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Planning a Marine Biology Unit Study

For a long time now, the Beans have been obsessed with the animals of the ocean – I think aided by a combination of their fascination with Blue Planet II, living near the sea and being awed by the corals, fish, rays, sharks and other underwater animals they were lucky enough to see at the Aquarium and on the coral reefs of Thailand.

Earlier this summer, the Beans and I went for a beautiful walk through the countryside and had a conversation about what they’d like to study when we returned to our more structured work at the end of August. Many things were cited from lapbooks about Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia to more chemistry experiments to a film making course… (it’s Bean7’s dream to be the new David Attenborough!). But top of the list for them both was a marine biology study and in particular an in-depth look at the animals found on coral reefs.


Over the last couple of weeks (I’m seriously late with my planning this year!), I’ve been looking into finding a marine biology course for them. Sadly though, the curricula currently available is mostly degree level and therefore not appropriate for my 7&9 year olds. On the flip side, many of the children’s books about the ocean are overly simple and don’t go into sufficient depth for their requirements. So, I’ve had a go at writing my own marine biology unit study, using some beautiful supporting resources I’ve managed to find.

I’ve had a few requests from people asking if I could share my planning with them and so here’s the link to the: Marine Biology Unit Study I’m intending on doing with the Beans, spread out over a 15 week period. It covers the following areas:

  • Aquatic Physical Characteristics – so the physical characteristics of water which have an impact on the type of life it supports, covering water salinity, temperature, density, buoyancy, resistance, pressure and movement, as well as how light penetrates the ocean.
  • Aquatic Ecosystems – a look at marine food chains and webs.
  • Classification of Organisms – a review of the Linnaean system of classification.
  • Aquatic Photosynthesizers – an examination of the organisms at the bottom of the food chain who produce energy from photosynthesis to support all other life in the ocean.
  • Aquatic Animals – eight lessons on the seven commonest marine animal phyla, including:
    • Porifera – the sponges
    • Annelida – the worms
    • Cnidaria – the jellyfish, corals and anemones
    • Mollusca – the snails, slugs, clams, octopus & squid
    • Arthropoda – the lobsters, crabs, crayfish, shrimp & barnacles
    • Echinodermata – the sea stars, urchins, cucumbers, lilies, brittle and basket stars
    • Chordata – split by class, this group includes the sharks and rays; bony fish; aquatic reptiles; and aquatic mammals, such as whales, dolphins and manatees
  • Threats to Coral Reefs – an inspection of the major threats to coral reefs & what we can do to help.




The study is a mixture of information and links to picture, identification, colouring & activity books to share with your children; questions to discuss with them and prompt their thinking; hands on experiments; and relevant videos. It’s fairly comprehensive and I know we won’t get through all of it; we may well end up dropping entire sections or diving deeper into other sections depending on their interest. At the end of the day, they don’t need to know any of this stuff, but if they’re interested, it’s there for them to investigate.

The work can be adapted for different ages. Bean9 for example is a very proficient writer and more importantly loves writing, so the idea of having a special journal for all her marine biology notes and drawings is massively appealing to her. She’ll no doubt want to show off her journal to family and friends, talking them through what she’s learned and reinforcing her learning at the same time without realising it!

Bean7 on the other hand is not a lover of writing, so whilst he’ll do some writing, he won’t do nearly as much as Bean9. I might for example ask him to summarise a section to check he’s understood, but then I’ll write it down for him. Or he might just focus on drawing the animals and plants, something which he loves to do. This way, he’ll be able to show off his journal to family and friends when Bean9 gets hers out (which is inevitable as they’re both hugely competitive with each other…).

Bean7 tends to learn through talking things through with me rather than writing them down. He likes to listen to a story/factual information and then discuss it with me, asking millions of questions to aid his learning process. The trick is to turn the questions back on him and help him get to the answers himself rather than just telling him the answer straight away. I’m aiming to sit with him and spend longer on the discussion elements throughout the study, whilst Bean9 is writing up her journal.



The unit study uses various supporting resources – some of them I’ve highlighted below, but all others are linked in the document:

  •  The Be Naturally Curious books, Freddie and His Ocean Friends and The Scoop on Sharks  – we love this series! They explain difficult concepts in a really simple and easy to understand way, making them accessible to children. At the end of the book, there are four experiments or hands on activities to bring the concepts to life. For example, in the first book, Freddie the flounder is in the plankton stage of his lifecycle (NB: plankton are all aquatic organisms who can’t swim) and thus needs to float in the currents just beneath the surface, so they can get enough sunlight and stay close to their food source, phytoplankton. But if they get too close to the surface, they can get too much sun. The challenge for the first activity is to build a Freddie-type plankton that stays suspended in the water, neither sinking nor floating on the surface, using various household objects such as corks, clay, paper clips etc. There is a competition to see whose Freddie-plankton can stay suspended in the middle of the water for the longest. They’re encouraged to record their results in an experimental journal, adapt their design if needed and build updated versions until they can achieve the goal of flinking – a cross between floating and sinking!

