Top: Figure (photo by Alexas _Fotos via Pixabay)

Setting the Stage

Goldfish in bowl (Photo via iStock)

It is not always easy even for adults to differentiate between living, dead and non-living things. Since scientists do not always agree on a definitive set of characteristics that delineate living from non-living, it should not be surprising that younger students have difficulty differentiating between living and non-living things. Developmentally, young children do not have an internalized understanding of life cycles (e.g., living things are born, live, and die) and so may believe that if something moves, it must be a living thing. By the same token, they may also believe that when something dies it becomes a non-living thing. This inquiry provides opportunities for students to more fully develop a scientific understanding of living (i.e., something that is or has ever been alive) and non-living (i.e., anything that is not now nor has ever been alive) things as they observe and compare and contrast examples of both, then use the information they gather to draw conclusions about the characteristics of living things. For young students, the following ideas should be discussed in a developmentally-appropriate way, to avoid creating misconceptions.

  • Living things need energy to live
  • Living things need to respire
  • Living things need water
  • Living things make waste
  • Living things reproduce/create offspring
  • Living things grow, change, and die
  • Living things respond to changes in their environment

This inquiry could begin from:

  • Questions and/or comments from students about a fish tank or small terrarium set up in the classroom. Discuss using questions such as:
    • What are some things you’ve observed about this environment?"
    • Cover of I am Josephine and I am a living thing by Jan Thornhill (cover image via Let’s Talk Science)

    • What things do you see that are alive? What things are not alive? How do you know?"

  • Reading a book such as I am Josephine and I am a living thing by Jan Thornhill. Discuss using questions such as:
    • What does it mean to be a human being? When you look at the picture of the human beings in the book, how do you think they are all alike? How are they different?"
    • Josephine says she is a living thing. When you look at the picture of living things in the book, why do you think Josephine says she belongs to this group?"
    • How can Josephine be a living thing, an animal, a mammal and a human being all at the same time?"

Materials and Preparation (Click to Expand)


  • Optional: fish environment (bowl, water, stones, living plant [number of plants is dependent on the size of the bowl], goldfish, food for goldfish OR Optional: terrarium environment (pre-made or make your own using a clear glass or plastic container, small pebbles, succulents and/or cacti, potting soil, a spoon or a funnel for placing soil)
  • sets of picture cards depicting living and non-living things (1 set per group)


  • Set up a fish habitat or terrarium (optional). Be sure to include some living (live plants, fish) and non-living (pebbles, shells or small rocks) things for comparison.
  • Prepare sets of picture cards of living and non-living things

What To Do

Students develop and apply the skills of observing, comparing & contrasting and making conclusions as they investigate living and non-living things.


  • Work in small groups to sort and classify picture cards according to whether they think the objects are living or non-living.
    • Educator supports and facilitates discussions as required, using questions such as “I notice that your living things group has some people, some animals and some plants in it. Why did you decide to put them all in the same group?”; “You said that you put the weather vane with the living things group because it can move. What else can the weather vane do that other living things can do?” (e.g., can the weather vane take in food?)

    Chart: Living and Non-Living Things (Image by Let’s Talk Science)

  • Further sort and classify the living things group according to their own criteria.
    • Educator asks questions such as “I notice you put the swan and the cat in the same group. What made you decide to do that?”; “You have put the giraffe and the dog in the same group. Could I add a picture of a tree? Why?” to help students understand that living things can be plants or animals (which includes humans). Some students may make a separate group for humans. Refer back to a book such as I am Josephine and I am a living thing to remind students that humans are also considered part of the animal group. This may become clearer as the group defines what it means to be a living thing.

  • Share their thinking about how to know if something is living or non-living.
    • Educator records students’ thinking and facilitates discussion as required.

  • Determine criteria for classifying something as a living thing.
    • Educator records criteria on a chart.

  • Pick one thing that everyone in the group agrees is a living thing (e.g., a rabbit, a new baby)
    • Educator uses the recorded list to see if the living thing chosen by the group fits the criteria. If, for example, the group agrees that a rabbit will get bigger, it gets a check. If the group does not agree on something, it gets crossed off the list (e.g., a rabbit can talk)
    • Educator facilitates a repetition of the process, picking some living things that would eliminate some of the misconceptions. For example, “I wonder what would happen if we used a plant instead of an animal? What plant shall we choose?” Continue until only the common characteristics of living things are left on the list (e.g., breathe, grow, reproduce)

    Cover of I am a living thing by Bobbie Kalman (Cover image via Open Library

  • Listen to a book such as I am a living thing by Bobbie Kalman. Use this information along with prior knowledge to draw conclusions about what living things have in common.
    • Educator guides the reading and facilitates the discussion, asking students to listen for things that living things have in common that are not already on their list. (Living things are characterized by their ability to take in food to create energy, to respire, to make waste, to reproduce/create offspring, grow and change, and to respond to changes in their environment.)
    • Educator records them on a list

  • Compare living things to nonliving things, using revised list and picture cards of nonliving things
    • Educator facilitates the conversation, asking questions such as “Would we classify a rock as living thing? Why/why not?”


