Patterns in Nature: Similarities and Differences


Turkey tracks in the snow (with our dollar)

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.

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Description of the Units in this Concept

Student certificates

Materials to Gather Ahead

Patterns - Children's bibliography

Patterns - Adults' bibliography

Patterns - Nature Journal half-page cover    full page cover (doc)   full page cover (pdf)


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 may vary in appearance and texture, but they all have a common function - to make food for their plant. We'll examine the structure of leaves looking for similarities and differences, share detailed observations, and appreciate our dependence on leaves as food factories.






Cones & Conifers

Cones protect the developing seeds on conifers, and different species have very different looking cones. We can learn to match a cone with the correct conifer branch if we look for similarities and differences. Are there five needles to a bundle? Are the needles flat and flexible? We'll use a key to determine the identity of the common conifers in our area.



A snowflake is an aggregate of ice crystals that has formed while falling from a cloud. Even though each flake is different, they can all be sorted according to some common characteristics. What conditions cause different types of flakes to form? We'll look at different types of winter weather, and, if we're lucky, catch some flakes as they fall from the sky.


Track Detectives


We'd all like to walk out into our backyard and see a deer browsing, a grouse nibbling buds, a cat stalking its prey. Instead, we are more likely to find only last night's tracks. Tracks can provide a glimpse into the lives of animals whose actions are otherwise hidden from us. When we study track prints and patterns, we often can identify who the track-maker was and what the animal was doing as it was passing by.



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. What can we learn about the nest-maker by studying the nest? How big is the bird? What is the bird's habitat? We'll see that building a nest using only your mouth and body is tougher than it appears!


Animal Disguises and Surprises

Think about a katydid on a green leaf or a snowshoe hare hiding on a winter's day. In order to avoid being eaten, organisms often are shaped or colored to blend into their surroundings. We'll look at a variety of these protective adaptations 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 the pond by studying different amphibians and their pattern of development, observing field marks of frogs and toads, and listening closely to their distinct songs. A field trip to a frog pond is a must!


Ferns and Fronds

fern fronds

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