Watershed Champions


Water is a rich source of learning at any age. These activities are designed for elementary and intermediate classes, but they are not tailored to any specific grade. Be inspired! See what lesson ideas are sparked for you, and adapt these activities to suit the needs of your class:

These activities are designed to get elementary and middle school classes started in learning about watersheds.

What is a Watershed?

All over the Earth, water naturally flows from higher points to lower areas. A watershed is a land basin that drains into a single body of water—be it a creek, a river, a wetland, a lake or an ocean. When speaking of a watershed, we refer to all components of the ecosystem within its boundaries.

Why are Watersheds Important?

Healthy watersheds are vital to sustaining all life on Earth—from wild plants to animals to people. They are the source of our drinking water, and they supply the water needed on farmer’s fields to grow our food. Every watershed is different, shaped by variations in geology, weather, ecology and human activity. The more we understand about our watersheds, the better chance we have of sustaining a clean and healthy water supply.

How Can You Tell One Watershed from the Next?

Watershed boundaries are not limited by political borders and can include several towns, cities, provinces, territories or even countries.

The divide between watersheds is the ridge or point on land at which water flows in two different directions. For example, falling rain might land and flow down two different sides of a mountain, dividing into distinct watersheds on either side.

Watersheds can be different sizes. We can describe specific watersheds in our communities, but in reality, they are connected. If we trace the way water flows, we see that one watershed drains into another, forming a nested system.

For example, the Milk River watershed, shared between southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, drains into the Missouri River and Mississippi River watersheds, eventually flowing into the Gulf of Mexico watershed and the Atlantic Ocean watershed.

For more information about watersheds, visit Environment Canada’s watershed page.

Hands-on Learning: Build a Watershed Model

Go with the flow! To better understand how water flows within a watershed, try this hands-on activity and build a watershed model.

As part of Peel Region’s The Peel Water Story, the Construct a Watershed lesson plan provides instructions to make both a large-scale and small-scale watershed in order to learn about their features.

Designed for Grades 6 to 9, the lesson includes an opportunity for students to act as planners who select where buildings, parks and other features will be placed within their watershed.

Using coloured juice crystals, the lesson also provides an opportunity to explore what happens when a contaminant is introduced to their model watershed.

As an extension, discuss potential sources of runoff and pollution, as well as possible ways to decrease their impact on watersheds.

You may also wish to look for clues on your school ground and in your community, as to how water moves within your watershed.

What's Your Watershed Address?

Create a Watershed Postcard

In the same way your school is located in a town or city—which is in turn part of a province or territory—your school is also located in a watershed. The water from your watershed flows into other larger watersheds and eventually makes its way to the ocean.

Create a watershed postcard that would tell a drop of water where to go as it flows on its journey from your school to the sea.

You will need to learn about your local watershed and discover where the water from your community eventually flows.

Brainstorm About the Natural Water Sources Near Your School

  • What are the names of the rivers and the creeks near your school?
  • Are these the same rivers and creeks as those near your home?
  • Are there any ponds, wetlands or lakes nearby?

Get Outside and Look for Clues About How Water Flows Through the Local Watershed First-hand

Do you see any waterways or water bodies that you did not identify in your brainstorm?

Look for tributaries, creeks, streams, lakes or bays. In many neighbourhoods, some of this water may have been diverted underground.

For ideas about how to search for signs of water that has been channelled underground, see our Changing Water Ways activity.

Where Might the Water from Your Watershed be Going?

Begin to think about how water flows from your school or community to the sea.

  • Read Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling.
  • Or watch Bill Mason’s film version of Paddle to the Sea, which is available to view online at no cost from the National Film Board.

Discuss the book or film. How might water from your watershed follow a similar journey from your classroom to the sea? How might the journey of water from your community to the sea be different?

Use Maps and Online Resources to Support Your Exploration of Water’s Journey

Which of these large watersheds does your local watershed belong to?

Explore a Map of Your Watershed Online

Use a map to locate your watershed and trace water’s journey to the sea.

Enter the name of your town or city into Canadian Geographic’s Protect Your Watershed website using the “Find Your Watershed” tab.

  • What is the name of your watershed?

Scroll your mouse over the map

  • What body of water does your watershed drain (flow) into? Is it a lake? Is it a river?
  • There may also be watersheds or water bodies that drain into your watershed. What watersheds are upstream of your watershed?

Zoom out—where is the closest ocean? Do you see any rivers along the way?

Discuss Your Findings as a Class

Do you have ideas about how the water might flow from the water body that your watershed drains into to get to the ocean? (You may find some helpful information in the Canadian Geographic Atlas.) 

How does this connect to the water cycle? Check out our Water Cycle Investigation.

