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Experiential Learning: Arctic Tern Migration

Recently, I brought back one of my all-time favorite lessons: an experiential learning activity about the incredible migration of the Arctic Tern. I conduct this activity with my second grade students as it perfectly blends our studies of habitats and adaptations (with a special focus on birds).

First, some background knowledge.

Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea)

Arctic Tern stands on a rock.
Arctic Tern. Photo courtesy of Ekaterina Chernetsova (Papchinskaya) via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

The Arctic Tern is a small white and grey bird with a black head, red bill, and red legs. It makes the longest annual migration of any animal, flying yearly from its breeding ground in the Arctic to Antarctica's Weddell Sea and back--a roundtrip journey of about 50,000 miles. Over a thirty-year period, that's like traveling to the moon and back three times!

Researchers have used trackers to map the flight paths of the birds, and have discovered that they leave the Arctic in August, and then make a pit stop in the North Atlantic ocean for about a month to feed. Then, it's off on the largest segment of their journey, flying either along the coast of South America or Africa until they reach the Weddell Sea in November. The birds eat, molt, and hang out on icebergs until April, when they fly straight back to their Arctic breeding groups.

While there are no shortage of picture books about migration, and many videos about the arctic tern exist online, I want my students to have an appreciation for this remarkable journey, as well as an understanding of how migration is an integral part of their life cycle. So over the years, I've tweaked and honed this experiential learning lesson (adapted from this Arctic Tern Migration Simulation) to make the learning meaning and memorable. While I don't follow a strict learning cycle format in my classroom, this particular lesson fits nicely into that framework.


I introduce the concept of migration and show a video about Arctic Terns like this one. My students are almost always familiar with the term migration, so I am able to use that word from the start. If your students are not, there are many wonderful picture books and videos that can help build background knowledge.

Cover of Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys
Cover of Hummingbird by Nicola Davies

Two of my favorite nonfiction picture books are Migration: Incredible Animal Journeys by Mike Unwin and Hummingbird by Nicola Davies.

Next, students create their own Arctic Terns from cardstock and red pipe cleaners from the patterns provided in the free Arctic Tern Migration Simulation download. Students also color and cut out eggs, chicks, fish, and krill from the patterns. I tell students that the next time they come to science, they will take an incredible journey with their terns!

Arctic tern model made from cardstock
A completed Arctic Tern.
Arctic tern chicks cut out from cardstock pattern
Arctic tern chicks waiting to "hatch" from their eggs.


Some advance setup is needed before this stage: selecting locations around the school to represent the North Atlantic Ocean and Antarctica/the Weddell Sea, preparing the information folders and materials for each location, and setting up the migration stops.

Nests drawn on green construction paper with egg cutouts
Green construction paper and hand-drawn nests represent the Arctic tundra.

I set up the floor in my science room to represent the tundra, with nests drawn on green construction paper to represent the tundra. With the length of my class period in mind, I opted to glue eggs to each nest in advance; with more time, I would have left those off and had students add them to the nests to simulate egg laying.

The foyer just down the hallway served as the North Atlantic ocean, where I placed blue construction paper and small fish around on the ground.

Blue construction paper with krill cutouts, a folder, and a picture book
Antarctica and its Weddell Sea awaits the terns!

I selected a location across the school (the formal living room of the old mansion that is now part of the school building) to serve as Antarctica. I wanted it to be as far as a walk for my students as possible! Light blue construction paper with cutout krill represented the Weddell Sea.

Each location had a "Top Secret" folder that included a map, one or more scripts detailing the month(s) and birds' behavior, and at least one QR code to a corresponding video.

Text with a QR code and a map with an arrow pointing to Antarctica
Each location's "Top Secret" folder contained important information for students.

When it was finally time for class, students grabbed their terns and settled in around the "tundra." A volunteer read the script for June, and students used iPads to scan the QR code and watch a video of a tern and its chicks. Students then acted out nest building, egg laying, chick hatching, and feeding the chicks fish.

Two students look at an iPad.
Students watch a video of an Arctic Tern on its nest.

Next, a volunteer read a script for August. We watched a video of Arctic Terns in flight, then set off down the hall on our journey.

We stopped at the North Atlantic Ocean station and repeated the pattern: read a script, watch a video, act out the behaviors (in this case, feeding on as many fish as possible), and read a second script with an additional video (minutes 3:00 to 4:00 of this longer video).

Once again, we were off--a line of Arctic terns flapping their wings and gliding on air currents as we walked through as much of the school as possible. I encouraged students to keep their arms extended with their terns moving to help them feel the length of the journey. I had alerted the school to the great migration taking place, and so students and faculty cheered us along, and former students reminisced about their own migration in second grade! I also made sure to walk through the (empty) gym so students could run. After all, second grade Arctic Terns can only stay quiet for so long!

Cover of Good Eating: The Short Life of Krill

At last, we reached Antarctica and the Weddell Sea. We again listened to a student read about Antarctica and watched a video of the Weddell Sea to help visualize the environment. Students acted out eating krill as well. I had brought along the new picture book Good Eating: The Short Life of Krill by Matthew Lilley, but we didn't end up having time to read it.

Finally, we made the long journey back to the Arctic tundra, where we listened to a student read one last script explaining how the yearly cycle would start all over again. We didn't have time to act out the breeding and nesting process again, but it would have been a nice addition.


During our next few science classes, students wrote stories about their tern's journey and painted watercolor illustrations to accompany them. I encouraged students to refer back to the "Top Secret" folders and videos for details about the migration, and to blend the scientific information with a narrative tale. Students took a variety of approaches to their writing: some wrote very factual accounts while others embellished with dialogue and emotion. Some wrote diaries and others wrote chapters for each leg of the journey. Students shared their work in pairs and I edited before they created a final draft.


I was fortunate enough to connect with a scientist through the Skype A Scientist program, and she Zoomed with my students to discuss her research on another migratory bird, the whimbrel. It was incredible to observe my students applying what they had learned from our migration to ask informed questions of our guest speaker. Students were able to make many connections between the annual migration of the whimbrel to that of the Arctic Tern as well.


Much of my assessment throughout this lesson was formative, including observation of students during the migration and Zoom session, listening to their questions, and noting their responses to my questions. Of course, their stories served as a creative summative assessment. I used a checklist for students to self-assess that they included all steps of the journey. As my school uses standards-based grading in the elementary school, I used the story as an assessment for my standard "Shares scientific information orally and in writing."

Thanks for sticking with me through a long post--I hope it didn't feel like you were traveling to Antarctica and back! I'd love to hear thoughts and ideas for making this favorite lesson even more successful, or how it went with your students.


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