Teach Kids About Evolution and Biomimicry

Evolution and biomimicry make for a great pairing: how life evolves, the incredible traits and abilities animals have evolved, and how scientists and engineers are studying these traits and abilities to solve problems and help people. We begin these lessons with evolution, of course. After that, in the biomimicry section, each exploration begins with learning about an animal. Then, kids look at how that animal has inspired design and technology. Finally, I suggest a hands-on activity related to the animal and the designs it has inspired.

One challenge with choosing the activities here is that elementary-aged kids can’t be expected to produce an independent, successful, bio-inspired design for each animal here (this is a challenge even for scientists!). Since that was off the table, I chose activities that further explore the animals’ abilities or give the kids an entry point into types of science or engineering. So kids might look at the mechanics of camouflage when studying squids and octopuses, learn human echolocation when studying bats, or build their own robot when learning about robot bees.

What Kids Will Do

In these explorations, kids might…

  • Play a variety of games that simulate evolution
  • Make a sponge fossil
  • Fold and fly bird-like paper airplanes
  • Build a camera obscura
  • Make polarized light collages
  • Test the strength of materials
  • Practice human echolocation
  • Make pinhole viewers
  • Build a doodlebot
  • And more

Read On

  • Amazing Evolution, Anna Claybourne and Wesley Robbins [Amazon | Bookshop] — An extremely comprehensive introduction to evolution, with sections on types of evolution, how life began, common ancestors, the development of dinosaurs, mammals, and humans, and so much more. The illustrations are beautiful, too, and there are plenty of fascinating animal examples on every page. 
  • Grandmother Fish: A Child’s First Book About Evolution, Jonathan Tweet and Karen Lewis [Amazon | Bookshop] — Grandmother Fish is the standard book for kids about evolution, but I have mixed feelings. The story itself feels geared toward very little kids, and yet I think by the time they can grasp what the story is truly about, they’d be ready for a more sophisticated explanation of evolution (like Amazing Evolution). Kids often do enjoy reading it, though I think most of its value is in the material at the back: the evolutionary family tree and the “correcting common errors” sections. Go ahead and read this one, but if you want one book about evolution, make it Amazing Evolution.
  • Beastly Bionics: Rad Robots, Brilliant Biomimicry, and Incredible Inventions Inspired by Nature, Jennifer Swanson [Amazon | Bookshop] — This is my favorite of the biomimicry books for kids. The information here is accurate and up to date, and it features big, colorful photographs, like most National Geographic Kids books. The downside is simply that it’s more of a browsing book than a read-right-through book, but if you’re looking for an engaging text about biomimicry for kids, I think this is it.
  • Biomimicry: When Nature Inspires Amazing Inventions, Séraphine Menu and Emmanuelle Walker [Amazon | Bookshop] — I have mixed feelings about this book. Here’s the good: Many biomimicry books for kids are dated-looking and too crammed with information, and an advantage of this one is its (relative) brevity. You can get an overview pretty quickly. And the illustrations and colors here are absolutely beautiful. But now for the bad: The authors write about evolution somewhat unhelpfully, portraying it as something very organized and planned, and readers can get the impression that animals are “optimized.” There are also some inaccuracies in their discussion of termite mounds (though this inaccuracy is oft-repeated in biomimicry books and the fact that a building was designed after examining termite mounds, even if it was designed based on an inaccurate understanding of the mounds, is still good example of biomimicry). So while I wouldn’t recommend against reading it, but I would suggest stopping on certain pages to discuss what’s inaccurate or misleading in the text. 
  • Wild Ideas: Let Nature Inspire Your Thinking, Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim [Amazon | Bookshop] — This brief picture book offers just enough to get kids curious about how animals solve problems, use tools, cooperate, and teach each other. A line or two about each animal is woven into the text, which encourages children to use imagination and creative thinking to solve their own problems. To delve into these topics a bit more, the author has a mini-podcast, with episodes just a minute or two long, about some of the animals mentioned in the book.
  • Obsessive About Octopuses, Owen Davey [Amazon | Bookshop] — Davey’s books about animals are always gorgeously illustrated — the art and design are superb — and if you like octopuses, this book is pretty thorough. It has lots of basic facts, of course, but also fascinating spreads on the mimic octopus, the relative sizes of different octopus species, octopuses in mythology, and a fun page of “superlative” octopuses (most fashionable, most sociable, best digger). It’s the sort of book that might send you on a search for octopus videos (as it did for me when I was reading it). 
  • Bones, Steve Jenkins [Amazon | Bookshop] — This beautifully designed and wonderful book compares skeletons from humans and lots of other animals — including some pages with bones shown at actual size — and includes great fold-out pages of human and snake skeletons. It has loads of great information presented in a way even a 3- or 4-year-old can enjoy and understand, and a section at the back has more in-depth information for older kids. It’s perfectly done and fascinating for kids and adults alike.
  • Feathers: Not Just for Flying, Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen [Amazon | Bookshop] — A nice little book about the many different ways that birds use their feathers: for digging, for display, for shade, for warmth, for sound, and more. There are also great spreads comparing feathers from different birds and also comparing different types of feathers (and their functions) from the same bird. 
  • What If You Had Animal Eyes (and series), Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam [Amazon | Bookshop] — Each book in this series focuses on a different animal part: feet [Amazon | Bookshop], eyes, ears [Amazon | Bookshop], nose, and so on. The eyes book, for instance, profiles 11 animals with incredible vision and imagines how a child’s life might be different if she had each animal’s eyes. The illustrations are truly wacky, showing kids with four-eyed fish eyes or jackrabbit ears or cheetah paws, but that only adds to the charm. These books are fun ways to explore how animals are adapted to their habitats and how many functions a body part can have.
  • Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species, Marianne Taylor and Merlin D. Tuttle [Amazon | Bookshop] — This heavy volume is likely intended for adults or child enthusiasts: people who want photos of every type of bat, maps of their locations, and compact descriptions in tiny text. But the photography is amazing, and animal-loving kids might have a blast flipping through this and admiring all the different bat ears, for example, or pointing out the really fluffy ones (like the Lesser Woolly Bat).
  • The Bat, Elise Gravel [Amazon | Bookshop] — Part of Gravel’s Disgusting Critters series, this is a very cute illustrated introduction to bats and perfectly suited to beginning readers (though also just as good for reading aloud). The information here is fairly basic, but it’s a good way to get an overview quickly, and the cartoons on each page will make kids laugh. 
  • Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again, Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Craig Hatkoff [Amazon | Bookshop] — This book is a bit long-winded and not especially thrilling, but if you’re eager to learn more about Winter the dolphin and her incredible prosthetic tail, this is a fine way to do it. It covers Winter’s story from her injury, to being rescued by the aquarium, and finally to receiving her new tail and learning to swim with it. It’s filled with photographs, not illustrations, and so it’s a handy resource, too, for getting a better look at the design of her tail.
  • Spiders, Gail Gibbons [Amazon | Bookshop] — Although I find it’s hard to get really excited about Gail Gibbons’s books, they’re still really solid non-fiction. This illustrated book covers the basics about spiders, with a short detour into myth (Arachne) and an enjoyable section about different types of notable spiders (trapdoor spiders, crab spiders, and water spiders, for instance). I longed for photographs of these unusual spiders, but of course you can just hop on a computer and look them up. 
  • The Bee Book, Charlotte Milner [Amazon | Bookshop] — A terrific book about bees for slightly older children (5/6+), with an emphasis on the importance of preserving habitats and the environment.