What Questions Do You Have About the Local Watershed?

Now that you know a little more about your watershed address, what questions do you have about your watershed?

Your class might be interested in learning about how water is processed and treated in your municipality. Perhaps your class is interested in exploring the water cycle in your watershed. Perhaps you would like to know how the natural or human community uses the water from the local watershed. There are so many possibilities!

For more activities that will help you learn about your watershed, visit our Wade In: Discover the dynamic of your watershed activities.

The What’s Your Watershed Address activity was inspired by the film Paddle to the Sea, Canadian Geographic’s Find Your Watershed online tool and the Map Your Watershed Activity in the Give Water a Hand Action Guide by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Looking for more?

You may also find the questions listed under inquiry in our Strategies and Tips section helpful while you learn about your watershed.

These activities are designed to help elementary and intermediate classes explore the dynamics of their watershed first-hand in the outdoor classroom:

Water-Wise School Grounds

Water-Wise School Grounds: Investigating Stormwater and Permeability

Through a series of activities students will evaluate how stormwater moves and is managed on their school grounds and propose design solutions to make the school ground more water-wise.


Activity 1:  Predicting Stormwater Flow on School Grounds


  • Sponge (for demonstration)
  • Rock or other hard surface (for demonstration)
  • Base map of school property
  • Clipboards, pencils, coloured pencils


Part 1: Introduction

Introduce the concept of permeability with a simple demonstration. Pour water over a sponge. Then pour water over a hard rock. What happens in each instance?


Permeable materials allows water pass through. When you pour water over a permeable surface, it will percolate through it.

Impermeable materials do not allow water to pass through, instead forcing the water to rush over the surface causing runoff. Impermeable surfaces are also known as impervious surfaces.

Part 2: School Ground Exploration

On a dry day, take your students outside to observe the surfaces on your school grounds and predict where stormwater will flow when it rains.

  1. Divide students into groups of 2 or 3.
  2. Provide students with a map that outlines the school property.
  3. Have students identify the different surfaces on the school grounds, including natural and built features (e.g., asphalt, grassy field, mulch, brick building, etc.). The students should label the surfaces on their map and estimate the proportion of that surface within the school ground.
  4. For each surface that the students label on their map, have them predict whether they think the surface is permeable or impermeable.
  5. In addition to the types of surfaces on the school grounds, have students observe the topography and predict where they think water will flow when it rains. On their map, students should use arrows to indicate where they think water will flow.

Guiding Questions:

What do you notice about the slope of the school ground? Where are there slopes? Hills? Elevated surfaces? Where do you see dips in the school ground? How might these clues indicate where the water will go? How might the different surface types that you observed in the school ground affect the flow of water? What other clues might help tell you where the water will go?

Educator Notes:

If you have a large school ground or younger students, you may wish to divide the school ground into different areas and assign each group to focus on a particular area of the school ground rather than having each group investigate the entire school ground.


You may wish to involve students in using inclinometers to measure the slope of the surfaces.


Activity 2: Testing Permeability


  • Large cylindrical container with no bottom (you can create your own by cutting off the bottom of a plastic ice cream container or similar container).
  • Modeling clay (to help create a seal on hard surfaces)
  • 1 L graduated cylinder or measuring cup (to measure water)
  • Water
  • Stopwatch


  1. Remind students about the permeability demonstration from the introduction of Activity 1 and their school ground maps.
    • What is a permeable surface? What is an impermeable surface? Which surfaces did the students think would be permeable? Which surfaces did students label as impermeable?
  2. In the same groups as the school ground exploration (mapping activity), students will test their predictions about the permeability of different surfaces on the school grounds with a simple experiment examining the infiltration rate of water for different surfaces.
  3. For each surface labeled on their map, the students will conduct 3 consecutive trials of the same infiltration test (multiple trials will allow students to observe the infiltration rate at different levels of saturation). Students will measure the amount of time that the water takes to soak into the ground using a stopwatch.
    • The infiltration rate is the speed at which water enters the ground or soil.
  4. To conduct the test, press the bottom of the container into the surface. (For hard surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt, modeling clay can be used around the outside of the base of the container to create a seal between the container and the surface).
  5. Once the container is in the ground or sealed against the ground, one student should pour 1 L of water into the container, while another student starts the stopwatch. The students will time and record the amount of time it takes for the water to soak into the ground to a maximum of 3 minutes.
  6. As students record the results, they should decide if the surface is permeable or impermeable.
    • Sample chart for recording results:

Surface Type:


Observations: Infiltration Time


(e.g., asphalt, mulch, etc.)

Permeable or Impermeable?

Test #1
(Time to absorb 1 L of water)

Test # 2
(Time to absorb 1 L of water)

Test # 3
(Time to absorb 1 L of water)

Permeable? Impermeable?
































