Baby bird eating a fly (photo by khanhlqnhctdt via Pixabay)

Setting the Stage

Cat hunting a mouse (Photo by suju via Pixabay

In a thriving habitat there are organisms (plants) that produce their own food through the process of photosynthesis, called producers. Animals that eat plants and other animals for food are called consumers. The animals that hunt other animals are predators and those animals that are being hunted are their prey. The flow of energy in a habitat can be traced from the Sun to producers and on to consumers, including predators and prey. This flow of energy can be represented in food chains or food webs.

These concepts build on an understanding of animal and plant growth and changes, the needs of living things and the role of the environment in satisfying these needs. This inquiry has students use their questioning skills to identify examples of plants and animals as producers, consumers, predators and prey. Using their prior knowledge of plants and animals in combination with questioning skills, students will create basic food chains that are typical of different types of habitats.

This inquiry could begin from:

  • Questions and/or comments from students about the food gathering, eating and hunting activities of animals they have observed in a local environment (e.g., a cat hunting a bird, a robin finding a worm, a hawk eating a rabbit, a seal eating a fish). Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What was the XXX (animal) eating/hunting? What role did each animal play in the food chain?”
    • “What skills did the hunter need to be successful? What skills did the prey need to be successful?”
    • Cover of Pond Circle by Betsy Franco (Photo by Let's Talk Science)

    • “In how humans obtain food, how do you think we are similar to the hunter? How are we different?”
    • What other types of food does the hunter animal eat?”
  • Reading a book such as Pond Circle by Betsy Franco. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What is interesting about the pattern used in this book? Why do you think the author wrote this book about pond animals in this way?
    • “What type of habitat is represented in this story? Could the animals discussed in this book live in other habitats? Why do you think that?”
    • “What is the impact of animals or plants being able to survive/thrive and find food in more than one habitat? Is this a good or a bad thing? Why do you think that?”
  • Identifying a food that students like to eat and having the students trace the energy flow that brought that food to the table. Introduce terms, such as producer and consumer and have student apply them while describing the energy flow. Discuss using questions such as:
    • “Where does spaghetti come from? What energy went into making wheat for the spaghetti? Is the wheat a producer or a consumer?"
    • “Describe the energy flow to get meatballs to add to the spaghetti. How is the energy pathway the same or different from the spaghetti?"
    • “Which items on our list are called producers? What types of living things are these?”
    • “Which items are consumers? What types of living things are these?” (e.g., animals, humans)
  • Exemplar energy flow organizer (Graphic by Let’s Talk Science)

Materials and Preparation (Click to Expand)


  • Plant and animal pictures for 3-4 different common habitats, 1 picture per student
  • Pieces of rope, string or yarn (about 60 cm each)
  • Open floor space, with room for students to move about


  • Prepare pictures of living things representative of various local habitats. Make sure there is one image for each student in the class. Option: Use the sets of Habitats pictures available on IdeaPark.
  • If students have previously conducted the inquiry on Local Habitats, students could provide the photos they have taken to support this activity.
  • Students could be asked to each contribute one online image of a type of plant or animal they found in the local habitat.

What To Do

Students develop the skills of questioning, sorting & classifying and making connections as they identify the roles and relationships of living things in a food chain.


  • Explore the Question Filter learning strategy.
    • Educator facilitates attaching the images on students’ backs, without the students knowing what their image is.
    • Educator establishes some questioning rules or restrictions, such as:
      • You may not tell anyone what they are. You may only answer questions with a yes or no response.
      • You may not ask, “What am I?” or “Who am I?”, because these are closed-ended questions that give you the exact answer you are looking for. You must use only closed-ended questions that provide a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
    • Educator models various examples of closed-ended questions (e.g., “Do I live in a XXX?”, “Do my babies drink milk?”, “Are my teeth shaped for grinding plants?”, “Can I eat both plants and animals?”).
  • Participate in asking closed-ended (yes/no) questions to find out the ecological role (as a producer or consumer) of the unknown plant or animal on their backs.
  • Note: Open-ended versus closed-ended questions
    An open-ended question is designed to encourage a full, meaningful answer using the subject's own knowledge and/or feelings. It is the opposite of a closed-ended question, which encourages a short or single-word answer.

  • Use their discoveries from the initial round of questioning to sort themselves into a group of producers and a group of consumers.
  • Graphic representing food chains assembled in classroom (Graphic by Let’s Talk Science)

  • Participate in a second round of questioning using the Question Matrix learning strategy to find one energy flow connection (producer/consumer or predator/prey) that exists between two organisms. Once a connection is determined, the pair of students each takes an end of a piece of rope, now making them connected.
    • Educator provides students with a question matrix template or posts the question matrix so that it is visible and can be used for reference.
    • Educator models various examples of higher-order questions (e.g., “What type of environment do I prefer?”“How do I feed my young?”“What foods do I hunt for?”“Would I be described as an omnivore, herbivore or carnivore?”).
    • Educator facilitates student questioning, ensuring they are asking higher-order questions.
  • In connected pairs, students use prior knowledge and new learnings to find other pairings (producer/consumer or predator/prey) that logically connect to their pairing to form the longest food chain possible. Once a connection is determined for the pairs, use another piece of rope to show how they are interconnected in a food chain. Option: An image of the Sun could be placed on a table or chair in the middle of the room and the assembled food chains could orient themselves to show the energy flow from the Sun.
  • Carefully examine their food chains to determine if unconnected pairs are part of a food chain that is even bigger.
  • Describe their food chain, explaining how energy moves up through the chain.