Read: In Amazing Evolution, Anna Claybourne and Wesley Robbins [Amazon | Bookshop]: “Introduction” 4-5; “What Is Evolution?,” “The Variety of Life” 8-11; “The Big Idea,” “It’s All in the Genes,” “New Species” 14-19

Watch: The Cosmic Calendar
(You can also map this out together on a sheet of paper.)

Read: “Types of Evolution” (sexual selection, kin selection, selective breeding, and coevolution), Amazing Evolution 22-23

Watch: Evolution 101 (quick, but simple and short)

Watch: The 12 Days of Evolution — Complete Series (longer, but on a variety of evolution topics)

Activity: Preying on beans
Using a variety of beans and environments (hard flooring, carpet, and/or grass), this game helps kids demonstrate and model selection and adaptation.

Watch: How Dogs (Eventually) Became Our Best Friends (somewhat complicated and mostly with information about how domestication happened and not breeds)
A (Brief) History of Dogs

Activity: Selective breeding dog game
In this card game, kids can make choices about what to do with a wolf and see if their choices lead to domestication (and what sort of breed they get). The game is simplified and condensed (domestication doesn’t happen in just one generation), but it’s it’s a fun and handy way to explore the way that human choices can impact evolution. Here are the directions and materials (pages 19-24).

Activity: Bean Counter Evolution
A really fun and active game to demonstrate evolutionary fitness. All you need are beans, cups, and a variety of kitchen utensils. (The instructions recommend at least 15 players for this, but I’ve played it successfully with only four.)