  1. Have students graph their results.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why might there have been a difference in the 3 infiltration times for the same surface? Why in some cases may more water have infiltrated in the 3rd test than in the others?
  • Are there some instances where the water does not absorb into the ground at all in the three minutes?  What might this indicate?
  • Based on the results of the infiltration test, which surfaces were permeable? Which were impermeable?
  • How did these results compare to the original student predictions in the school ground exploration (mapping activity)?


Activity 3: Calculating the Area of Impermeable Surfaces

What percentage of the school ground is impermeable? What percentage of the school ground is permeable? Take measurements of the school grounds and apply calculations to find out. 


  • Trundle wheel or long measuring tape
  • Pencils and paper (including a map of the school property can also be helpful)


  1. Measure the total area of the school property.
    • Measure the length and width of the school property in metres. Multiply the length and width to get the area of school property in square metres.
  2. Measure the area and calculate the percentage of impermeable surfaces
    • Measure the area of the footprint (base) of the school building. Measure the area of any other impermeable surfaces on the school ground (asphalt, concrete, etc.)
    • Add the building footprint and the area of each individual impermeable surface to get the total area of the impermeable landscape. Use this number to determine the percentage of the impermeable landscape in relation to the total area of the school ground.
  3. Determine the percentage of permeable surfaces
    • Use the information that you have gathered from steps 1 and 2 to calculate the percentage of the remaining permeable surfaces, or measure the area of any permeable surfaces to get the total area of the permeable landscape.


You can also estimate the volume of runoff and percolation on your school grounds.

Measure the amount of rain that falls on your school grounds with a rain gauge. Multiply the rainfall measurement recorded from your rain gage by the area landscape on your school grounds where you observe runoff (impermeable surfaces).  Repeat this process, multiplying by the area of the landscape where you observe percolation (impermeable surfaces).

Runoff: Use the total area of the impermeable landscape on your school grounds, where water is not absorbed (e.g. pavement, cement)

Percolation: Use the total area of the permeable landscape on your school grounds, where water can be absorbed (e.g. soil, grass, sand).

You can estimate the volume of runoff and percolation on your school grounds for a single rainfall, or you can observe the rainfall over the school year and estimate the volume of runoff and percolation for the school year.

As this measurement doesn’t account for evaporation or groundwater storage, it is only a superficial estimation.


Activity 4: Stormwater Report Card

Is your school ground water-wise? On a rainy day, take your students outside to observe where stormwater flows and whether your school has any water-wise strategies to help manage stormwater.

Part 1: Observing stormwater flow

  1. Provide students with a fresh copy of the same base map that you used for Activity 1.
  2. Have the groups of students take a look at where the rain that falls on the school grounds goes. Use arrows to map the water flow on the school grounds.
  3. Compare these observations to the predictions that students made in Activity 1.

Part 2: How water-wise is your school, when it comes to managing stormwater?

Look for clues on your school ground to find out

  1. Observe where the rainwater from your school roof drains. Does it drain onto:
    • A vegetated area?
    • Gravel or bare soil?
    • A hard surface?
    • A storm drain?
  2. Consider the water flow maps that you just created. Does the water passing through vegetated areas? Is it going over hard surfaces?
  3. Where does the water that falls on the parking lot flow? Does it lead to a storm drain? Does it lead to a vegetated area?

Overall Discussion:

  • Where does water from the different areas of your school (buildings, parking lot, school grounds) channel to?
  • Where is the stormwater being absorbed and/or filtered?
  • Where does the stormwater run over hard surfaces?
  • Where do puddles develop?
  • How do the surfaces affect the infiltration of rain in your school yard? (Runoff versus permeability?)

Background: Water flow and stormwater

The water in a watershed originates as rain or snow and collects on the land’s surface or moves through the soil as groundwater. Some water evaporates and returns to the atmosphere contributing to humidity and forming clouds.

Urban watersheds are highly developed, covered almost entirely by houses, buildings, roads and parking lots. As a result, only a small portion of the precipitation that falls on the city filters naturally through the ground. Instead, this water runs over buildings and impermeable pavement picking up pollutants along the way and causing an increase in the volume of stormwater entering streams, rivers and water bodies. This increases flood risk, river bank erosion and aquatic habitat destruction.  Stormwater is not treated before it returns to local water bodies and contributes to overall contamination of the water that we depend on.


To learn more about where the runoff from your school grounds might go, check out our What’s Your Watershed Address? activity.


Activity 5.  Design a landscape that reduces runoff.


