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Food for Thought Lesson Plans

Wonderful Watersheds

Grade Level

Grades 3-5


Students will be able to describe a watershed, how water flows through a system, the importance of water and how farmers and people can impact the quality of our water.


Day 1: 30 minutes
Day 2: 60 minutes
Day 3: 30 minutes

Day 1
Day 2
  • Water soluble makers (4 colors with one being blue)
  • Spray bottle (1-4)
  • 8 ½ X 11” white paper
  • Paper to take notes if desired
Day 3
  • Watershed: a watershed is the area of land where all of the water that falls in it and drains off of it goes into the same place
  • Irrigation: the supply of water in intervals to land or crops to help them grow
  • Stewardship: the care, handling and management of resources
  • Conserve: protect from harm or destruction
  • Cover Crop: a crop grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil
Background—Agricultural Connections

A watershed is a geographic area in which water, sediment and dissolved minerals all drain into a common body of water like a stream, creek, reservoir, or bay. Within each watershed, all water runs to the lowest point such as a stream, river, or lake. On its way, water travels over the surface and across farms, fields, forest lands, suburban lawns, and city streets; or it seeps into the soil and travels as groundwater.

A watershed includes all the plants, animals and people who live in it, as well as the non-living components like rocks and soil. We are all part of a watershed, and everything we do can affect the surface and groundwater that runs through this system.

Agriculture and farmers can have an important impact on the watershed and our water resources. We cannot survive without the food, clothing and shelter we get from agriculture and without water, agriculture cannot happen. Water is needed to grow plants and animals and to process raw materials into products we use. Farmers also use crop irrigation. Farmers and other people involved in agriculture must work to conserve and protect the water in our watershed. A few actions that farmers do to protect our water include:

  • Planting grass strips between crops and streams, lakes and other surface water. The grassy area slows water running off the crop fields and also traps and filters soil, nutrients, pesticides and other potential pollutants before they reach the streams and lakes.
  • Leaving plant remnants such as stalks or leaves on fields after harvesting instead of plowing them into the soil. This reduces the amount of soil that is eroded and washed into our water resources. Farmers also plant crops in strips, alternating row crops (such as corn) with hay or pasture crops to hold the soil in place and keep our water clean.
  • Keeping manure and livestock animal wastes contained helps keep these potential pollutants out of rivers, wetlands and lakes.

All of us live in a watershed so everyone can have an impact on the water quality, as well as the animals and plants that share life in the watershed. Some actions that everyone can take to protect water include:

