Patterns in Nature: Similarities and Differences

When we study the characteristics of different organisms, we find patterns of similarity and differences that help us begin to understand how things are related. Such patterns may be useful in sorting and classifying different living things: plants with five petals, animals with four toes, amphibians with a tail, and so on. When we look at a group of organisms, all the spiders, for example, we find that we can learn more about the individual species when we examine how they are alike and different from other members of the group, say, the orb web weavers versus the cob web weavers.

Throughout this yearlong theme, students will examine the characteristics of organisms, paying particular attention to patterns of similarities and differences. They will practice sorting and classifying living things and describing why an organism belongs in a certain group.

NEARBY NATURE – Patterns in Nature

Descriptions of Topics

All Sorts of Insects

Honeybees, grasshoppers and butterflies are all insects, yet they look and behave very differently from each other. So what makes an insect an insect, and how is it different from other animals? Insects all share the same basic design of three body parts, six legs, wings, antennae, and compound eyes. Variations in the size and shape of these parts account for their great diversity. We’ll learn to recognize common groups of insects by their characteristic features and watch them outside as they go about their daily lives.

Leaves: Nature’s Suncatchers

Leaves come in all shapes and sizes, but they share a common function – making food for plants using just sunlight, air and water. We’ll examine the structure of leaves, looking for similarities and differences, sharing and recording observations, and appreciating their color, diversity and importance in our lives.

 Conifer Clues

Contrary to popular opinion, not every evergreen is a pine tree. By looking closely at cones and evergreen branches, we’ll discover seeds, spiral growth patterns and the key characteristics that help identify the common conifers in our neighborhoods and nearby woods.


High in the clouds, water is transformed into snow crystals. As they fall, varying conditions affect their design and rate of growth, making each one unique. Yet snow crystals can be sorted and classified into groups according to the patterns that emerge as the crystal grows. We’ll compare different winter weather conditions, sort snow crystals, create our own snowflakes indoors and out and, if we’re lucky, catch some falling flakes.

Track Detectives


We’d all like to take a walk outdoors and find a deer browsing, a porcupine nibbling bark, or a bobcat stalking its prey. Instead, we are more likely to find only last night’s tracks and traces. Learning to recognize track prints, patterns and sign can provide a glimpse into the lives of animals whose actions are otherwise hidden from us. By focusing on the clues left behind, we can identify the animals around us and tell a story of their activity.

Feathering the Nest

blackcapped chickadee nest

Created in a variety of designs and located in nearly every habitat, bird nests are wonderful examples of how form and function intersect in the natural world. By comparing nest designs, we’ll learn about the nest-makers – their size, habitat and the building supplies available to them. We’ll try our hand at building a nest of our own and gain a greater appreciation for the skills of our feathered friends.

Animal Disguise and Surprise

Think about a katydid on a green leaf, a snowshoe hare hiding on a winter’s day or an orange eft crawling across the forest floor. In order to avoid being eaten, organisms often are shaped or colored to either blend into their surroundings or warn off potential predators. We’ll look at a variety of protective coloration, test its importance to survival and create our own camouflaged critter.

Frogs and Toads

Wetlands come alive in spring as frogs and toads serenade us with their chorus of voices. We’ll learn to distinguish who’s who in our wetlands by studying their pattern of development, observing field marks, and listening closely to their distinct songs. A field trip to a frog pond completes this workshop.

Fiddleheads to Ferns

The arrival of spring is heralded by the appearance of fuzzy spirals poking up through the soil and leaf litter – fiddleheads ready to unfurl into fern fronds. By examining similarities and differences, sorting by leaf design and creating leaf prints, we’ll see how patterns can help us recognize and classify our common ferns.

fern fronds