Implementing effective stormwater management practices in cities is essential to protecting the health of our streams, rivers and lakes. These practices help:

  • Preserve the natural movement of water in both new and already developed areas
  • Protect and enhance the quality of discharged stormwater
  • Reduce the volume and frequency of combined sewer overflows (when stormwater mixes with wastewater and overflows untreated into our waterways)

Activity Steps:

  1. Invite students to re-design the school ground (or a home landscape) so that it reduces runoff and values water as a resource. Explore a wide variety of approaches including permeable pavers, green-roofs, rain gardens and other innovations to manage stormwater and reduce the impact of runoff.  You may wish to have students create a two-dimensional design or a three-dimensional model.
  2. Have students create a pitch about their design to share with the class. Be sure to emphasize the benefits to both the environment and the school (or homeowner if you focus on a home landscape). You could also have students pitch their ideas to a school ground greening committee, principal or other stakeholders that may have an interest in changing the space.

Things to consider in the design:

  • How is the space used?
  • Can your solution provide any additional benefits to the school grounds (gives shade, creates an outdoor learning space, habitat for wildlife, food garden, play feature)
  • How will the changes reduce runoff and improve filtration?
  • Is there enough room for the improvements you are suggesting? How can you incorporate the existing features on your site?
  • What improvements did you make? Why did you choose those improvements?
  • How would you encourage the principal, staff, students and the school community to see that these changes could be useful?


This activities included in the Is Your School Ground Water-Wise lesson were adapted from the following resources:

  • Calculating Impermeable Area activity in the City of Edmonton’s Treat It Right Stormwater Teacher’s Guide (Grade 8);
  • Ground Surfaces and Infiltration lesson by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, Ecosystem Science and Management;
  • Urban Runoff activity in the Terrain for Schools Guide by The Ecology Centre;
  • Investigating Water Pathways in Schoolyards article by Bess Caplan, Kristin L. Gunckel, Andrew Warnock and Aubrey Canoin, Green Teacher Magazine, Issue 98.

Water Cycle Investigation

The water from the lakes, rivers and puddles that existed when dinosaurs roamed the Earth is the same water that falls as rain in our communities and flows through our local rivers and lakes today. But how is this possible?

Explore the Water Cycle to Find Out More About Water’s Journey

What happens to the water that forms pools and puddles on your school ground?

After a rainstorm, find puddles in your schoolyard. Make observations about the puddles and outline them with chalk. Predict what you will see when you go back outside to the same chalk outline in three hours. What will you see when you go back to the same chalk outline tomorrow?

As an alternative, place tinfoil pans of water around the schoolyard. Use several pans and place them in a variety of locations to generate a deeper discussion. For example:

  • Place an uncovered tinfoil pan filled with water in the sun.
  • Place a tinfoil pan filled with water and covered with plastic wrap in the sun.
  • Place an uncovered tinfoil pan filled with water in the shade.
  • Place a tinfoil pan filled with water and covered with plastic wrap in the shade. 

Predict what you will see when you go back outside to check on your tinfoil pans in three hours. What will you see when you go back the next day?

Discuss your observations. Where might the water have gone?

Experience Water’s Journey

To explore the water cycle further, try these lessons:

Become Water Molecules to see where they travel

The Water Cycle Game from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides students with an opportunity to become the water molecules, moving among different stations as they experience water’s journey. There is also a variation that demonstrates how pollution can cause the water cycle to transport contaminants.

Simulate the water cycle in your classroom

Try the hands-on Making Clouds and Making Rain activities found in the book Science Is… by Susan V. Bosak.

Explore the water cycle through drama and music.

Invite students to act out the water cycle. Starting out as tiny droplets of water vapour dancing around in the air, children can link arms to form droplets and group together with other droplets to form clouds. When the cloud gets big enough, students can all like raindrops to the ground. 

Create a musical rainstorm using body percussion. In a large circle, invite students to repeat your actions:  rub hands together, snap fingers, clap hands, pat legs and stomp feet. This will create an increasingly loud rainstorm. Reverse the actions for the storm to subside.

Investigate stormwater and permeability

Our water-wise school grounds lesson (above) will lead you through 5 activities to investigate rainfall, water flow, permeability and infiltration, and green infrastructure design on your school ground.

Learn about snow.

Learn to classify snowflakes and more. Check out our Watersheds in Winter activities.

You will also find books and videos that connect to the water cycle in our Helpful Publications section.

The Water Cycle Investigation Activity was inspired by the Ground Surfaces and Infiltration Water Lesson Plan by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences Ecosystem Science and Management, Utah Education Network’s Soakin’ Up the Sun Lesson, the University of Texas at Austin Environmental Science Institute’s Water Cycle LessonMaking a Cloud from Patty Born Selly's Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth and the Storm Water Stewards article by Steven Braun, Ted Hart and Kirk Ordway in Green Teacher Magazine Issue 101.

Water Quality

Investigate water quality during a visit to your local water body. You might want to consider the relationship between water quality and local plant and animal life, or between water quality and human impact.

For an in-depth look at water quality, check out the River Check-Up lesson plan from our Watershed Connection resource.

The lesson includes details about how to survey the water quality of streams by collecting and observing aquatic life, specifically small animals called macro invertebrates. (“Macro” refers to something that is large enough to see with the naked eye and “invertebrates” refers to animals without a spine, such as insects.)

Designed for Grade 4 classes in the Don Watershed in Toronto, this lesson can easily be adapted to suit other grades and watersheds.

During Your Visit to Your Local Stream, Wetland or Pond, Consider:

  • What is the pH of the water? (To test this, you can use litmus paper, which changes colour when exposed to an acidic or basic solution, or you can use a pH meter. You may find these the tools through your school’s science supplier.)
  • Is there evidence of life in the water? (Do you see any plants growing in the water? Are there any insects in the water? Do you see any other living things in the water? Are there any birds or ducks nearby? What might they be feeding on? Do you see any beaver dams? Are there any other structures that have been made by animals in or near the water?)
  • Where is the water in this stream, wetland, or ravine coming from? (Refer to Watershed Address and Water Cycle activities for ideas.)
  • Do you see any evidence of erosion? (For example, stream banks with exposed soil and no plants, exposed tree roots along slopes near the water’s edge, a cut-out in the stream bank where there used to be soil, muddy runoff.)
  • Do you see any evidence of pollution? (Do you see any garbage in the stream? Are there any potential sources of runoff near the water source? If you see any pipes that entering the water source, where do they come from? What might be flowing through those pipes?)
  • Do you think the water quality is good? Why or why not?


Explore the natural filtration process within your watershed. How do natural watersheds filter pollutants? How do they regulate water flow?

For more information about how to monitor water quality:

Is Your Community Water Wise?

We all use water. In human communities, water is used in our homes to provide drinking water and water for showers. We use it to water our gardens and wash our cars. Sometimes we need to use water, but sometimes we use too much.

  • What are some of the ways that people in your watershed are conserving water?
  • What are some of the ways that people in your watershed are wasting water?

Runoff and Pollution

During storms, rainwater can rush quickly over land causing erosion, flooding or even carry pollutants to our waterways. Water moves faster over hard surfaces like pavement, while permeable surfaces (surfaces that allow water to soak into the ground), such as vegetation, can reduce runoff while water is allowed to percolate or absorb into the ground.

  • What are some of the ways that people in your watershed are contributing to runoff?
  • What are some of the ways that people in your watershed are helping to reduce runoff? 

Look for Clues in Your Community

Take a walk through your community. Look for clues that might tell you whether or not people in your watershed are making water-wise choices.

Do you see any:

  • Rain Barrels?
  • Hoses?
  • Sprinklers?
  • Drainage ditches?
  • Man-made ponds?
  • Water meters?
  • Gardens?
  • Downspouts? Where do these lead?
  • Storm drains?
  • Hard surfaces? (e.g. Pavement, concrete)
  • Permeable surfaces? (e.g. Gravel, vegetation such as gardens) 
  • Rain gardens or bioswales (landscape features designed to collect stormwater and allow it to soak into the ground slowly while it is filtered through plants)
  • Other clues?

For More Clues

Take a look at the TDSB EcoSchools Community Quest for Water. Rhymes and clues guide students to look for things like storm drains and provide information about their purpose as well as messages about water conservation.

The lesson was designed to explore the urban Runnymede community in Toronto, but can be adapted to other areas. You may wish to develop your own rhymes for different or additional clues that apply to your own community.


Which of these clues show that the human community in your watershed is water wise? Why?

Which of these clues tell you that the human community in your watershed is wasting water or contributing to runoff? Why? 

Did you see any evidence of pollutants that could be could be picked up and carried by stormwater?


Look for clues about how animals living in your watershed use water

For example, did you see any beaver dams? Fish spawning grounds? Other clues?

How might the human uses of water in your watershed affect other life dependent on the water?

Locate your water source and explore water treatment.

Look for clues in your community, or use maps of your municipality or watershed to see if you can locate the source of your drinking water and end point for your wastewater.

  • Drinking water:

    Where does the water from your tap come from? Does it come from groundwater? Does it come from a lake? How is it treated before you drink it? If anyone drinks bottled water, where does that water come from? Which is more environmentally friendly: tap water or bottled water?

  • Waste water:

    How about the water that goes down your toilet? How is sewage managed by the community in your watershed? Do homes have septic tanks? Is there a sewage treatment plant? Where is the sewage treatment plant located? How do the septic tanks or sewage treatment plants work? What are the processes that treat the water?