  • Plant and Grow – If there are bare spots in the yard, plant grass, shrubs, etc. Plants prevent erosion which leads to soil being moved through the watershed into our lakes and rivers
  • Sweep hard surfaces like sidewalks, driveways and basketball courts with a broom instead of spraying with a hose. Water is saved and harmful pollutants are kept out of storm drains.
  • Do not dump used motor oil, hazardous chemicals, pet waste or any other materials down the storm drains or on the ground. The water in storm drains flows into rivers, lakes or other bodies of water and could end up in our drinking water.
Interest Approach - Engagement
  1. Ask students to list several products that farmers produce. If needed, be sure students know that farmers produce food, flowers, fibers such as cotton, and even forestry products to provide lumber. List several items on the board.
  2. Next, ask students to look at the list they have created and identify what things farmers need to grow these items. Students might recognize land, seed, sunlight, or animals. Use guided questions until they identify water as a necessary element.
  3. Use a class discussion to help students begin to recognize the importance of water in our lives and the importance of water to agriculture. Without water, farmers could not produce our food, fiber, and other necessities of life.
Day 1:
  1. Begin the lesson by asking students to think about what people, plants and animals need to survive (Interest Approach). List these resources on a board or chart paper.
    • Follow up by stating during the next 2 days, the class will be focusing on one very important resource that all things need to survive: water.
  2. Continue to explain that water isn't a resource we can create (review the water cycle if needed) and the water we use today is the same water the dinosaurs drank when they roamed the earth.
    • Post on a chart paper, or whiteboard the word “Watershed”. Pass out sticky notes to students and ask students to brainstorm what they think a watershed is or what questions they might have. When students have an idea they should post the sticky note next to the word.
    • After a few minutes read a few of the sticky notes to the class without any additional explanations or answers.
  3. Share with students today will be about exploring what a watershed is and how we are all part of a watershed no matter where we are on earth.
    • Show the video What is a Watershed twice. The first time students only watch and the second time have students jot down notes that could help them answer the questions:
      • What is a watershed?
      • What is included in a watershed?
    • Ask students to use their notes to describe what a watershed is and what is included in a watershed. Have students share their thoughts in small groups and/or facilitate a class discussion. Take notes on student discussion
  4. Let's take a quick look at watersheds in Minnesota
    • Use Map 40 Major Cities and Waterways in Minnesota as a starting point for discussing watersheds in Minnesota. This map only shows large lakes and rivers in Minnesota. Discuss with students:
      • How are these large waterways involved in watersheds?(water collects in small streams and waterways that eventually flow into these large rivers and lakes)
      • Think about smaller lakes, streams and ponds that are not on the map. Minnesota is known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes so there are a lot of waterways and bodies of water that are not on this map. How are these smaller lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, involved in watersheds?
    • Show students the Minnesota watershed basins map from the Minnesota Department of Natural resources.
      You can clarify the difference between a watershed and basin using this information from the DNR - Both river basins and watersheds are areas of land that drain to a particular water body, such as a lake, stream, river or estuary. In a river basin, all the water drains to a large river. The term watershed is used to describe a smaller area of land that drains to a smaller stream, lake or wetland. There are many smaller watersheds within a river basin.
    • Assist students in finding your school and community on the Minnesota watershed basin map. Identify your watershed name as well as the River Basin where you are located.
    • Explain to the class that you will be looking at how different actions of humans and the environment can impact watersheds. Tomorrow they will all be creating their own watershed and witnessing these impacts.
Day 2:
  1. Tell students it's time to create their own watershed! Review with students what they learned about watersheds the previous day. *As the teacher, create a map with the students, but don't spray your “teacher map” until tomorrow's lesson.
    • Give each student an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of paper and instruct them to crumple the paper into a tight ball. Gently open the paper, but don't flatten completely. Tell students that this piece of crumpled paper represents a watershed. Use the background information to define the word watershed with students. On their paper watershed, the highest points represent hills and the lowest wrinkles represent valleys.
    • Choose one color of water-soluble marker and have all students mark the highest points on their watershed (crinkled paper). Discuss with students the “high points” in your community and also areas of high elevation that students have visited. Example: hills
    • Discuss with students that most bodies of water are in lower elevations. Choose a second color (preferably a shade of blue) and mark the places where different bodies of water might be: creeks, rivers, lakes, etc.
    • Have students think of creeks, rivers, and lakes that they have visited and describe the land around these water features.
    • With a third color, mark two to three spaces to represent human settlements: housing, factories, shopping centers, office buildings, schools, etc.
    • With a fourth color, mark two to three agricultural areas where plants and/or animals could be raised.
      • *If not done yet, create a key for each color marker used to discussion at the end of the lesson
    • Use the spray bottles to lightly spray the finished maps. The spray represents rain (precipitation) falling into the watershed. Discuss students' observations about how water travels through the system. For older students, have partners or a small groups take notes of their observations before sharing. Save notes for day 3. Some questions to ask:
      • What changes did you observe in the maps?
      • Where does most of the rain fall?
      • What path does the water follow?
      • What happens to the human settlement areas – are they in the way of a raging river or crumbling hillside?
      • How would the flow of water through a watershed in real life affect our choice of building sites?
      • What happens to the agricultural areas – would the water flowing from these areas impact any other areas?
      • What actions do you think farmers take in real life to protect the water quality?
      • How does your map demonstrate the idea of a watershed?
  2. Explain to students tomorrow they will be using their knowledge of a watershed and their observations to learn about water stewardship.
Day 3:
  1. Begin the lesson by having students review what they have previously learned about watersheds and what they think the word stewardship means. One option is to have students discuss the terms watershed and stewardship in small groups. Have these small groups report back to the entire class and create working “class definitions” for these important vocabulary terms.
  2. Take out the “teacher map”watershed that was created yesterday along with the notes students/class took about their watershed observations. Spray the “teacher map” watershed and have a discussion with students about:
    • What impact human settlements might have on the bodies of water (Use the water for drinking, sanitation, etc, actions such as lawn irrigation, pollution, etc. can impact the water sources)
    • The needs of plants and animals in agricultural areas (water, food, shelter) and also how the actions of the animals/crop production might impact the water (animal waste, pollution)
  3. Explain to students farmers not only care for the animals and plants they raise, but also the soil and water.
    • Farmers understand water is a nonrenewable resource; water needs to be taken care of! We can't make more water.
    • Teachers can use the Google Slides Presentation focused on stewardship and conservation strategies. Some practices farmers use to be good stewards are:
      • Buffers Strips: area near water with permanent vegetation (not planted for crops) to help reduce erosion and water pollution
      • Adjust irritation times to account for rainfall
      • Planting cover crops to reduce erosion
      • Keep animals waste (manure) contained and apply to soil accurately
      • Safely and accurately using crop protection chemicals to reduce overuse
        New technology allows farmers to apply nutrients and crop-protection products in the correct amounts
  4. Discuss with students not only are farmers stewards of our land, but every person can be a steward.
    • Create a list with the class describing ways they can be good stewards. Some explains may include:
      • Pick up trash
      • Recycling
      • Using reusable bags, straws etc.
      • Never dump anything down storm drains- this water goes directly to the nearest body of water and doesn't go through the treatment process
      • Clean up after pets
      • Turn water off when brushing teeth
      • Adults: reduce fertilizer on yards and limit salt used during the winter
    • After the discussion, have students create a stewardship plan to protect water. Remind students of the impact one person can have on something that is important to all living things.
Local Flavor

