Living in the Greenhouse

Provided by Susan M. Frack and Scott Prickett


The earth is surrounded by a thin layer of air called the atmosphere. It acts likes a blanket to keep the earth warmest like the glass does in a greenhouse. About ½ of the sun's rays squeeze through the blanket of the atmosphere and are soaked up by the earth's surface. The surface gets warmed up. Then it gives up some of its heat to the atmosphere. The atmosphere keeps this heat and doesn't allow much of it to escape into outer space. This is called the "greenhouse effect". It helps keep the earth warm at night when the sun isn't around.

Because different parts of the earth's surface get different amounts of sunlight, the earth has different areas of temperature. We call these different areas, climate zones. The earth has 5 different climate zones. They are:

  • A. Hot and humid-----------tropical rain forests and grasslands
  • B. Dry----------deserts and grasslands, can be hot or cold
  • C. Short, mild winters and long summers--broadleaf forests and farmlands
  • D. Long, severe winters and short summers--pine forests and mountain areas
  • E. Cold and dry polar regions, tundra, glaciers

The climate of an area is how warm and wet that place is. It determines what kinds of plants and animals will live in that area. It also determines what type of activities people can do in that area. The activities that the people do can then have an e effect on the climate! These effects can be good and/or bad. People should investigate what kind of effect their activities are going to have on their area before they do the activities.


  • 2-2 liter pop bottles for each student
  • potting soil
  • small plants to put into the bottom of the soda bottles
  • tiny houses, animals, cars, etc.--McDonald's /etc. toys, Micro Machines, Polly pockets, game pieces or make your own cardboard cutouts.
  • foam cups
  • thermometers
  • plastic wrap
  • poster paper
  • markers, paint, crayons
  • pictures of different world climates--most ESU's have these available in 18 x 24 poster sets
  • magazines to cut up
  • scissors
  • glue
  • 2 vastly different plants such as a geranium and a cactus or a fern and a yucca plant
  • 3 to 4 coffee cans
  • wood shavings
  • matches
  • white dish towel
  • oven mitts
  • spray bottle filled with ½ water and ½ vinegar
  • 2 petunia plants or any other annual plant
  • 3-4 products (non toxic) in aerosol spay cans such as hair spray and air freshener
  • video camera and tapes



Nat. Sci. Obj. 1.  Tell why the earth is like a greenhouse.
B, C 2. Define climate.
D, E 3. Describe the factors that make climates different from each other.
F, G 4. Tell why certain plants and animals can only live in specific climates.
  5. Match people's activities to a favorable climate.
  6.  Explain how man's activities can change the environment and the climate.

Nebraska Frameworks Obj.: F-5, F-7, F-11, G-1, G-5, G-7, G-11


Take the class to a greenhouse to see what it is like. Take your weather equipment along. Inside the greenhouse take the temperature, the humidity , and the air pressure. You will compare these to the outdoor readings when you get back to the classroom . Have the greenhouse manager show how the plants are watered, the fan/ventilation system, and the heating/cooling system (if they have one). Look around to see what is growing inside. See what the building is made of--glass, plexiglass, wood metal, et c. Many greenhouses will also give you several plants to take back to your classroom. Choose things that you can either use for the children's mini greenhouses or something you can use to compare the differences in climate in part III.


Part I.

Make a list of observation about the greenhouse:

  • what was it made out of
  • what was inside--plants, people( how were they dressed)
  • how was the air moved around
  • where did the light come from inside
  • inside weather conditions
  • windows?

Now make the same type of observations about the earth.

Do the Greenhouse Experiment (Appendix A) and have the children make mini greenhouses (Appendix B).

Discuss how the earth is like a giant greenhouse.

Make a class poster/mural that shows how the earth is like a giant greenhouse.

Part II.

Put the temperature and rain fall numbers on the board for the fall, winter and the current FMP's. Look at the numbers with the students and draw some conclusions about the weather over the last year. They should be able to see that it was warm in t he fall, cold in the winter and starting to warm up in the spring. Precipitation numbers should show little rain in the fall, some snow in the winter, and rain in the spring (they might not-- so be prepared to explain that these would be the average conditions   but that every year can be different from the average). Then discuss what they know about conditions during the summer. After completing this discussion, tell the students that they have just described the "climate" of their area. The climate is a description of the average temperature and precipitation or "how warm and wet"a place is.

Help the students write a description of the climate of your own area. EXAMPLE: "The climate of _____ school site is: hot and humid in the summer, warm and dry in the fall, cold and sometimes snowy in the winter, and cool and rainy in the spring."

Display pictures of different location around the world to show different climates: rain forests, polar conditions, mountain areas, broadleaf forests, crop lands, deserts, etc. Allow students to look at the pictures and discuss them among themselves to get a feel for the pictures. Have a class discussion about similarities and differences in the pictures. Talk about the different climate conditions in each picture: what is the temperature like there, how much rain/snow does this place get, is there a lot of wind. Come to the conclusion that there are different climate regions around the world, that everyplace is not the same. If you do not have pictures, a trip to a natural history museum like Morrill Hall at UNL to see the displays of animals in their natural settings can accomplish the same thing. Discuss the settings and adaptations as you look at the displays. You could also watch videos available from National Geographic about animals in their natural habitat.

Part III.

Examine the 2 different plants you got at the greenhouse or brought in yourself. 1 plant should be "common" to your area and 1 should be an "exotic" from a completely different climate zone. Have the children look over the plants and list how they are alike and different. Have them guess where each might grow and give reasons why. Come to the conclusions that the plants are adapted to growing in very different environments because of the differences in their leaves, roots, growing requirements. Now try to draw the environment you and the students believe would support each plant. Use the board or big pieces of chart paper. Discuss things first before you add them, but be sure to let every child take part in adding to these pictures. Then discuss cuss what types of animals would live in each environment and why. Add them to the drawings as well.

Divide the class into groups of 3--4 and give each group 2 of the pictures you use at the beginning of the climate discussion. Have them look over and compare/contrast the pictures. They should list or be able to tell:

  • 2 or more similarities in the pictures
  • 2 or more differences in the pictures
  • 2 or more plants that would grow in each picture and why
  • 2 or more animals that would live in each environments and why

The groups can give reports to the class, make a written report, or just tell you their conclusions.

Give each student a large (11 x 18) piece of construction paper that has been divided into 3 sections by you. Make a list on the board of different climate combinations:

  • hot and rainy
  • hot and dry
  • cold and snowy
  • cold and dry
  • cool and rainy
  • cool and dry
  • etc.!!

Have each student pick 3 and write one in each section of his paper. They will then look through magazines to find pictures of plants and animals that would belong in each climate area, cut them out and glue them on the paper. Ranger Rick and National  Geographic World are good sources of such pictures.

Part IV.

Ask each student to tell what job(s) their parents have and list on the board. You may want to look at some videos of different jobs as well--especially if there isn't much of a variety of occupations in your area. Discuss how the jobs depend on the weather/climate;

  • construction workers can't work in a lot of wind or rain
  • no farming in polar regions
  • no need for snowplow drivers in Florida, etc.
Also discuss how jobs/types of materials/products differ according to different weather/climate;
  • different crops grown by farmers in different areas
  • different materials used for buildings in different areas
  • different vehicles used in different areas
  • different types of recreational activities

You can even discuss different kinds of clothing worn and foods eaten in different climates.

Part V.

1. Gather the following pictures:

  • Cars and trucks on a highway
  • Factory smoke stacks
  • Feedlot
  • Spray cans--you can bring the real thing if you can't find a picture

Ask the students to imagine what the air would be like in each situation.

2. Give some demonstrations outside in an open area:( you will need some parent volunteers to help with this).

a. Go out to the parking lot. Wire a white dish towel over the exhaust pipe of your car. Keep the students away from the exhaust. Turn on the car for several minutes. Turn off the car. Use oven mitts to remove the towel (the exhaust pipe gets hot!!). Observe the sooty deposits on the towel.  
b. Using several coffee cans, burn wood shavings in 1, charcoal briquettes in a second, and motor oil in a third. Use caution and lots of parent help here to keep students away from the fires. Observe the smoke, ash particles and odors. 
c. Collect manure samples from any animal in a coffee can and observe the odors. 
d. Spray the cans to see, smell, and feel the droplets. Be cautious of allergies and eyes!  
e. Spray some plants with the vinegar solution for several days and note the results. Do this ahead of time so the results are observable at the right time. Demonstrate what you did and tell the students how long you had been doing it.  
f. Put some plants directly in the path of your car's exhaust for 5 minutes every day for several days and note the results. Again do this ahead of time so the results are observable when you want them. Demonstrate/tell the students what you did and how long you did it for.