Read: “Fossils,” Amazing Evolution 30
Activity: Fossilization experiment (takes place over about a week)
Soak a sponge “fossil” in salt water and then let it sit to demonstrate how fossils are made. You can do this experiment by burying the “fossil” in sand or simply by leaving it out to dry on a dish. I did it with sand, and children love that, but the sponge didn’t quite dry out after a week. After we dug it out, we let it sit on a dish for a day or two to become hard and for the salt to seem more noticeable. Instructions for doing the experiment with sand here, and instructions for without sand here.

Read: “How Life Began,” “Out to the Sea,” “Age of the Dinosaurs,” “Rise of the Mammals,” “Here Come the Humans!,” “Lucy” Amazing Evolution 32-43
Watch: Seven Million Years of Human Evolution
There Was No First Human
Proof of Evolution That You Can Find on Your Body (about vestigial traits in humans

Read: “Is All of Life a Tree?,” “Which Is Which?” Amazing Evolution 51-3
Watch: Explaining the Tree of Life

Activity: Group animals according to nearest relatives
If you have animal flashcards or animal figurines, have kids try to identify which ones are close relatives (and explain why they think so), then group them together.

Read: Coevolution: “Plants and Pollinators” Amazing Evolution 60-1
Watch: This Vibrating Bumblebee Unlocks a Flower’s Hidden Treasure

Activity: NOVA Evolution Lab puzzles
This free online game is a fascinating way to explore evolution. Some kindergarteners will be able to play this on their own, but it’s perfect for older kids (and you can play it with younger children if you explain as you go, too).


Read: Wild Ideas: Let Nature Inspire Your Thinking, Elin Kelsey and Soyeon Kim [Amazon | Bookshop]
Optional read: Biomimicry: When Nature Inspires Amazing Inventions, Séraphine Menu and Emmanuelle Walker [Amazon | Bookshop]

Discussion & Activity: Function as it relates to biology and human design and identifying function in nature
This resource has a handy discussion of function and an activity to explore function in nature. Find the activity guide here and the function cards here.

Activity: Discuss function in human design
The PDF here helps kids consider the functions of familiar objects like shoes, phones, and houses. (A typo or two, but the content is good.)

Cephalopods, Skin, and Camouflage

Read: “What Are Octopuses?,” “By Design,” “Dress for Success,” “All an Act” (about the mimic octopus), Obsessive About Octopuses, Owen Davey [Amazon | Bookshop]

Watch: Nature’s Masters of Disguise
Story Time: A Very Special Moth (the evolution of the peppered moth, to demonstrate a fairly rapid evolutionary change with respect to camouflage)

Watch: My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
At your discretion. I showed it to 4- and 6-year-olds, and everyone cried, but it was beautiful and inspired a real love for octopuses. Be aware that it deals with death and is, at times, heartbreaking.

Watch: Glass octopus encounter
Mimic Octopus: Master of Disguise

Watch: Where’s the Cuttlefish?
Can Cuttlefish Camouflage in a Living Room?
Cuttlefish Hypnotizes Its Prey

Biomimicry: Squid Tape and Thermocomfort Material
Watch: Squid-Inspired “Invisibility Stickers” Could Help Soldiers
For further information: Squid tape and thermocomfort material

Activity: Demonstrate how camouflage works
A simple activity, requiring just some permanent markers, construction paper, and a clear plastic sheet, to explore camouflage. Instructions here. For the plastic sheet, I found that a clear plastic storage box lid worked just fine!

Birds, Hands and Arms, and Flight

Read: “Shared Features: Hands” Amazing Evolution 46-7
Bones, Steve Jenkins [Amazon | Bookshop]

Watch: What Is Impossible in Evolution? (This video attempts to explain why humans can’t or haven’t evolved wings. Bonus video, if kids are very interested, since it’s quite long.)

Watch: Claws vs. Nails

Read: “Into the Air” Amazing Evolution 58-9
Feathers: Not Just for Flying, Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen [Amazon | Bookshop]
Birds and Their Wing Shapes

Watch: Soar Alongside Migrating Birds — and the Man Who Flies With Them

Activity: Flap Like a Bird
In this activity, kids try to keep up with the flapping speed of various birds (some of whom are incredibly fast!). Instructions here.

Biomimicry: Aircraft
Watch: How Birds Can Teach Us to Build Better Airplanes

Activity: Paper Airplanes That Fly Like Birds
A fun activity from the Audubon Society (we found that some worked better than others, though give your folding skills a try!). Instructions here.

