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Litter “Critters” (PCEC)

TopicGeology - Erosion
Habitat and Management - General
Laboratory and Hands-on Activities - Food Chain / Web of Life
Laboratory and Hands-on Activities - General
Outdoor Skills - Identification
Wildlife - Invertebrates/Insects
Investigating leaf litter leads to animal identification, collection and analysis of specimens under dissecting scopes, development of a food web, and as a classroom extension, writing about an ecosystem.
Grade Level4 and up
Recommended SettingIndoor or outdoor classroom
LocationPotlatch Conservation Education Center at Cook’s Lake, Casscoe
Education Program Coordinator, 870-241-3373
Duration30 minutes to one hour
Suggested Number of Participants20 - 25
Special Conditions
One adult supervisor per 10 students; outdoor activities, weather permitting.
  • Identify animals that live in leaf litter.
  • Collect, record and illustrate population data.
  • Design a food web.
  • Write about litter and its inhabitants.
Key Terms*

Identification key



Forceps or small paint brushes to move organisms around

Garbage bag

Large sheets of white paper

Leaf litter

Magnifying glasses, loupes or dissecting microscopes

Small containers to hold organisms


Read and discuss “Crickwing” by Janell Cannon or some other book about the forest floor environment or macro-invertebrates.

  1. Distribute art supplies and have participants design and build a “critter” they think could survive in leaf litter.
  2. Go outside and look for leaf litter locations. Have participants brainstorm what sorts of “critters” they might find in the litter.
  3. Collect a bucket of litter from one site or from several different sites if you wish to compare habitats (damp litter often yields more specimens). Scoop up a little topsoil along with your litter. Take the litter back inside.
  4. Dump the litter on tables or on the floor. A white paper background will make it easier to spot “critters.”
  5. Use magnifying glasses, loupes and dissecting microscopes to investigate organisms living in the litter. Many are large enough to see with the naked eye, but others require a little magnification. Caution: most litter “critters” are harmless, but centipedes, larger spiders and beetles may bite.
  6. Use the picture key and identification sheet to identify the animals, or simply note their characteristics (number of legs, wings, mouth parts, etc.) and sort them into groups.
  7. Construct a pie graph or histogram (bar graph) to illustrate the type and number of animals found.
  8. Assemble paper, pencils and art supplies.  Create an individual or group story about “Life in the Litter.” This may be done from the viewpoint of one of the animals found.

Have participants return to the classroom with their specimen, place specimen under dissecting scopes and, using keys provided, identify what they have collected

  • What did you expect to find in leaf litter?
  • What did you actually find?
  • Describe (in words or pictures) the characteristics that fit them to their habitat.

Identification key – printed or computer-aided device that helps identify biological organisms such as plants, animals, or microorganisms or diseases, soil types, minerals or archaeological and anthropological artifacts

Litter – waste disposed in the wrong place by humans