Observe and document, using anecdotal comments, photos and/or video recordings, student’s ability to:

  • Observe - students observe a variety of living and non-living things and record their observations
  • Compare & Contrast - students identify similarities and differences between living and non-living things, drawing on observations and new and prior knowledge
  • Make Connections - students use prior knowledge and information gathered throughout the Inquiry to draw conclusions about the characteristics of living things.

Co-constructing Learning

Saying, Doing, Representing

Educator Interactions:
Responding, Challenging

Students sort and classify images according to whether they are living or non-living things.

  • “I notice that you have grouped all the pictures of people together. Could I add a picture of a cat to that sort? Why or why not?”
  • “Your group was having trouble deciding where to put the pictures of trees and flowers. What were you wondering about them? How did you decide where they belong?”
  • “Some groups put the picture of soil in the living things group, and others put it in the non-living things group. How did your group decide where to put it? What was your thinking about that?”

Students sort and classify images of living things using their own criteria.

  • “What was your sorting rule?”
  • “What are some other ways that you could sort these images?”
  • “When scientists sort and classify living things they sometimes use ‘body parts’ as their sorting rule. How would your sort change if you were to use this as your sorting rule?”
  • “Are people (human beings) part of the animal group? Why or why not?”

Students share their thinking about how to tell if something is living or non-living and make a list of criteria for classifying something as a living thing.

  • “Why did we decide that ‘can talk’ was not a criterion for classifying something as a living thing?”
  • “We all liked “grow and change” as a criterion. Let’s look at these pictures of how a caterpillar changes as it grows into a butterfly, and how frog eggs change as they grow into frogs? Is this still a good criterion? Why or why not?”
  • “Natalie said that plants breathe. Scientists use the word “respire” when they talk about breathing. How can we find out if plants respire?”

Compare a variety of living things to the criteria.

  • “In what ways does the living thing you chose fit the criteria?”
  • “If we are unsure about something fitting the criteria for a living thing, where can we go for help in finding out?”

Draw conclusions about what all living things have in common.

  • “What conclusions can you make after testing our criteria for classifying something as a living thing?”
  • “What do you notice about all of the living things that fit the criteria?” (e.g., living things could be sorted into smaller groups such as plants and animals)

Cross-Curricular Connections


  • Use oral language to explore and develop understanding of ideas and concepts (e.g., the difference between living and non-living things)
  • Use processing skills (e.g., draw conclusions about criteria for living things)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Organize objects into categories by sorting and classifying objects (e.g., sort and classify living and non-living things; further sort and classify living things)

Extending the Learning

If your students are interested in learning more, the following may provoke their curiosity:

  • Some Indigenous peoples believe that the universe and all natural objects within the universe have souls or spirits. This belief says that souls or spirits exist not only in humans but also in animals, plants, trees, rocks, and all natural forces and phenomena such as the rain, sun, stars and moon. In most Indigenous languages, there are no animate-inanimate comparisons between things: all souls are equal to human souls.
    Contact a local Indigenous group to invite an Elder or Traditional Knowledge Keeper into your classroom to share stories about the Sun, the Moon, the water and the land from their cultures. Afterwards, discuss using questions such as:
    • “Are the Sun, the Moon, rocks and water living or non-living things? Why do you think that?”
    • “Many Indigenous people believe that everything in the world has a soul or a spirit. How did the story demonstrate that belief?”
    • "If you believed that everything in the world was living, how would you behave differently?”

    Fish Bowl (Photo by Brenda Helen via UnSplash

  • Students may wish to further explore the fish tank environment in terms of the role the non-living things. Discuss using questions such as
    • “Why did we put the gravel in the fishbowl? What do you think would happen if we took it out?” (Gravel provides a home for beneficial bacteria that are necessary to eliminate waste produced by the fish, leftover food, and plant debris in the aquarium. If the bacteria don't have the gravel to live in they may not reproduce enough to keep the aquarium safe for the fish. The gravel acts like soil for the aquatic plants by providing a place for them to root and grow.)
    • “We added a rock and a model of a sunken ship to our fishbowl environment. Why do you think this is important for the fish?” (Placing objects like rocks in the bowl helps to make the fish feel safer, more comfortable and less stressed. This means the fish are healthier and better able to fight diseases. These objects also encourage fish to behave more naturally and to be more active.)

    Cover of The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (Cover image via Open Library

  • Read a story such as The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “The author writes that the mechanical toys ‘…pretended they were real.’ What do you think the author meant by ‘real’?”
    • “In the story the boy tells his mother ‘he isn’t a toy. He’s real.’ Why do you think the boy would say that?”
    • “Does being ‘real’ mean the same as being a living thing? Why or why not?”