Cats, Geckos, Mantis Shrimp, Eyes, and Vision

Read: “Eye-Volution” Amazing Evolution 56-7

Watch: Bill Nye The Science Guy on The Eyeball or The Visual System: How Your Eyes Work

Activity: Make a camera obscura
This video guide produces a really nice camera obscura. You can find variations many places, including here. For an explanation of how the camera obscura works, you can watch this video.

Read: What If You Had Animal Eyes?, Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam [Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: How Animals and People See the World Differently

Optional read: On cats’ eyes and road reflectors, Beastly Bionics 26


Biomimicry: Contact Lenses and Cameras
Read: “The Eyes Have It” Beastly Bionics 82-3 (about human and gecko eyes)
For further information on gecko eyes and biomimicry, you can read here.

Most of these color-themed experiments use special equipment, so there’s no need to do all of them.

Activity: Color Table
Use colored transparencies on book or magazine images to experiment with color. Instructions here. (I found these transparencies worked well.)

Activity: Poking Fun at Art
Mix light with a simple pinhole viewer. A really enjoyable experiment that lets kids design and re-design the patterns on their viewers. Instructions here. (For this, I used these remote-controlled bulbs, which have many different color settings and can have a fun afterlife in a child’s lamp, and these socket adapters.)

Mantis Shrimp

Watch: The Amazing Ways Animals See the World

Biomimicry: Cameras and Polarized Light
Review: Study Offers Insights into Unique Color Vision of Mantis Shrimp
Review: On the camera inspired by mantis shrimp
Watch: Mantis Shrimp-Inspired Camera Enables Glimpse Into Our Hidden World

Review: Shrimp’s Eyes Inspire New Cancer-Detecting Camera

Explaining polarized light well to elementary-aged children is quite an ambitious task, but these activities allow them to play with polarization and explore it, and they’re extremely impressive and fun, too.

Activity: Exploring polarized sheets
Grown-ups, you might find it useful to watch this video first. Here’s the same video, set to play at the explanation. Here’s the same experiment, from another source, with written instructions. Polarized sheets are expensive, but these little ones will do the trick. Test your tape beforehand to make sure it works with the sheets (we used transparent Scotch tape, which worked beautifully).

Activity: Polarized sunglasses
If you have polarized sunglasses (like Babiators), take them to a nearby pond or lake and see how they change the way you see the water.

Bats, Ears, Echolocation, and Sound-Tracking Robots

Read: What If You Had Animal Ears?, Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam [Amazon | Bookshop]
The Bat, Elise Gravel [Amazon | Bookshop]
Browse (optional, but fun!): Bats: An Illustrated Guide to All Species, Marianne Taylor and Merlin D. Tuttle [Amazon | Bookshop]

Watch: Here’s What Bat Echolocation Sounds Like, Slowed Down
How bats use echolocation to find water

WatchHow People See With Sound… Feat. Molly Burke!
Activity: Experiment with human echolocation (as in the above video)
Blindfolds are very handy for this (and with us they’ve proved to be very popular beyond just this experiment). You will want to progress through the following exercises with each child:

  1. Have them make a loud “shhhhhhh” sound while they move their hands in front of their faces. Can they tell how the sound changes as their hands move around? Try the same again while they bring a book toward their faces. Ask them if they noticed a change in the sound as the book got closer to their faces.
  2. Next, have them make a loud “shhhhhhh” sound into a large mixing bowls. Can they tell how the sound is different?
  3. Now blindfolded, the parent or teacher moves mixing bowl in front of child eventually. Have the child say “stop!” when he or she detects the mixing bowl’s presence.
  4. Still blindfolded: the parent or teacher holds the mixing bowl to one side and asks the child to click their tongues loudly in various directions to try to locate the mixing bowl, then reach toward it. Hopefully after a few tries they might be able to punch right into the bowl!
  5. Next, try clicking or shhhhhing in the corners of rooms to get a sense of space
  6. Try also clicking or shhhhhing in front of doorways and to the sides of doorways to get a sense of how sound changes against a wall v. out in open space.

After you’ve done these exercises, children might want to try walking through the house blindfolded, to see if they can navigate just by using sound. (Supervise this as necessary.)

Biomimicry: Sound-Tracking Robots
Watch: Mueller Lab Sound Tracking (synthetic bat ears on robots)
More about this here.

Activity: Make a super sound cone
Full instructions here. You can also try making animal ears yourself, but I found the super sound cone experiment more enjoyable (and easier, as positioning the animal ears on top of kids’ own ears can be a little tricky). But here is the animal ears experiment, too.

Cheetahs, Goats, Dolphins, Axolotls, Feet, and Prosthetics

Here, you can start with animals that have their own prosthetics and a dolphin, Winter, whose prosthetic tail inspired the creation of a gel that is now used with human prosthetics, too. From there, these lessons move to animals that have inspired human prosthetics.

