Join us in these hands-on seed dispersal for kids lessons as we follow the adventures of traveling seeds that fly, drop, swim, launch, or hitch a ride to their ultimate destination!
How do Seeds Disperse?
Plants need to find a place where their seeds can grow with access to lots of water and sunlight. Many times the ground right below the plant is too crowded. Their parents are already using the water and nutrients in the soil, and shading the area so the little seedling has to compete for resources. To give each seed its best chance, plants and trees have adapted many different ways to send their seeds away from its parent. This is a process called seed dispersal.
1. Flying Seeds – Seed dispersal by wind
Who doesn’t love those early summer days blowing dandelion seeds! Look closely at these dandelions or open a milkweed pod and you will see a tiny seed with a big parachute of fluff on top. Once caught by the breeze they can travel for kilometers! The flowers produce lots of seeds to make sure at least some of them find a good spot to sprout. Other plants, like the maple tree, have ‘winged’ seeds that cause the seed to spin as it falls like a little helicopter propeller. This spiralling motion helps to keep the seed up in the air longer and can carry it far from the tree.
Activity: Learn the physics behind how dandelion seeds fly
Watch this video to learn how dandelions are able to stay afloat so long! When the researchers at the University of Edinburgh started studying the air flow around these seeds, they discovered a whole new and exciting way of flying!
Activity: Test your own parachute
A dandelion’s pappus (that puff of tiny white filaments that attach to the seed) acts just like the parachute we use when we skydive from a plane. The broad surface creates aerodynamic drag on the object, slowing its fall to the ground as it gets blown by the wind. Create your own parachute and test your design!
- square of tissue paper
- hole punch
- Cut out a medium sized square of tissue paper as your canopy.
- Place a piece of tape at each corner to reinforce your design.
- Punch a hole in each corner (over the tape).
- Draw and cut a seed out of sturdy cardstock or cardboard.
- Tie strings through each side of the canopy and attach to your ‘seed’.
- Find a nice place with a breeze and test out your design. Drop your parachute from different heights, or try throwing it up in the air and watch it expand. Measure how far your seed travels. (Safety note: remind your child to choose safe places and heights for this activity and to always be aware of their surroundings.)
Activity: Comparing Maple Seeds
Both the Norway Maple and Sugar Maple tree have winged seeds that travel by wind, but there are slight differences in the structure of these seeds. Conduct this experiment to explore the advantages of each seed before inventing your own ‘best Maple seed’ design.
- two different species of Maple tree keys (Norway and Maple seeds work great!)
- paper clip
- Learn how to identify the difference between the Norway Maple and Sugar Maple from bplant.org. Gather seeds from both species. [Adapt this activity to the Maple species or other ‘winged’ seed trees that grow in your area or skip ahead to step 4.]
- Examine your maple seeds. What is the same? What is different? How might the differences effect how well it flies? Which one do you think will fly the furthest or stay afloat the longest? Why?
- Test out your hypothesis by dropping each type of seed from different locations or (safe) heights. What was the result? Think about: the size of the seed compared to its wing; wing shap, wing position, and so forth. What are your conclusions?
- Now its time to design your own ‘maple seed’. What do you think is the best seed to wing size ratio? What shape should the wings be? Follow this video tutorial on how to Make a Seed Model from GenerationGenus.com and then modify your creation with your own ideas!
2. Dropping Seeds – Seed dispersal by gravity
Look at the ground beneath a black walnut tree or walk through an apple orchard in the fall and you will experience seed dispersal by gravity (watch your head!). This type of dispersal occurs when a plant’s seeds fall to the ground in a process called abscission. Abscission comes from the Latin words ab (meaning away) and sciendere (to cut). As the fruit ripens, a separate layer of new cells forms along the based of the fruit stem which at a certain time in the plant’s life cycle begins to dissolve. With this bonding layer gone, the fruit will fall to the ground with the force of gravity (or the help of a little wind storm). To maximize their harvest, apple and pear farmers have a special solution they spray on the trees to delay this process and keep the fruit on the trees long enough to pick.
Activity: Learn how an apple helped Isaac Newton discover Gravity!
Activity: Seed Art
This is always a family favorite which has become an annual tradition. Celebrate seeds by creating your own seed masaics.
- Seeds. Dried seeds from your pantry work great such as yellow split peas, black beans, chick peas, flax seed, and corn.
- white glue
- paint brush
- Set out different types of seeds in small containers or bowls. Include a small container of white glue and a paintbrush.
- Draw an image on your cardboard. Why not choose a picture of an apple or pear to honor our dropping seeds!