Freddie and His Ocean FriendsThe Scoop on Sharks

  • Blue Planet II – such a phenomenal series.
  • Various picture books, such as
    • Karl, Get Out of the Garden (Carolus Linnaeus and the Naming of Everything) – a wonderful book about Linnaeus’ love of nature which led him to start the task of giving a scientific name to all living organisms, resulting in the Linnaean system, the basis for the classification system that we still use to this day.
    • Animalium – a gorgeous book featuring a different branch of the tree of life in each chapter, from the simple sponge to the enormous elephant. It draws you in with the beauty of the illustrations, making you want to pick up your pencils and have a go at replicating the exquisite specimens.
    • Marine Biology Colouring Book – so much more than just a colouring book, it includes several sections for each major marine phylum, with pages of description and a complementary page of detailed hand drawn illustrations to be coloured. For example, in the section Molluscan Diversity: Nautilus, it gives a page of description about the Cephalopoda Class (which includes all the squids, octopuses and nautiluses) and detail about the nautilus: its physical appearance, where they live, how it grows, catches prey and changes its buoyancy at night to rise to shallower waters etc. The illustrations to be coloured include a nautilus as it swims; a cross section; the nautilus removed from its shell; and drawings depicting the ways in which the nautilus move.
    • The Coral Reef Maldives, Reef ID book – covering marine species in the Indo-Pacific (and therefore Indonesia), I bought this book as Bean9 is keen to memorise as many of the fish types as she can!
    • Coral Reefs by Gail Gibbons and Coral Reefs by Simon Seymour – two excellent and comprehensive picture books about these fragile ecosystems.

  • Mystery Science – as we’re already signed up to this curriculum, we’ll use the lesson: How many different kinds of animals are there? – a tutorial about how scientists organise animals into groups according to their characteristics and an activity of sorting animals into groups with three “challenge” animals. This is an excellent science curriculum and my children just love watching the lessons for fun, but I’ve only included it here as we’ve already paid up for the year.


Practical Learning

Aside from the experiments included in the unit study, we also plan to do various other types of practical, more hands-on learning.

We kicked off our study with a visit to the excellent Sea Creatures exhibition (on in London until the end of August and then moving to Scotland, Yorkshire and then N. Ireland by December), which gave them a fascinating insight into the internal and external structures of some magnificent underwater animals from minke whales to manta rays, along with a whole host of interesting facts for them to absorb. For example, we discovered that sharks’ teeth aren’t anchored by roots like our own and they lose one tooth per week on average, but because they exist in rows, another tooth is able to move forward, like a conveyor belt, and replace the missing one within a day! Amazing! The exhibition also includes a free app to download; the children used this to scan barcodes of 24 key animals on site giving them access to information cards about these creatures that they’re now free to study at home. These will definitely be incorporated into our unit study.


We also intend to visit the Sea Life Aquarium in London at the end of the unit study, once they know a little more about the ocean dwelling animals they’ll see there, and hopefully attend their Underwater World Tour educational workshop. The Life in the Dark exhibition at the Natural History Museum (on until Jan ’19) is another hands on experience on our list, which, along with terrestrial nocturnal animals, includes a bioluminescent display and a look at the weird and wonderful life which flourishes in the dark parts of the ocean, such as the Mexican blind cave fish who don’t need eyes to navigate.


In addition, we’re lucky enough to live near the sea, so we’ll go rock pooling as often as possible to spot and identify some of the UK aquatic animals in the phyla mentioned above, using this excellent book as our guide:

Seashore Safaris: Exploring the Seashores of the United Kingdom


And finally, the whole unit study is really designed to prepare them for our big trip next year. We’re fortunate to be able to take an extended excursion to New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia – the trip of a lifetime! We’re so excited 🙂 Top of the desired places to visit for both children was an excursion to the Great Barrier Reef, but in addition we’ll be spending a week on Hoga Island Marine Research Station off Sulawesi, Indonesia, one of their Grandad’s Operation Wallacea sites. Here, they can spend a week snorkelling (and possibly doing a Bubble Maker PADI diving course) and seeing first-hand the animals they’ve been learning about, along with attending some of the marine biology lectures on at the time (they’ll be pitched at undergraduate level though so possibly a little advanced for our Beans, but I’ve learned never to underestimate the power of a motivated child!).


I’m not sure there’s a better way to learn than by having the time and space to explore a topic you’re fascinated by, in preparation for an adventure to places you dream about, so that when you get there, you can more deeply appreciate those first-hand experiences.



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