5 Dynamic Activities for Teaching Inherited Traits & Learned Behavior (with a FREEBIE!)

Nature versus nurture is an age-old debate that shapes every individual in varying ways, and there is still plenty of research to be done. Every single living creature is unique due to their genetic code as well as their environment. To help your upper elementary science students grasp this idea, it’s important to emphasize the difference between inherited traits and learned behaviors.

In short, inherited traits are passed down from parents and provide a foundation, while learned behaviors are the actions or behaviors that are gained through experiences and the environment. Basically, inherited traits make up the clay: its color, texture, amount, and its other basic traits. Then, the clay is gradually shaped by learned behaviors into something unique!

Besides the importance of helping your kiddos understand heredity, exploring inherited traits and learned behaviors is also necessary to satisfy NGSS 3-LS3-1: “Analyze and interpret data to provide evidence that plants and animals have traits inherited from parents and that variation of these traits exists in a group of similar organisms.”

Okay, that’s a mouthful. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to mold that standard into activities that are much easier for your students to understand! Let’s dive right in.

Activities for Teaching Inherited Traits vs. Learned Behaviors

1. Creature Creation

For this first activity, it’s time to get creative! Students will create their very own creatures, taking care to include a healthy variety of traits. Alongside their creatures, students should also record several specific inherited traits about their creature, such as eye color, fur or skin color, number of legs, and so on. Encourage students to think outside the box!

Then, students should come up with ideas as to what learned behaviors their creature would acquire based on its environment. Would the creature learn to communicate with others of its kind, or would it be a lone wolf who has no need for communication? Would it learn to live near cities or far away? There are plenty of opportunities.

Once every creature has a short list of a few inherited and acquired traits, it’s time to create a family tree. It can be simple, like using squares and circles to represent males and females rather than having to draw every relative. The main idea here is to label these relatives with their own traits.

For instance, if a student’s creature has green eyes, pink fur, and four legs, then the eye color, fur color, and number of legs should be labeled on each relative in order to identify inherited traits. They should also come up with a couple learned traits for these family members in order to establish the understanding of both learned and inherited traits.

If you’re looking for an added challenge, students can group up and share their family trees and have other group members identify the inherited traits and learned behaviors.

In the same vein, you can explore the genetics side of inherited traits with a similar activity using jelly beans! You can read my blog post about that activity here.

2. Family Trait Survey

This activity involves bringing papers home, so I guess it’s time for homework! Gasp!

To start, have student create a list of categories for inherited and learned traits, such as eye color, hair color, height, talents, favorite color, and so on. These lists will serve as the basis for surveys that your students will conduct! They should bring these lists home and interview various family members, recording their answers for each category. Encourage students to ask as many family members as possible!

Once students have collected their answers, they should take the time to determine which traits they have inherited and which traits they may have learned from their family members. This can be done in-class, as it’s important to have a discussion following these traits’ identification. It’s also a great opportunity for critical thinking questions, such as “Which traits are the most common? Why do you think that is?”

3. Scientific Charades

You know how much I love cooperative learning, so it’s time to break students up into groups! For this activity, students will take turns acting out an animal of their choice as well as a learned or inherited trait of that animal. The other students in the group should try to guess the action and then identify the trait as either learned or inherited.

For example, a student may act out having large ears (an inherited trait) or riding a bike (a learned trait). Of course, acting out certain traits may be tricky, so it’s okay to simplify things by pointing to your eyes or hair as examples of inherited traits. Remember, though, to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and creativity!

4. Trait Timeline

Creating timelines is always a great way to heighten the engagement in the classroom, and they’re so versatile, too. In fact, I even wrote an entire blog post about ten different ways to create timelines! For this activity, any kind of timeline will work. The goal is to create a model showing moments in students’ lives where they noticed or acquired traits!

Many inherited traits may be present from birth, such as eye color or hair color (though if you’re like me, your hair got darker later in life…), while learned behaviors manifest later on, like learning to ride a bike at seven years old. Encourage students to think outside of the box—what kinds of inherited traits may appear later on in the timeline rather than at the very beginning, like height? It’s important to remember that these are still inherited rather than acquired.

Students should also apply their critical thinking skills here to recognize what patterns may be on the timeline. When do inherited traits appear? When do learned behaviors appear? Are there exceptions? The possibilities for student inquiry are endless.

5. Sorting Traits

If you’re looking for something you can just grab and go while still being a quick, engaging activity—and especially one that you don’t have to prepare—then you’re in luck! I’ve got a freebie here just for you. Find it here, or click the image below!

This activity is relatively straightforward: provide each student with both pages, the chart and the words, then instruct them to cut out the words and sort them under the correct category. Of course, if you don’t want to deal with all the glue and the paper scraps, I totally get it. Instead, you can use the second page as a word bank, or you can even encourage students to come up with their own learned behaviors and inherited traits for the chart.

Learning about heredity can seem overwhelming at first, especially to upper elementary students, but it doesn’t have to be! With these engaging activities, kiddos will have a blast exploring the differences between inherited traits and learned behaviors.

Do you have any go-to activities for teaching inherited traits? If you do, share them below for all to see! Don’t forget to sign up for my email list, too, while you’re here. You don’t want to miss out on future math and science blog posts that are sure to make your lesson plans a breeze. It’s a great way to save time!

Thanks for reading!

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