- Using a paintbrush, spread a layer of glue onto one section of your image. Add the seeds to one section of your picture. Tell your child to think about what color patterns and designs they can make with their seed choices to add details to their image.
- When you are finished with your first section, add glue to another section and continue filling with seeds until you are done. Let dry overnight.
3. Swimming Seeds – Seed dispersal by water
Plants that grow by water often have seeds that are dispersed by water. The Willow and Silver Birch trees are often found growing near lakes, ponds, and in moorland (very wet habitats) because their small, light seeds can be carried away by the rivers. Other plants, like the famous ocean traveling coconut, have thick waterproof shells that allow them to float in the water for long periods without breaking down. Their hollow interior is filled with air which keeps them happily floating along until they get washed up onshore the next island.
Activity: Traveling Seed Scavenger Hunt
Explore your local waterways (a pond, a river, the lake, or a stream) and observe for seeds in the area. Pay particular attention the the types of plants that grow in the area. Are there seeds floating on top of the water? What about seeds traveling in the current below? Explore the river banks or shoreline for seeds that may have washed up on land. Are these seeds still intact or have they started to break down and decompose? Do you see any seedlings in the area? Record your observations in your nature journal!
Join the List at the end of this post for a Free Traveling Seed Scavenger Hunt printable and see how many different seed dispersal strategies you can find! If you are already a subscriber, find this and all our other free printables on our community page (check your last Newsletter for the link).
Safety Note: Remind your child to ask you first before going near any water or touching a nature find. Many plants are poisonous.
Activity: Sink or Float
Test which seeds float in your neighborhood and how far they might travel with this Sink or Float experiment.
- large mason jars or similar container
- seeds for your area, cranberries, dried beans, etc.
- Free Sink or Float Seed Experiment recording sheet
- timer or clock to keep track of time
- Join the list at the bottom of this post to download your Free Sink or Float Seed Experiment recording sheet and print.
- Fill each mason jar with an equal amount of water.
- Draw a picture of each mason jar in your nature journal or use the recording sheet printable.
- Note the time and place one seed species in each jar. Sketch your seeds on your mason jar drawings.
- Check back often to see how long each seed floats. Do any of the seeds sink right away? How far do you think the seeds that float could travel if they were in a stream?
- Record your observations and conclusions.
4. Launching Seeds – Mechanical Seed Dispersal
Some plants have developed seed pods that will burst open, sending seeds flying in all directions. Plants like the Squirting Cucumber use built-up water pressure to fire their seeds far into the air. Other plants, like Violets, use the tension of their drying fruit to shoot their seeds like a canon!
Activity: See these nature seed canon’s at work!
Watch this video to witness the unbelievable power of the Violet, Squirting Cucumber, and Touch Me Not seed dispersal!
Activity: Exploding seeds
Explore mechanical seed dispersal with this fun Build an Exploding Seed Pod activity from Around the Kamp Fire!
5. Hitching a Ride – Seed dispersal by animals
Many plants use animals to help their seeds travel from one place to another. The first way is to have seeds inside something delicious like fruit, which often have bright colors to attract animals and birds to eat them. When they digest the fruit, the seeds pass through their system and are left in their droppings one or two days later. These lucky seeds now find themselves in a very rich medium that gives them all the nutrients they need to grow. This isn’t the same as when an animal eats a nut, which is the actual seed they are breaking down. In this second method of animal dispersal, a creature like a squirrel or chipmunk will often carry a nut away to hide in different storage places. Once forgotten, they are now in the perfect location to grow. The third method of animal dispersal occurs when our seed has adapted with a sticky coating (think of a burr seed) that grabs hold of an animal’s feathers, fur, or our own clothing. Imagine how far this little seed can now travel before being rubbed off!
Activity: Sticky Seed Sock Hike
Grab a pair of large fuzzy socks and put them over your shoes the next time you go for a hike. Tell your child that the socks are like an animal’s fur as they scamper through the forest or field. After you get back home, carefully remove your socks and examine the different varieties of seeds that were collected. What do they all have in common? Safety note: use caution when removing or touching seeds you are not familiar with. Many plants can be irritating to the skin or toxic if ingested.
Activity: Seed Nature Poetry and Copywork Free Download
Head over to our Nature Poetry and Copywork page to download your free Seed Themed poetry to complement your seed studies!
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I couldn’t resist sharing this incredible picture book biography about Wangari Maathai who became the first African Woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Price. An inspirational story and beautiful book about planting new ideas and “seeds of change” in each of our hearts – one tree at a time.
Book Basket Ideas
Our favorite nonfiction and picture books about seeds: