The Food Web Game
This is one of my favorite games to play with a group of kids. I think I learned it in college [yeah, I took a class where we played games!] and I’m guessing it came from ProjectWILD or something similar. I used it in my Jr Ranger rattlesnake program at the Badlands.
The cool part about it is you can play it inside or outside, it’s tactile, and if you have any willing chaperones around, they can play, too! This game seems to work well with all age groups, but the littler guys might not grasp the full message at the end.
A large ball of yarn or a long, long rope and some kids!
How to Play:
To start, get the kids [and adults] into a large circle, everyone facing in. You stand in the middle with the ball of yarn. Explain that you are going to make a food web with each participant as an animal or plant in that food web. Pick a volunteer to the be first animal or plant. They get to hold the end of the string. Then ask someone to name another plant or animal that is eaten/eats the first one. Whoever names something gets to hold on to the string so that there is taut line between the first animal/plant and the second animal/plant. Continue until everyone is holding onto the string. Eventually you will weave what looks like a very messy spiderweb and you might get caught in the middle!
A Few Tips:
Ask them to keep ahold of their part of the string with one hand or a couple of fingers, but not with both hands or they will dampen the effects of the tugging later on in the game.
Don’t go around in a circle with the string. Let anyone yell out an answer and the more times you go across the middle with the string the better!
You will probably need to explain that if a participant is already holding onto the string, they don’t need to call out an animal/plant since they are already one. Ask them to remember which one they were!
It is probably more effective to use the local flora and fauna, but you will of course get the usual global charismatic megafauna responses like lions, elephants, and giraffes…and maybe even cheese! You’ll be surprised what kids know! I know most of the Jr Rangers weren’t from South Dakota or the Great Plains even, but they were very good at picking local animals when prompted.
Giving the Message:
Once you have the web completed, climb your way out of the middle. Ask everyone to make sure there is no slack in their sections of yarn. Pick one animal that was mentioned [hopefully they will remember which one they were] and pose a question like: “What would happen if we decided that this animal was hurting our crops and tried to get rid of it completely? Well, let’s see!” Ask the example animal participant to tug on their piece of string [sometimes a hard tug is necessary, but not too hard!]. Then ask that whoever felt the tug to raise their hands. Ask those with raised hands what animals they were. Ask them if they ever imagined if Animal A and Animal B were so closely linked. You can go around the circle and pick some other animals/plants and ask them to tug, too. Then pick one final animal and say it went extinct! Ask that person to drop the string and ask someone to describe what happened to the food web [It collapsed!].
Ask everyone to drop their piece of string and take one step back. As you are balling up and untangling the web, start a brief discussion on why food webs are important and how each species has its own place in the web.
Here’s how I did it:
After walking and talking about rattlesnake habitat, food sources, and basic snake anatomy, I gather everyone in a circle, ask for a volunteer and name them the rattlesnake and give them the end of the string. Then I ask ‘what do rattlesnakes eat here in the Badlands’ and try to pick someone who answered on the opposite side that the rattlesnake’s on, unwind the ball a little, and give them a section of string to hold on to. If someone says ‘mouse’ then I ask what mice eat [hence where the cheese came in!]. Someone will eventually say ‘grass’ or ‘grass seeds’ so then I ask what eats grass. Then ‘bison’, ‘pronghorn’, or ‘deer’ come up. I usually get someone to say black-footed ferret and bighorn sheep, so all the megafauna of the park is covered.
Once everyone is holding on to the string, I say “What if in the park we decide to get rid of rattlesnakes because they scare visitors and it costs a lot of money to put up all those signs? What would happen to the food web we just made? Let’s find out! Rattlesnake, give a couple good yanks on your part of the string. Who felt that? The ferret felt that??! The deer felt that?! Why would you guys miss the rattlesnake?!” Explain snakes keep the mice and prairie dog populations healthy; if there were too many mice they’d eat all the grass seed, there wouldn’t be much grass for deer to eat, etc. Of course, you don’t want to go too in depth and get too technical with who eats what since they are just kids, but give some general examples and continue the discussion.
And there you have it: a fun, easy, low-cost food web game!