse, a squirrel, a careless sparrow, or perhaps a chipmunk?  Any creature a real hawk in the forest might use for food can be named.”  Students forming the circle can call out menu suggestions to Hawk.  When Hawk has finally made up his mind, he names his choice and leads one student out of the ring and into the center.  In this case, let’s imagine Hawk chooses a deer mouse – a small white-footed rodent who’s very common in forests.  Everyone would sing, “The hawk takes the deer mouse.  The hawk takes the deer mouse.  High-ho the forest oh, the hawk takes the deer mouse.”  The student chosen to be the deer mouse has the option of squeaking and skittering about in the center; in other words, acting very mouse-like .

Next, the people circling sing “The deer mouse takes the -?” and it’s time for Deer Mouse to tell what his /her favorite snack might be.  At this point, youngsters almost invariably call out “Cheese.”  I then explain that today we’re building a forest food chain and we are trying to think about what the animals eat when there are no humans around.  We might discuss the possibility that there could be a careless camper who’s left behind a cheese sandwich, but we try to focus students’ attention on the many varied items that forest mice normally include in their diet.  Given this scenario, let’s suppose that today the deer mouse chooses a crunchy June beetle.  Now the students circle again singing, “The deer mouse takes the beetle, the deer mouse takes the beetle, high-ho the forest oh, the deer mouse takes the beetle.”  Deer mouse goes out to the circling students and chooses one child to be the June beetle, bringing him or her into the circle’s center. Now that everyone knows the game pretty well, someone might call out, ‘Beetle, what are you going to eat?”  And beetle might reply, “an oak leaf.”  Everyone would sing, “The beetle takes the oak leaf.  The beetle takes the oak leaf.  High-ho the forest oh, the beetle takes the oak leaf,” while deer mouse pulls a ‘leaf’ from out of the line of circling singers.

Now it’s time for ‘leaf’’ to choose its food.  This is an essential feature to the game and a key lesson to transmit: whenever a plant or a plant part such as a berry, leaf, or seed is mentioned, then that plant must select the Sun as its food source.  After all, the Sun, our nearest star, is the chief source of the electromagnetic energy that daily pours across our earth.  As such, the Sun powers almost all the food chains and biological energy transfers occurring on this planet.  Plants are essential links in this process since they are the main ones who are able to absorb the sun’s energy and store it in the form of the chemical energy food molecules such as sugars or starches / carbohydrates. They not only make their own food from sunlight but they form the foundation for most of the food /energy pyramids on the earth.  Therefore, whether the child in the center represents an acorn, a milkweed blossom or a bit of maple bark, he or she will still choose the sun as their source of food energy. With this in mind, the children sing, “The plant takes the sun.  The plant takes the sun.  High-ho the forest oh, the plant takes the sun,” and the plant chooses someone to be the sun.  This should be done with great fanfare.  The teacher explains the sun’s role in the food chain as mentioned above and its importance as an immensely powerful source of energy and our closest star.  It is a place where nuclear fusion and fission are constantly occurring, transforming matter into energy and sending vast quantities of light and other types of radiation into space.  With this in mind, the sun is pulled gingerly into the center.  All the other food chain creatures are warned that because the sun is so powerful and so full of energy, they must immediately hurry out of the center to keep from being scorched.  The food chain children break back into the ring of circling children and the circle expands to avoid the scorching sun.  Sometimes, I mention that too much of a good thing, in this case too much sunlight, can be cause problems.  Sunlight sustains all life here on earth but too much sunlight can cause skin cancer!  Other times I might comment that the distant sun is really a big nuclear fusion reactor and that the distant sun is the safest and best place to have nuclear energy.  In any case, after the commotion of the escaping food chain creatures has been resolved and the circle has been enlarged and renewed, the game finishes with the youngsters skipping around the sun singing. “The sun helps feed us all.  The sun helps feed us all.  High-ho the forest oh, the sun helps feed us all.”

And now after giving special thanks to all the food chain creatures for their hard work and to the sun for being such a good star, the explainer urges sun to choose the person who’ll be the next hawk.  And so the game continues…

Of course, there are thousands and thousands of other possible food chains that could be realistically constructed for a forest habitat.  Challenge the group:  How many different chains can they create”  How long a food chain can they build – and fit in their circle?  What about a different top predator, perhaps an owl, a bobcat, or a red fox?

And now that the youngsters know the basics of the game, they can use their own imaginations to think of unique habitats with other food chains within our Temperate Forest biome .  For example, a game for a wetlands habitat might begin with the phrase: “The heron in the marsh, the heron in the marsh.  High-ho the wetlands–oh, the heron in the marsh.”  A possible sequence for a food chain in the marsh might involve the heron capturing a black snake who might take a bullfrog who might take a shiner who might take a tiny floating green single-celled creature, some sort of protist, who in turn would take the sun.  Alternately, they could try “The black bass in the pond … high-ho, freshwater–oh”  or “The sea star in the tide pool … high–ho, the rocky shore.”  Consider the possibilities.

For a gardening class, what about changing the lyrics to something like “The child with her basket, the child with her basket, high-ho, the garden-oh, the child with her  basket…?”  The child in the center would then announce what fruit or vegetable she would like to harvest / take from the  “garden.” of circling children.  Since plants take their energy from the sun, this will be a very short game.  Nevertheless, for the very young who are just learning to circle and sing, and who relish an opportunity to choose a fellow student, this simplicity can be just fine. For a more complex game for older gardeners, why not focus on  decomposers?   Try “The worm in the soil, the worm in the soil,  high-ho, the garden-oh. …”  

And of course if the children are studying other bioregions, it can be fun to create entirely new versions of this game.  There could be “The ‘gator in the swamp…” for a southern wetland or the “The buffalo on the prairie…” for a grasslands biome.  For the neotropical rainforest, you could have “The jaguar in the ferns…” or for the African savannahs, “The lion in the grass…”

Finally, for any of these scenarios, it’s especially fun if the children actually pretend to be the creatures they are representing by using their voices and / or gestures.  Can’t you just see the green frog hopping, the milk snake slithering or the heron stalking?

Circle games – the fun is almost never ending…





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