Compare the human-made treatment of water to natural ecosystem services.

How is water filtered naturally in watersheds? How is the filtration in wetlands and other natural areas of the local watershed beneficial to the flora and fauna? To people? Should we conserve these areas? Why or why not? How might we learn from the way that nature filters water when designing water treatment systems?

This activity was adapted from a water quest activity by Hilary Inwood and Erin Wood and the Outdoor Classroom Institute Workshop in Toronto presented by Evergreen and TDSB EcoSchools.

Changing Water Ways

Over time, our waterways change. Geologic forces continue to shape our waterways and shorelines. People also modify waterways to assist the needs of the human community including building roadways, towns and cities, and generating electricity. In some cases the flow of water is channelled underground, while in others it is diverted along a new route.

Take a walk through your community to find out how water flows through your watershed and how the flow of water may have been modified over time.

How Does Water Flow in Your Community?

Do you see any:

  • Streams?
  • Rivers?
  • Lakes?
  • Waterfalls?

How Have the Waterways in Your Community Been Changed or Modified?

What clues did you see that might tell you about these changes? Do you see any:

  • Dams?
  • Sewer grates?
  • Sewer vents?
  • Culverts?
  • Concrete channels?
  • Dead end streets?
  • Eroded stream banks or shorelines? (e.g. Stream banks with exposed soil and no plants, exposed tree roots along slopes near the water’s edge, a cut-out in the stream bank where there used to be soil, muddy runoff.)
  • Water level marks on the rocks along the edges of a body of water?
  • Other signs that may indicate that there have been changes to a water way?

If you saw clues to indicate changing or modified water ways in your community, do you think they were changes by geologic forces or people? Why?

The Lost Rivers Mystery Tour Lesson in Evergreen's The Watershed Connection Guide provides a detailed outline for finding lost rivers. Designed for Grade 4 classes in the Don Watershed in Toronto, this lesson can be adapted to other locations and grade levels.

This activity was adapted from Evergreen’s Lost Rivers Mystery Tour Lesson in The Watershed Connection Guide, with inspiration from Lisa Kelly, CoEd Communications.

Watersheds in Winter

Ever wonder every why snow and ice only form in cold weather? Why we use salt on our roads? Or how ducks can stand on ice without getting frostbite?  

Winter, snow and ice provide an authentic context for learning about the water cycle, water chemistry, and animal adaptations.

Explore the Water Cycle through the Journey of a Snowflake

Try the following activities to learn about snow and explore the water cycle.

  • Learn how snow is formed and how to identify snowflakes using the International Snow Classification System. Check out the hands-on outdoor student activities in the Snowstorms unit from NASA’s Winter’s Story.
  • When snow melts on your school grounds where does it go? Learn more about water’s journey with our Water Cycle Investigation and What is Your Watershed Address? activities.
  • Have students become water molecules, moving among different stations as they experience the water cycle through the Life of a Drip (PDF) activity provided by the Toronto District School Board’s Toronto Outdoor Education Schools.
  • Monitor ice formation and thawing at a local water body to contribute to scientists understanding of how climate change is affecting freeze-thaw cycles. Participate in Nature Canada’s Ice Watch program.
  • Encourage your students to experiment with snow. Snow Watch by Cheryl Archer explores snow science and includes hands-on activities and experiments to learn about snow.

Investigate how de-icers melt ice and their impact on waterways

Snowy, icy roads and sidewalks are a hazard for drivers and pedestrians in the winter. 

How do municipalities melt the ice to keep people safe? Try an ice melting experiment to find out.

Freeze several trays of ice cubes, making sure that the ice cube trays are the same size and shape.

Take ice cubes out of the freezer to observe the melting rate of the ice and how different materials affect the melting rate. 

Record the melting time of one of the ice cubes as a control.

Test the effectiveness of different materials on melting the ice. For example:

  • Sand
  • Table salt
  • Sugar
  • Beet juice
  • Cat litter
  • Road salt

Place one teaspoon of sand over an ice cube and record how long it takes for the ice cube to melt. Repeat the same procedure for each of the materials.

Which material was the most effective at melting the ice?

Research municipal practices and environmental impacts of de-icer products (for example road salt).

How can de-icers impact local water ways? What type of de-icer does your municipality use? How might municipalities reduce the impact of de-icers on local waterways?

To support your research, we have compiled some interesting articles about de-icing practices:

Discover how animals in your watershed survive in winter

Be a nature detective:

Who lives in your watershed? Animal tracks in provide clues about the wildlife found in your watershed. Be a nature detective and look for clues by investigating animal tracks in the snow.

