what makes stuff alive

What Makes Stuff Alive? – lesson

There are varying levels of life, from “live enough to build a pink rocket” to mindless binge-watching Netflix to “mostly dead”, and all the way to death. And just for fun let’s throw zombies into the mix of life as “used to be dead”.

And this includes not just people, but all things that are alive, and/or were alive. But is a plant alive? How about a germ, or bacteria?

In this lesson, we will explore

  • What makes stuff alive
  • How scientists organize and classify all living things
  • Create a new taxonomy

Time to Complete

30+ minutes lesson


Biotic vs. abiotic & taxonomy


Biotic, abiotic, homeostasis, metabolism, taxonomy

Skills Highlight

Core Concept: Creative
Skill: Pattern Recognition
Using patterns to separate groups

Core Concept: Creative
Skill: Pattern Recognition
Using patterns to separate groups


A lot of paper for this lesson! Most of these are optional for the lesson. Please pick and choose what will help your kids the most.



  • Look through the lesson and choose which sheets you will be using.
  • Print all your sheets.


Jump right in – Biotic vs Abiotic Scavenger Hunt

Explain the difference between biotic and abiotic, but don’t give examples yet.

  • Some stuff is alive – biotic
  • Some stuff used to be alive – biotic
  • Some stuff has never been alive and never will be – abiotic

Place the biotic and abiotic signs on the table with one at each end.

Tell the kids they are going to have a contest to see who can find three biotic things and three abiotic things.

  • Run out into the yard (it works best outside but can be done with household things instead if necessary) and grab one thing at a time.
  • Bring it back to the table and put it onto either the biotic sign or the abiotic sign. You will then tell them if they are correct or not. If they are correct, they will go out into the yard for another item.biotic abiotic table

Note:  The kids need 3 DIFFERENT things for biotic and abiotic.  They cannot have 3 sticks or 3 rocks.  The first one to correctly place 3 biotic things and 3 abiotic things on their signs is the winner.

Some examples for you parents.  Don’t give this away yet!

What makes it alive?

Ask the kids.  Results will be hilarious, you may want to start recording!

  • What exactly makes things alive?

Introduce the requirements for life:

  1. Maintain homeostasis
  2. Composed of cells
  3. Undergo metabolism
  4. Grow
  5. Adapt
  6. Respond to stimuli
  7. Reproduce

Use the information in “The Science” section and our 7 Characteristics of Life coloring page to talk about these life requirements.

Now you can look at everything the kids brought back from the Scavenger Hunt.

  • Talk about which item they found and why it is alive/not alive.
  • Now find some more things outside or around the house to sort.  You can also use our Biotic or Abiotic Sorting Cards.  There are some tricky ones!

Reiterate the terms biotic and abiotic as you discuss this.

biotic group example
Our dragon got included in the abiotic group. He wasn’t very happy about it.

What’s what

To keep track of all of these alive things, scientists have put them into 6 different groups or kingdoms.

Each of these kingdoms is then broken down into other groups.  And those groups into other groups.  These are the groups:

Kingdom -> Phylum ->Class -> Order -> Family -> Genus -> Species

“Kings play chess on fine grained sand.”

The mnemonic will help you remember the group break down.  Practice it!

Look at the Classification of Life page for a great example of this.  Talk about how the groups are broken down into smaller, more specific groups.


This burrowing owl starts big at in the animal kingdom but gets all the way down to a small group of 4 species.   All these owls in this species are small, with yellow eyes, white eyebrows, and brown and white speckles.   That is pretty specific!  Although we usually don’t use all of these names, just the genus and species.  So we would call the burrowing owl the Athene cunicularia.

Sort it out

Activity time!  Now it is time for you to practice sorting and classification just like scientist do.  Use the Taxonomy Time worksheets for this activity.  K-2 can use the easier sheet.  3-5 use the sheet with a few more group spaces.  We also have an example worksheet filled out.

  • The kids will gather 10- 20 different things from the inside and outside. Don’t have more than 1 of each thing.
  • Lay all the items out in a row so you can easily see everything.

Scientists sort things into groups so they can better understand, research, and teach others.  They use DNA, size, shape, color, food types, body part, and many others to split and sort them.

  • The kids will choose 1 way to sort the items like shape, size, or color. Sort them. Write this down on your worksheet as you go.
  • Now that you have groups, sort these same groups by a different factor.
  • Continue to do this for any group that has more than 2 items.

This system of classifying things is called a taxonomy.

  • Why did you choose to classify them this way?
  • Do you think there is a better way to group them?

If you have time, you can even start from the beginning and create a completely new taxonomy!  This is just like a scientist.  The more scientist learn about something means they may decide to put it in a new group.  For example, some scientists have suggested splitting the Protista kingdom into Protazoa and Chromista.

Science is changing all the time.

See all the goodies in the PDF!

Check out the full lesson PDF for all of the worksheets, the science section, and vocabulary.

This lesson is part of It’s Alive! [Unit 5]. Jump over to the unit main page to see all lessons and activities.

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