Lesson Plan

Water Cycle

NPS photo by Neal Herbert

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Grade Level:
Fourth Grade
All lessons are 30 minutes
National/State Standards:
Utah State Core Curriculum Topic Standard One: Students will understand that water changes state as it moves through the water cycle.
water cycle, precipitation, water pollution, wetlands, Evaporation, condensation, soil percolation, erosion


Students hear a story and dance to a water cycle music video. While visiting a wetlands ecosystem they act out the process of erosion in different environments, and participate in a relay where they pretend to be agents of evaporation and precipitation. Students imagine they experience the water cycle first hand and write a poem about it. Afterwards, each student creates a regional drawing of the water cycle.


Water on My Mind

a. Name the components of the water cycle.
b. Explain in their own words the processes of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.

Erosion Motion

a. Compare rates at which water flows through different areas.
b. Name two benefits of water slowing down in the wetlands.

Do the Water-Cycle Twist

a. Identify the four main parts of the water cycle.
b. Describe the processes of evaporation and condensation.


a. Describe the water cycle.
b. Identify changes in states of water that enable water to move through the water cycle.

Pollution Solution

a. Name three characteristics of wetland soil.
b. Describe two effects of wetland soil on water and pollution.

The Water Cycle Journey

a. Reproduce a map-view drawing of their local area and label local features.
b. Integrate major components of the water cycle into their drawing.


Key words in the discussion of the water cycle are evaporation, transpiration, condensation, precipitation, surface runoff (transportation), and percolation. Of these, transpiration, condensation and percolation are the words least familiar to fourth graders. Transpiration is the escape of moisture from plant leaves, similar to perspiration in humans and other animals. A helpful metaphor for explaining cloud condensation is a glass of ice water. Because air cools near the glass and cool air can’t hold as much moisture as warm air, moisture condenses on the side of the glass. Percolation refers to the concept of water filtering down into the ground.

Most wetlands are transitional lands that lie between terrestrial systems (such as the Moab Valley) and aquatic systems (such as the Colorado River). The key ingredient in a wetland is water. Some wetlands always have standing water; others appear to be dry much of the year. All wetlands are at least seasonally flooded with shallow water, or the soils are at least seasonally saturated. All wetlands have specialized aquatic plants at least part of the year, specialized undrained soils, and the presence of water. The particular types and arrangements of these three characteristics are what make one kind of wetland distinct from another. Marshes, swamps, potholes, bogs, fens, floodplain wetlands, and sloughs are all names that reflect the diversity of wetlands. Some of these are informal names, including slough, the name historically used for the Matheson Wetlands near Arches.

Water comes into wetlands from two main sources: surface water and ground water. Surface water is runoff over the land. In the case of the Matheson Wetlands, Mill Creek, irrigation runoff, and the Colorado River are the main sources of surface water. Surface water follows gravity to the wetlands. That is, water from Mill Creek and its tributaries runs downhill from the La Sal Mountains, across the Moab Valley, and then slows down in the relatively flat wetlands before continuing on the slight downhill grade to the Colorado River.

The river contributes surface water to the wetlands only during spring when the river is high enough (near 40,000 cfs) to overflow its usual banks into the wetlands. The Colorado River flooded the Matheson Wetlands three out of every ten years prior to 1959; since then, the average has dropped to once every ten years (due to dams, irrigation, etc.). Much of the water in the Matheson Wetlands comes from ground water. Some springs and seeps where underground water comes to the surface emerge at the base of the slopes across Highway 191 from the north end of the wetlands. Ground water also seeps to the surface within the wetlands themselves, from saturated underground rock layers and sediments near the surface.

Wetlands contribute to the quantity and quality of our water supply. Dry lands soak up some rain and briefly recharge or replenish ground water after a rainfall. Because wetlands collect runoff and store standing water over longer periods of time, they slowly release water to the ground-water supply. Wetlands and wetland plants are traps for both sediments and pollutants that are washed off the land. Because water traveling at high velocities has the ability to pick up and carry much sediment, water coming off of steep slopes is usually sediment-rich. When that water slows down, such as it does in the relatively flat lands found at the base of slopes where wetlands are commonly located, it drops its sediments. Plants contribute to slowing down the waters and act as sediment traps; they also filter nutrients from water and use them in their own metabolism. Wetlands keep pollutants (including excess nutrients), which are attached to sediment particles and in the water, from degrading the quality of surface and ground water.



The Water Cycle Journey

Have students create another water cycle drawing, this time of an imaginary land. Have
them make up names for landforms and label the landforms, as well as the water cycle


Water on My Mind

Let students work on a water cycle themed crossword puzzle.

Erosion Motion

Have students think of other areas in which rain falls. Ask them to write a story describing the
movement of water through one of these areas.


Have students create a puppet show, play, or story about a drop of water that travels through
the entire water cycle. Have them include where the drop of water goes and conversations that it has with plants, animals, rocks, and other parts of the environment it meets along the way.

Pollution Solution

In small groups, have students create soil that they think would both fi lter and hold water as
well as wetlands soil does. Have each student in a group bring an element (i.e. dead plants,
sand, and mud) to mix together. Compare a jug test on the mixture to the wetlands soil jug test. Discuss results and what they could add or take out to make the soil more like wetlands soil.


Additional Resources

Anderson, M., Field, N., & Stephenson, K. (1998). Leapfrogging through wetlands. Middleton, WI: Dog-Eared Publications.

Banana Slug String Band. (1993). Dancing with the earth. Videotape. Santa Cruz, CA: Slug Music.

Buchanan, K. & D. (1994). It rained on the desert today. Flagstaff , AZ: Northland Publishing.

Caduto, M., & Bruchac, J. (1988). Keepers of the earth: Native American stories and environmental activities for children. Golden, CO: Fulcrum.

International Office for Water Education. (1994). The comprehensive water education book: Grades K-6. Logan, UT: Utah State University.

McKinney, B.S. (1998). A drop around the world. Nevada City, CA: Dawn Publications

Murphy, D. (1996). Water in the wetlands. Canyon Legacy 27: 14-18.

Slattery, B. (1991). Wow! the wonders of wetlands, (3rd ed.). Baltimore, MD: DeVilbiss Printing.

Project WET: Curriculum and activity guide. (1995). Bozeman, MT: The Watercourse and Council for Environmental Education.

Project WILD: Aquatic education activity guide, (2nd ed.). (1992). Bethesda, MD: Western Regional Environmental Education Council.

What is a wetland? (1996). Wetlands reflections: A newsletter from the Scott M. Matheson Wetlands Preserve (Summer): 2.


vapor, precipitation, evaporation, clouds, dew, condensation, temperature, water cycle