Explore animal adaptations:

Ever wonder how ducks can stand on ice without getting frostbite? Where frogs go in winter? Or how a lynx can travel over deep snow?

Learn about animal adaptations in winter through outdoor activities, science experiments and literature: 

  • The Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Below Zero resource provides plenty of hands-on lesson plans that explore winter adaptations such as weight load and travelling on snow; body size and warmth; flocking and herding; how metamorphosis helps insects survive winter and more.
  • Get a glimpse of life beneath the snow and ice in Melissa Stewart’s book, Under the Snow, or explore animal adaptations in winter with A Warm Winter Tail by Carrie A. Pearson.
  • Georgian Bay Biosphere Reserve’s Movers, Sleepers and Tough Guys: Wildlife in Winter (PDF) explores hibernation and torpor, migration, and adaptations to “tough out” winter.
  • Make a Frogsicle. Read the Kids Discover article about Antifreeze Animals and try their Examining Sugar as a Cryoprotectant experiment to understand how some animals produce antifreeze to live through the cold winter months.
  • Learn how ducks keep their feet warm in winter with Duck’s Unlimited’s Webbed Wonders article.

Take Action to Care for Your Watershed

Click on the sections below for ideas of actions that you can take to become stewards of your watershed:

Shoreline Restoration

Do a Clean-up of Your Local Shoreline, Wetland or Ravine

Coordinate a shoreline clean-up for your local water source. Invite other classes in your school, as well as other schools, families or community members to join in.

Check Out These Resources

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. This national initiative of the Vancouver Aquarium and WWF happens every September. The site also provides facts and resources to help you learn about and care for your shoreline all year long.

Learning for a Sustainable Future's Quest for Clean Shorelines resource from the Resources for Rethinking database provides a series of activities focused on water that culminate in a clean-up and audit of the shoreline.

Plan or Participate in a Restoration Planting

Plant trees to help stabilize stream banks near a local stream, wetland plants to restore a wetland area, or aquatic plants as part of a community restoration effort.

Contact your municipality or organizations that are already working to care for your watershed to see how you can get involved.

Classroom Fish Hatchery

Create a classroom fish hatchery for an opportunity to learn about the fish life cycle first-hand while helping to restore native fish populations. Check to see if there are any classroom incubation programs in your area that will help you raise and release fish.

For example, the Salmonids In The Classroom Program in BC's Lower Mainland, or the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada's Stream to Sea resources include the Salmonoids in the Classroom Primary Teacher’s Resource and Intermediate Teacher's Resource to complement their classroom hatchery program.

Investigate What has Contributed to the Decline of Local Fish Populations

Have the streams and rivers been altered (e.g. through man-made canals and dams)? Are there any non-native species that have been introduced to local water ways? Other factors? Explain why or how these factors influence fish populations.

Share your message through the arts

Create Artwork, Murals or Sculptures that Tell a Message About Your Watershed

You may wish to participate in an existing program, for example:

  • The Stream of Dreams community art mural program raises awareness about our connections to water and how to protect it. Schools in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario have participated in their program, creating rivers of brightly-coloured fish along fences.

You can also use your own creativity to come up with a unique art installation. Create your own artwork that illustrates your local watershed and what you have learned about it or a message about its importance. For inspiration, check out:

  • FishNet, a collaborative art initiative that engaged students in learning about the Great Lakes ecosystem while creating a gallery of textile fish. Patterns for the fish are available online along with corresponding lesson content on food webs and fish.
  • Rous Water's Every Drop Counts poster
  • Exploring Nature Educational Resource’s Chesapeake Bay Wildlife Poster
  • Pinellas County Florida’s Watershed Logo and Slogan

Create a Drama or Dance Presentation that Tells a Message About Your Watershed

For example:

  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Antifreeze, Antifish drama lesson explores pollution and runoff. Targeted for Grade 5, this could be adapted to other grades or topics.

Create Music that Tells a Message About Your Watershed

For example:

  • Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Compose a Stream Song lesson is designed to explore Pacific streams at the Grade 6 level through music. This lesson could be adapted to explore and interpret streams across the country at any grade level.
  • Watch this video of elementary students performing together with musicians to sing a song called Up Your Watershed about salmon, rivers, the ocean and watersheds.

Water Investigations

Investigate more about local water. How much water does your municipality use? How are local companies impacting the water? What are the indicators that your municipality uses to measure the watershed’s health? Does your community actively conserve water?


Research to learn more about the condition of your local water source and/or what policies exist to protect it.

Contact government officials to ask about what they are doing to protect your water. Interview local companies to find out if they have policies to prevent contamination, or to reduce water use.