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

  • Ask Questions - students ask a variety of closed-ended and open-ended questions to solve a sorting and classifying problem.
  • Sort & Classify - students use information gathered through questioning to sort and classify organisms into appropriate food chains.
  • Make Connections - students use their prior knowledge and new understandings to apply to new concepts and contexts (e.g., using prior knowledge of needs of living things and new understandings about predator/prey and consumer/producer relationships, students create food chains/webs representative of specific habitats).

Co-constructing Learning

Saying, Doing, Representing

Educator Interactions:
Responding, Challenging

Students ask closed-ended questions to determine ecological roles (producers vs. consumers).

  • “How could you change that question to make the answer be a yes or no response?”
  • “How can you ask a yes-no question that gets you even more specific information?”
  • “What do you need to know to determine if an organism is a producer? What do you need to know to determine if an organism is a consumer?”

Students sort and classify living things into groups of producers and consumers.

  • “What evidence have you found out that you are a producer/consumer?”
  • “Looking at the pictures on others’ backs, what different ecosystems could be represented?”
  • “Was it easier to determine the organisms that are consumers or producers? Why do you think this was the case?”

Students ask a variety of higher-order questions to find specific energy flow connections that exist between two organisms (e.g., producer/consumer and predator/prey connections).

  • “What characteristics could you ask about that will help define the organism as a predator?”
  • “What do you need to know to determine if XXX is both a predator and prey?”
  • “Could an animal prey on more than one other organism? How could change your question to find out that information?”

Students sort and classify living organisms into producer/consumer and predator/prey pairings.

  • “Why are some organisms both plant consumers and predators? What problem does this create in pairing the organism with another?”
  • “Why did you choose this pairing for XXX?”
  • “These two people have already formed a predator/prey pairing? Which other organisms could also work with XXX to form a pair?”

Students connect prior knowledge and new concepts to sort and classify producer/consumer and predator/prey pairings into food chains representing different types of habitats.

  • “What do you already know about this plant/ animal that will help you place it into a food chain?”
  • “Which other living things could be included in a food chain in a XXX habitat?”
  • “What additions could you make to this food chain to include more links and make the chain even longer?”

Cross-Curricular Connections


  • Use familiar words and phrases to communicate relevant details (e.g., about plant-animal interactions and connections in food chains)
  • Use appropriate vocabulary (e.g., when discussing roles and relationships in food chains and food webs)

Mathematical Thinking

  • Compare, describe, and order objects (e.g., when connecting living things in a food chain in a habitat)

Dramatic Arts

  • Use the elements and conventions of drama to communicate feelings, ideas, and stories (e.g., representing a food chain by assuming a role as a producer, consumer, predator or prey)

Extending the Learning

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

Ecosystems can be disrupted because something is removed from the food chain. This can happen because of over-hunting, disease or environmental pollutants introduced into a habitat. But sometimes the food chain is disrupted by something being added – an invasive species - that doesn’t naturally belong.

  • Read a book such as Sooper Yooper: Environmental Defender by Mark Newman (available at Discuss using questions such as:
    • “What are some of the environmental dangers Billy Cooper is fighting in the Great Lakes?”
    • “What message is the book trying to give us?” (Everyone can be a superhero and help keep our environment clean and safe.)
    • Working with a partner, pick an invasive species to investigate from those mentioned in the book or from the list below. Research to find out all you can about them and share your findings. Some Invasive species in Canada:
      • Asian carp
      • European green crab
      • Emerald Ash Borer (photo by Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources via Wikipedia Commons

      • Purple loosestrife
      • Zebra mussel
      • Sea lamprey
      • Emerald ash borer
      • Didymo
      • Gypsy moth
      • Asian long-horned beetle
      • Round goby

    • Using book writing software (e.g., Storyjumper), students could write their own book about the invasive species they have investigated.

  • Explore a food chain issue that is newsworthy in your local region or province (e.g., invasive species and activities to reduce their impact, loss of natural habitats due to city expansion, draining of wetlands, ecosystems remediation efforts, etc.).
    Consider various perspectives in your exploration (e.g., the perspective of developers, business owners and/or new home buyers; the perspective of farmers and nursery crop growers).

Satellite Image of the City of Toronto, Ontario (photo by NASA via Wikipedia Commons