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How To Teach the Water Cycle

by Sarah K Major February 03, 2016

How To Teach the Water Cycle

Visuals, stories and body motions work wonders in helping children learn to read, but honestly, they are stellar vehicles for teaching anything! One of the fun-est times I've had in the classroom was the day we studied the water cycle in first grade. You know – condensation, precipitation, and evaporation. Those words are so great for 6-year-olds! In our day of tiny URLs, we would likely want to shorten them to “cond,” “precip” and “evap.” But until that new terminology becomes standard, we will have to continue to use the elaborate, scientific words. 

How to teach the water cycle

Oh, wow, another concept for kids to just memorize, right? I remember learning these terms when I was little and seeing a full-color illustration in my science book with swishy blue arrows superimposed on the picture to show the sun heating up the water and making it rise to form a cloud, and then the clouds with their gray bottoms beginning to shed rain on the ground. The illustration worked ok, obviously, since I can still see it in my mind, although I can’t recall how old I was when I really could casually insert those big words into conversation.

What We Did in Our First Grade Classroom

It was afternoon, time for science, and my first graders had had lunch, outdoor recess in hot weather, and frankly, they were NOT in a frame of mind to hear “Students, open your science books to page 248. When you have found the page, look up at me so I will know you are ready.”

Impulsively, I had the kids move to the open part of the classroom. We put the chairs into a circle with a large opening on the side. At the opening of the circle was one student chair for me to use. The minute I stood on the chair, all eyes snapped wide open and attention was riveted on me. Kids were engaged by the novelty of the situation, and they were primed to learn. I told the kids we were going to act out the water cycle and would be learning three really big words at the same time, all of which ended with “ation” as in the word “nation.”




The Skit

I informed the children that they were going to be the drops of water, and I was going to be the sun, which is exactly why I was up on a chair. I instructed them to lie prostrate on the ground: “Make like you’re a lake,” I said. When everyone was making like a lake on the floor, I stood up on my tiptoes on the chair and spread my arms and fingers out as widely as I could, imitating the rays of the sun. I boomed, “I am the SUN; my rays are very hot! You are getting warmer and warmer lying there all bunched together!” The kids wriggled around on the floor, happily.

Next I said in my most hollow voice, “You are getting so hot, you begin to ri-i-i-se up slowly…you rise up, up, up until you are on the chairs, then you rise more until you are up in the sky. Say, 'e-va-por-a-tion, evaporation.'" With the kids repeating “evaporation, evaporation” and slowly spiraling up and up until they were on the chairs, I continued to beam at them.

When they were all on the chairs, I shared with them that now that they were up in the sky together, little drops standing close together, something interesting would happen. Pretty soon the little drops would bump up to other drops and they would make one really BIG drop. This is called con-den-sa-tion! Say it with me, “Condensation, condensation” as you bump together and make really big drops. The kids were happy to comply.

Next I said, “You are now BIG drops and you are going to fall to earth. As you do, say, 'Pre-ci-pi-ta-tion, precipitation' and fall to the ground and make like a lake.”

Follow-up to the Skit

I make it sound like it was possible to do the skit once, and then wrap it up nicely with a follow-up activity. No, that is not what happened. We did various encores by popular demand on the part of the actors themselves. But finally, they had enough to satisfied them for a while.

It is all up to you what the follow-up will be. If you want to include a phonics lesson, these words lend themselves beautifully, as they all have the same ending.

If you let the children draw the skit, draw the water cycle and write the words on their drawing to label the different actions in the skit. This will give them time to absorb and deepen their learning, and also give them time to get the learning into long-term memory. I would add the words to our word wall, most certainly.

With the words written really big on the board, I might point out a couple of things.

Evapo ration

Conden sation

Precipi tation

Note that all the words end with the same sound as in NATION. They are even alphabetized: R, S, and then T. The children could practice saying “ration, sation, tation” with a nice little rhythm to it.

For evaporation I would reference the word vaporize. I think kids might relate to that from cartoons they have watched in which something got vaporized…and poosh! Went up in smoke, so to speak.

For condensation, I would probably reference the difference between regular and condensed milk. One has been pushed together using heat to make it thicker and thicker. When something condenses, it gets smaller and tighter.

For precipitation, relate the word to precipice, which is a cliff that someone could fall off of, if not careful. Challenge the children to draw a picture that shows all three of the terms, if desired.

Sarah K Major
Sarah K Major


Sarah's absolute belief in every child’s ability to learn, and her passion to empower the child by supporting his/her own unique giftedness have fueled her life’s work and provided a new pathway for children to succeed academically.

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