For example:

  • Find out how your municipality measures water quality (E. Coli levels, etc.) How often is it tested? What were the most recent results?
  • Conduct a survey to find out about your community’s water use.
  • What is the current level of your water table? How might you find out?
  • How does your local pharmacy dispose of prescription medications? Do the hardware stores in your community collect hazardous items like paint and batteries for safe disposal? How do local factories dispose of any hazardous waste?

Create a Water Report Card

Evaluate the condition of water or your watershed with a focus on an issue that is of interest to you or your class. You may wish to explore water use, water quality, availability of natural habitats or other issues.

Include observations from your class explorations and recommendations for steps that your community (including individuals, businesses and government officials) can take to help protect your water or to reduce this issue.

Share your report with your community. For example, if you looked at water use in your community, what steps can people in your neighbourhood take individually to conserve water? How can they work together to conserve water?

The research ideas listed on this page were inspired by Lisa Kelly, CoEd Communications.

Reduce your water footprint

Do you know how much water you use? According to Environment Canada’s Municipal Water Use Report published in 2011, on average Canadians used 274 litres of household water per person, per day in 2009. Do you use more? Less?

Our impact goes beyond just household water use, as we depend on water for more than what flows through our taps and toilets. Water is also used to produce our food and in the manufacturing of items including our clothes and shoes. Explore the concept of a water footprint to find out all of the ways that you use water. What steps can you take to reduce your water use?

Take a look at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority's How Big Is Your Splash? activity to discuss water footprints in your classroom.

Or take a look at the National Geographic Water Footprint Calculator to estimate your water footprint. The website also includes a game to learn about the amount of water used in different areas of the household.

Canada Water Week has created a poster that examines some of the ways that we contribute to our water footprint.

Discuss Your Results as a Class

Were there any uses of water that surprised you? If so, explain. Which factors explored through the water footprint do you have control over? Which factors are not your personal choices? What personal choices can you make to reduce your water use?

Raise awareness

Let other people know about the importance of your watershed and their role in protecting your fresh water.

Participate in a Program that Raises Awareness About Fresh Water

For example, storm-drain marking programs:

Create a Lasting Resource About Your Watershed to Share with the Community

For example:

  • Create a guidebook, story, brochure or walking tour that tells about the importance of the local watershed and its natural and cultural history. Include information about how the community can protect and care for the watershed. Consider a multi-media approach. Are there opportunities to include photos? Videos? Interviews? Observations from your explorations? 
  • Create a geocache with objects and stories that represent and celebrate your watershed.
  • Read about geocaching as a teaching tool on our blog.

Create Your Own Campaign About Water Issues to Share Information that is Relevant to Your Community

You may want to create a flyer, newsletter, presentation, website or blog to share information about how people can help to protect your watershed (e.g. Reducing their water use, taking steps to prevent pollution caused by runoff).

Research information to encourage your community to make a positive change. It may also be helpful to make a personal connection by including observations from your own learning (e.g. What did you notice were the most common ways that water is wasted in your own neighbourhood? What did you find when you tested water quality in your community?).

Host an Event to Raise Awareness About Watersheds and Water Issues

Organize an event about water and invite the public to come learn more.

For example, a movie night at your school featuring a documentary about water issues (this could even be a student-made documentary), or a festival with booths featuring information about your watershed and the community groups that are taking care of your watershed.

Link to wider initiatives such as World Water Day on March 22, Canada Water Week in March, and/or the Children’s Water Festivals that are supported by the Children’s Water Education Council

Host a Water-Friendly Fundraiser

Encourage water conservation or awareness while raising funds for your school. 

For example, selling rain barrels or reusable water bottles for a school fundraiser while sharing information about how these items are water-wise choices.

Campaigns and Petitions

Develop a campaign or start a petition to demonstrate to government officials or relevant organizations that you care about water and the local watershed and/or that you would like to see action to protect it.

You may wish to participate in a campaign or petition that has been organized by a conservation organization or environmental non-profit organization or you may wish to start your own.

For example:

Create a Love My Lake Video Declaration to show Canadians and government officials why your lake is important to your community.

Create a Rain Garden

Plant a rain garden at your school or home to reduce runoff or enhance your school grounds with a stream inspired playscape that captures water for student interaction.

Rain gardens are designed to allow rainwater to absorb slowly into the ground. They are often located at the end of downspouts to catch all of the runoff that rushes through.

Native plants growing in layers of gravel, loamy soil and mulch allow water to filter through the ground rather than rush over a harder surface.

For more about rain gardens:

Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation Fact Sheet about Rain Gardens

RiverSides Toronto Homeowners Guide to Rainfall

Visit Evergreen’s Native Plant Database to learn more about plants native to your region.

This action based activity was inspired by Heidi Campbell, Evergreen’s Senior Designer, Learning Grounds.