Living or Non-Living? Characteristics of Life

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Submitted by: Julia Kadi
Grade level: secondary,middle-years
Core Competencies: communication,creative-thinking,critical-thinking
Subject Disciplines: biology,chemistry,earth-science-and-space-science,outdoor-education

This is a great opportunity to teach students about the Characteristics of Life, allowing them to then apply their new knowledge by determining whether some members of their local ecosystems are living or non-living, using the characteristics of life to back up their answers. This activity gets students outside, immersed in their local environment, making connections to the natural world while fostering stronger connections to course content!

Background Knowledge: 

Western Scientists have come up with a list of seven characteristics that an organism must possess in order to be considered a “living” thing. These seven characteristics are:

  1. Made up of one or more cells
  2. Take in nutrients
  3. Use energy
  4. Produce waste that must be removed
  5. Respond to stimuli
  6. Growth
  7. Reproduction

Students will be introduced to these characteristics of life through a Canva presentation, and then will use their new knowledge when exploring their local environments, deciding whether or not different things are living or non-living.

Learning Objectives: what will the students know?

  • I can recall a number of the seven characteristics of life
  • I can use my knowledge of the seven characteristics of life to determine whether something is living or non-living
  • I can back up my decision of whether something is living or non-living using evidence and tying it back to the characteristics of life

Curricular Competencies: what will the students do? 

  • I can communicate thorough and detailed observations through the use of words and/or drawings
  • I can use my critical thinking skills to determine whether something is living or non-living
  • I can use my knowledge of scientific reasoning by using evidence to support my claims of what is living/non-living


  1. Canva presentation on the characteristics of life/Indigenous ways of knowing
  2. Living or Non-Living Worksheet (enough for every student)
  3. Clipboards (enough for pairs of students)
  4. Writing utensil (enough for every student)
  5. Weather-appropriate clothing
  6. First aid kit
  7. Watch to keep track of the time

Learning Activity: 

  1. Greet students, and give them a rundown of the day and what we will be doing
  2. Introduce students to the topic of the Characteristics of Living things, and introduce them to the learning objectives and curricular competencies for the day
  3. Go through Canva presentation with students, introducing them to the 7 characteristics of living things as identified through a Western Science perspective
  4. Introduce students to different perspectives; Indigenous perspective which sees the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water, as living things although they do not satisfy the Western Science 7 characteristics of life
  5. Introduce students to outside activity, let them know the objective of the activity and what the expectations are, as well as any safety considerations
  6. Pass out materials and head outside to designated area. For me, this is a small forest right behind Sutherland, where there are lots of different plants, trees, rocks, and a small creek as well.
  7. Once at designated area, ensure students are aware of physical boundaries
  8. While outside, students will be using their worksheets to practice their observation skills of different objects, such as a leaf or soil or pond water, and using their knowledge of the characteristics of life to determine whether the object is living or non-living
  9. Afterwards, we will return to the class and each pair will have the opportunity to share an object they found, whether they thought it was living or non-living, and evidence backing up their claim
  10. Revisit learning objectives, see if we have obtained them
  11. Exit slip! Ask students: Why do you think it is important to consider perspectives other than Western Science? and Soil: Living or Non-living? Use 1 or more characteristics of life to back up your answer.


  • This lesson provides the opportunity for formative assessment
  • First, the students will be handing in their worksheets, and the worksheets can assess all three of the learning objectives, as well as all of the curricular competencies. Feedback provided on the worksheets can allow students to identify areas that that need improvement, as well as areas that are strengths
  • The exit slip also provides another way in which formative assessment can take place, as well as critical thinking skills in terms of the importance of including differing perspectives in science education


  • I think this lesson has a very accessible starting point, with room for extension
  • Certain accommodations that can be made are providing students with a copy of the notes that will be covered in the presentation, and then students can use these notes while completing the learning activity
  • Another accommodation could be providing students with a checklist of the 7 characteristics of life, and then for each object they observe they can check off which characteristics it has, determining whether or not it is living or non-living. This may help for students with recall difficulties
  • If students don’t feel comfortable sharing their discoveries in a class discussion, a Padlet could be used which allows students to post things to an anonymous online bulletin board

Safety Considerations: 

  • Weather conditions, students should be warned in advance of this activity so that they know to come prepared
  • Dangers of the outdoors, possible wildlife, or harmful plants/fungi. Students should refrain from touching anything, but if are really curious ask the teacher to make sure it’s okay
  • Individual student concerns such as students with allergies, students with health conditions that make still water a risk
  • Sun protection and hydration if a hot day
  • Staying with the group, ensuring no one gets lost or strays too far, setting and enforcing physical boundaries
  • General first aid, ensuring a first aid kit is brought along
  • Having a cell phone to call in the case of an emergency


  • students will be reminded to respect the environment they are learning from
  • asked not to leave any garbage or intentionally disrupt any landscapes
  • also asked not to take anything with them, and if handling items be gentle and leave them where you found them!


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