Chain reaction

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By John Davisteacher and freelance writer

Introduce children to why animals need food, how they find it and how food chains are structured

Food chains are a good way of showing children that living things in habitats – animals and plants – need each other to survive. Furthermore, they provide a good foundation for children to begin to develop more complex ideas about ecosystems.

At each level of the food chain there is less energy than at the previous level, due to the fact that some energy has been released as heat. This makes the food chain pyramid shaped. It is often said that plants come at the bottom of every food chain but in effect it is the Sun, as it is the giver of life and provider of energy for everything that lives on Earth.

The following activities will help children to establish how food chains show what is eaten by what in different locations. The children will focus on food chains that they are familiar with, using drama and role play to reconstruct a particular chain.

Key vocabulary

  • Producers: Plants are producers because they produce their own food, which they make from sunlight, air, water and nutrients in the soil.
  • Consumers: Animals are consumers as they eat readily available food. They could be herbivores – eat plants; carnivores – eat other animals; or omnivores – eat both plants and animals. Animals who specialise in eating just insects are called insectivores.
  • Predators are carnivorous animals that eat other animals – their prey.
  • There are also decomposers that break down dead and decaying matter, and scavengers that feed on once living items that have been left by others.
  • In any given environment food chains are interlinked to make up what is called a food web. A pond is a good location for studying a food web. Tiny algae provides food for water fleas, sponges, mussels and animals which can filter the algae from the water. Mayfly and stonefly nymphs, water snails and tadpoles feed on larger plants. Carnivores include water beetles, water spiders, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs, pond skaters and fish. The waste products and dead remains of this community provide food for scavengers, such as bloodworms and water lice, and these will also be prey for the predatory carnivores.
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