After the demos write descriptions of the air quality in each one. List what was good and what was bad--what they saw and smelled, etc.

 3. Talk about the effects of each situation on the environment and weather:

  • burning eyes and skin
  • itchy eyes and skin
  • sneezing
  • wheezing and asthma
  • watering eyes
  • acid rain on plants, buildings
  • carbon monoxide poisoning
  • global warming
  • etc.

Come to the conclusion that these activities are not good for the environment, but that they are necessary activities that we humans do. We couldn't do away with vehicles without greatly changing the way we do things; we couldn't stop having animals in feedlots for food without many people starving, etc.

4. Now brainstorm ways to make these activities better for the environment:

  • car pooling
  • riding your bike or walking more instead of always using the car
  • different, better fuels for cars, factories
  • new exhaust systems for cars and factories
  • manure collectors/users
  • different ways to dispense air fresheners, hair sprays, etc.

Have students work in groups to create a posters that tells people to help protect the environment/climate/air. Parameters for the poster should be your own based on the knowledge of your students and the information/ideas you have generated in your class discussions.


 Students create a TV info-mercial about one of the following topics:

  • greenhouse effect
  • different climate zones
  • diversity of species in different climate zones
  • man's effect on the your climate/environment
  • how to protect the environment/climate in your area
  • your own ideas!!



The earth is surrounded by a blanket of air that acts just like the glass in a greenhouse. It traps the heat and moisture around the earth to make it a great place to live.


  • 2- 2 liter pop bottles per student
  • potting soil
  • small plants
  • small houses, animals, etc
  • sharp scissors
  • ruler


  1. Cut off the tops of the bottles, leaving them about 6 inches tall. Discard tops.
  2. Pop off the colored bottom of one of the bottles (some bottles no longer have these). You will use this bottle as the domed cover for the "greenhouse".
  3. Fill the other bottle 2/3 full of potting soil. Plant the plant and water enough to make all of the soil moist. Add the little houses, cars. etc. Don't let the bottles get too crowded.
  4. Put on the other bottle over the planted bottle to make a domed /lid or cover. Set the greenhouses in a sunny window or on a table in front to the window so they receive some sunlight during the day.
  5. Observe after 24-36 hours. There should be some "rain on the dome and sides. If there is too much, take off the lids and let them dry out a little before replacing the lids.


Talk with the students about where the moisture on the dome comes from. Talk about where light comes from to allow the plant to keep growing. Talk about how it stays warm inside the dome. Compare this to what happens on Earth. How long will the plants survive without adding any water or air to the greenhouse? Is there a need to poke holes in the cover for for air to enter and leave? Etc.


Have students tell how the earth is like a greenhouse. 



Our atmosphere is a thin layer of air which surrounds the Earth. It acts like the glass in a greenhouse to trap heat and moisture closer to the earth.


  • 2 foam cups
  • potting soil
  • 2 thermometers
  • plastic wrap
  • rubber band
  • pencil
  • sunlight
  1. Fill both cups ½ full of moist potting soil.
  2. Cover 1 cup with plastic wrap and secure with the rubber band.
  3. Use the pencil to poke a hole 1 inch from the bottom of the cup on 1 side of each cup.
  4. Push the thermometers into the potting soil through these holes but don't push the thermometer through the other side of the cup.
  5. Set the cups in a sunny place for 30 minutes.
  6. Pull out the thermometers and quickly read the temperature.

Open cup___________________ Covered cup___________________


  1. How do the 2 temperatures differ?
  2. Which cup is a better model of the earth and its atmosphere?
  3. Why does the earth need the atmosphere?
  4. How is the earth like a greenhouse?