Read: What If You Had Animal Feet?, Sandra Markle and Howard McWilliam [Amazon | Bookshop]

Animals with Prosthetics

Watch: Two-Legged Dog Gets Her Wheels
Derby the Dog: Running on 3-D Printed Prosthetics

Read: Winter’s Tail: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again, Juliana Hatkoff, Isabella Hatkoff, and Craig Hatkoff
[Amazon | Bookshop]
Watch: Winter’s New Tail – Winter the Dolphin: Saving Winter – Episode 8
Read about Wintersgel here.

Octopuses and Prosthetics

Watch: MSU Researchers Study Octopus Tentacles to Improve “Smart” Prosthetics
Look: Kaylene Kau’s tentacle-inspired prosthetic arm

Plants and Prosthetics

From the Alternative Limbs Project:
Watch: The Vine Arm
Read more here and here, and explore more incredible alternative limbs here.

Cheetahs and Prosthetics

Watch: The Science of a Cheetah’s Speed
This Animal Is Inspiring Prosthetic Design

Goats and Prosthetics

Watch: The Incredible Ibex Defies Gravity and Climbs a Dam
Kai Lin (B.I.D. ’15) Designs Mountain Goat-Inspired Prosthetic for Rock Climbing
Kai Lin: Out on a Limb | The Problem Solvers Ep. 1 (a short and wonderful documentary about Lin’s design and how he has been problem-solving and refining his design with the help of a rock climber)

Axolotls and Limb Regeneration

Watch: The Axolotl Salamander Doesn’t Wanna Grow Up
Axolotls: The Salamanders That Snack on Each Other (But Don’t Die)
And here is long but interesting video about research into axolotls and their regenerative capabilities. It’s worth watching some of it, though probably not with very young children. The video is set to play near the end, where the researcher describes why she is studying axolotls and what she hopes humans can accomplish with that research.

Spiders, Silk, and Materials Science

Read: Spiders, Gail Gibbons [Amazon | Bookshop]
WatchIs a Spider Web Part of Its Mind?
Time-lapse of a spider building a web
Amazing Spider Baffles Scientists With Huge Web

Biomimicry: Strong and Flexible Materials
“One Creature, Many Creations: Spider Mania” Beastly Bionics 10-1 (on biofabric, biosteel, and dissolving sneakers)

Watch: The Ensnaring Strands of Spider Silk

Read: About Lexus spider silk seats

Activity: Spoon drop strength test
In this excellent activity from PBS Nova, kids can test and compare the strengths of various materials. Many of the materials you’ll already have, but make sure you buy freezer paper for this if you don’t already have it (it’s essential!). Also great: the guide includes a full lesson plan for the activity. Download the guide here (pages 5-9).

Bees and Robotics

Read: Species of bees 4-5, “The Bee’s Knees” 8-9, “What Is Pollination?,” “Why Do We Need Pollination?” 18-21, The Bee Book, Charlotte Milner [Amazon | Bookshop]

Watch: Basics of pollination, for younger crowd: Like Fruit? Thank a Bee!
This Vibrating Bumblebee Unlocks a Flower’s Hidden Treasure

Watch (all optional): Amazing Time-Lapse: Bees Hatch Before Your Eyes
Honey Bees Make Pollen… and Bread?
Compilation of Texas Beeworks TikTok stories
More videos from Texas Beeworks here and here.
The Man Who Can Control Bees

Biomimicry: Robots for Pollination

Read: “Bee Bionics” Beastly Bionics 38
Watch: Tiny Robotic Bees Could Save the Earth and here and here
More information here and learn about how it can interact with water here.

Activity: Try making a robot of your own: a doodlebot
The important part here is to have a motor with a lopsided weight attached to it. (We used these motors and hot-glued a button magnet off-center. You want it to wobble when it starts spinning.) You can also buy a ready-made vibration motor right here. You’ll also need a battery clip. Three good sets of instructions for this here, here, and here.

Electric Eels, Electricity, and Batteries

Watch: How Do Fish Make Electricity?
The Most Shocking Animal in the Kingdom
Shocked by an Electric Eel!

Biomimicry: Batteries
It’s worth noting that electric eels helped inspire Volta’s battery and are now inspiring new kinds of batteries, too!
Look: A New Kind of Soft Battery Inspired By the Electric Eel
Watch: Electric Eel Batteries

Activity: Make your own battery/voltaic pile
Instructions here. See Volta’s voltaic pile and learn its history here.

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