Evolution activities for at-home learning

A boy doing an experiment

Due to the spread of coronavirus, millions of parents and guardians are finding themselves having to take on the role of parent and teacher this spring. NCSE wants to support you during this unprecedented and challenging time — and to give you the opportunity to make sure that education about evolution is part of your child's at-home learning. Here are some activities that are fun (and easy for you to organize and lead!) to help keep your kids thinking about evolution. We've also provided some suggestions to extend the basic activity to make these a richer educational experiences for a variety of grade levels.

(Also make sure to check out our at-home climate change activities.)

Food sustains us and helps us come together. Over time, changes in food production and consumption have driven changes in human morphology and behavior (and vice versa). NCSE offers three activities on evolution and food that work individually—each as an afternoon activity—or together as a week-long unit of hands-on evolutionary activities about something your child experiences every day.

Evolution of Food materials

First, step right up and experience Evolution of Food, in which participants will learn about the evolution of dog and crop domestication in this hands-on carnival-themed game. Watch wolves change into dogs before your very eyes, taste ancient food that predates domestication, and explore an archaeological test pit.

  • You’ll need: Beads (for a mess-free test pit) and small items to hide in your test pit.
  • You’ll download: Our dog domestication cards, food game, and activity guide.
  • K-5 extension: Choose a favorite recipe and research the wild plants and animals that contribute to the ingredients. Make your own version of our food game cards and challenge an adult to build your recipe!
  • 6-8 extension: Now it’s your turn to create an archaeological mystery. Archaeologists use lots of different pieces of evidence to determine the context of a site. Develop a site where the inhabitants gradually changed from one tool to another. Then develop a site where all the inhabitants died off suddenly. How did you model this in your test pit?
  • 9-12 extension: Our dog game modeled one theory for how dogs were domesticated, but many animals followed a different path. Research the process of domestication for a different animal, then make your own version of the game.
Digestion experiment

Then, take on In Case of Cellulose, where you and your child can explore the processes of digestion. As you dive into the digestive tracts of four species—human, panda, horse, and cow—you’ll explore how food is processed. From mechanical digestion in the mouth to chemical digestion in the intestines, In Case of Cellulose provides a fun interactive take on one of the largest systems in the body.

  • You’ll need: “Digestive Boli” (Follow our cheap and food-safe bath bomb recipe) and "intestine tubes (we suggest reusable straws).
  • You’ll download: Our activity guide.
  • K-5 extension: Now that you’ve traveled through the digestive system, can you draw what you did? Choosing one of the four animals, draw their digestive system, noting what each part does.
  • 6-8 extension: Choose a difficult food to process, such as nuts. Research three animals with evolutionary adaptations for processing these foods. Redo the cellulose experiment, substituting these adaptations in place of the cellulose adaptations.
  • 9-12 extension: We’ve built a simplistic model of digestion, but many other organs are involved in digestion. Research how the liver and pancreas contribute to digestion. Can you figure out a way to include them in your digestion model (for example, using filter paper)?
To Lose A Tooth game cards

Finally, To Lose a Tooth explores the impacts of food technology on human diversity and behavior. Designed primarily for learners ages eight and older, this board game presents an evolutionary puzzle focused on human teeth. Participants explore how natural selection, sexual selection, gene flow, and isolation result in genetic diversity. Using wooden jaw pieces and teeth of various sizes, participants aim to keep their population alive as food production technologies change and events such as migration, tooth impaction, and conflict come into play.

  • You’ll need: Scissors (we have a complete version of the game online, but a lot of cutting is involved).
  • You’ll download: Our board game, pieces, and activity guide.
  • K-5 extension: It’s time for an experiment! Get equal-sized portions of cooked and raw potatoes, and ripe and unripe bananas (to represent pre-domestic bananas). Mash each and record how long it takes to fully process. Why do you think adopting agriculture and industry may have helped human populations?
  • 6-8 extension: In To Lose a Tooth, gaining technology points allows you to have more people in your society. However, there were certainly some drawbacks to adopting agriculture or industry. Make a poster about the strengths and weaknesses of agriculture, pastoralism, and industry.
  • 9-12 extension: This board game allows you to see the impact of sexual selection, natural selection, gene flow, and isolation in your populations. What happens if you remove one of these processes? Identify the mechanism(s) in the game that are linked to each process and experiment with adding or removing elements. How does this change the outcome of the game and the best choices for winning?
Kate Carter
Short Bio

Kate Carter is Director of Community Science Education at NCSE.