Research local watersheds and create a watershed model for their county, ask a DNR Officer to present on water quality and the importance, clean up trash around local lakes/ponds (if able to), create a plan to reduce water pollution in the neighborhood and create a public service announcement, research about St. Anthony Falls' change and usage over time.

Did you know? (Ag Facts)
  • Over 70% of Earth is covered in water but only a small amount is freshwater.
  • Only 5% of all the water on Earth is freshwater
  • Only a small drop (3%) of the freshwater on Earth is accessible because the rest is trapped in groundwater, the atmosphere, glaciers and ice caps.
  • Groundwater is the easiest to access, but that still leaves us with over 68% of our water supply that is salt water or unaccessible.
Enriching Activities
  • Research your local watershed district and invite a representative to speak with your students about watershed management.
  • Contact your local Natural Resource Conservation Service and/or Soil and Water Conservation District to see if there are educational resources available, guest speakers and possibly an EnviroScape demonstration model.
  • Invite a local farmer to visit your classroom and talk with your students about how he/she uses different conservation methods to protect the water supply.
  • Play the My American Farm interactive game Wild Water Adventures.
Adapted from:

Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom's Wad-a-Watershed lesson.

Minnesota Academic Standards
Social Studies - Geography: Use maps and concepts of location (relative location words and cardinal and intermediate directions) to describe places in one's community, the state of Minnesota, the United States or the world. Explain how humans adapt to and/or modify the physical environment and how they are in turn affected by these adaptations and modifications.


4E. Ask questions about how water moves through the Earth system and identify the type of question. (P: 1, CC: 5, CI: ESS2) Emphasis is on the processes of evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Examples of types of questions may include those that can be tested by an experiment, and questions that may be answered from a text.

4E. Make observations and measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by the forces of water, ice, wind, or vegetation.* (P: 3, CC: 2, CI: ESS2) Emphasis is on predicting the rate of change when variables are changed. Examples of variables to test may include angle of slope in the downhill movement of water, amount of vegetation, speed of wind, relative rate of deposition, cycles of freezing and thawing of water, cycles of heating and cooling, and volume of water flow.

Common Core Connections
Grade 3 Speaking & Listening, Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.1 a-d.-Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 3 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.3.4-Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.3.8-Recall information from experiences or gather information from print and digital sources; take brief notes on sources and sort evidence into provided categories.

Grade 4 Speaking & Listening, Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.1 a-d.-Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.4-Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.4.8- Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; take notes and categorize information, and provide a list of sources.

Grade 5 Speaking & Listening, Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.5.1 a-d. Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.5.4-Report on a topic or text or present an opinion, sequencing ideas logically and using appropriate facts and relevant, descriptive details to support main ideas or themes; speak clearly at an understandable pace.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.W.5.8-Recall relevant information from experiences or gather relevant information from print and digital sources; summarize or paraphrase information in notes and finished work, and provide a list of sources.