Recurring Lesson

Webcams in the Classroom: Animal Inquiry and Observation

3 - 5
Lesson Plan Type
Recurring Lesson
Estimated Time
Introduction: Two 30-minute sessions; thereafter: 20 minutes per session as needed
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Can't make it to a zoo? Observe animal habits and habitats using one of the many webcams broadcasting from zoos and aquariums around the United States and the world in this inquiry-based activity that focuses on observation logs, class discussion, questioning, and research. Students begin by viewing an animal webcam, making observations, and describing what they see in a notebook or log. This process is first modeled by the teacher to prepare students for recording their own observations. Thereafter, students make observations on a predetermined schedule and share them with the class. After a class discussion, students then resolve questions that are raised about what they've observed by consulting a variety of sources. While this lesson is written with a focus on webcams, students could easily complete similar activities by observing a classroom pet, animals at home or the zoo, or a birdfeeder or squirrel feeder outside the classroom window.

Featured Resources

From Theory to Practice

As David and Phyllis Whitin (1996) explain in their "Inquiry at the Window: The Year of the Birds," inviting students to observe, comment on, and question the things that they see in the world around them leads to "significant inquiry learning." Their article outlines four ways that a fourth-grade classroom's observation and experimentation based on birds that visited a birdfeeder outside their classroom window lead to learning. They discovered with their students that inquiry:

  • "begins with looking closely."
  • "involves really living the lives of scientists."
  • "generates an endless spiral of questions to pursue."
  • "involves a flexible use of various nonfiction resources."

Based on the observation of webcams (rather than a birdfeeder outside the classroom), this lesson plan engages students in similar inquiry learning which can result in a year-long study of a particular animal, comparisons of observations of several animals, or application of the inquiry process to other activities in the classroom.

Further Reading

Common Core Standards

This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.

State Standards

This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.

NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts

  • 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
  • 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
  • 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).

Materials and Technology

Internet access, with appropriate browser plug-ins




  • Provide an observation journal for student entries.

  • Explore the webcam sites listed in the Websites section and choose those which are best for your class. Note when the zoo indicates that the animals featured on the camera are typically active. Be prepared to choose an alternate camera if no animals appear within a reasonable length of time or the webcam is unavailable for some reason.

  • Install RealPlayer and/or Windows Media Player on your computers so that you can view the webcams. The page for the site(s) you choose will indicate the plug-in that you need to view the animals. These are free downloads, but you may need help from your network administrator to install the programs.

Student Objectives

Students will

  • look closely at live events and write notes about what they see (make factual observations).

  • share and present their observations to the class, working as scientists in the classroom.

  • question the "facts" of their observations and explore the possible conclusions they lead to.

  • extend their observations through inquiry-based research using nonfiction resources.

Session One

  1. Introduce the activity by displaying an animal webcam for the class on an overhead LCD projector, or gather students around the computer monitor, in small groups if necessary so that everyone is able to see. You can either choose a specific animal to focus on for this activity yourself, based on your other curriculum goals; or you can share a list of appropriate webcams and allow students to choose an animal to focus on.

  2. Ask students to explain what they see on the webcam display. As they make observations, take notes using the resource you've chosen for the class:

  3. Model notetaking methods for students, using short sentences and phrases that students will be able to refer to as they make independent observations.

  4. If students are hesitant to share, you can use the following questions to help them make observations:

    • What is the animal doing?

    • What do you notice about the animal's habitat?

    • How does the animal move?

    • How does the animal interact with others?

    • What do you notice when you look closely at the images?

    • What would a scientist notice about this animal?
  5. When you're satisfied that students understand the idea of observing, explain the observation project you'll be completing in the following sessions: Each day (or several times during the day, if resources and class activities allow) a different student will volunteer to sit at the computer and observe the animal that has been chosen and make notes in the class journal (or on one of the observations forms). Observers will share their findings with the class later in the day, or if necessary in a following class session.

  6. Ask for a student volunteer to write the next journal entry. Allow students to manage the turn-taking process.

Session Two and Additional Observation Sessions, as desired

  1. Arrange a time for the observations to take place: they can happen whenever it is convenient to the class schedule. They fit smoothly into reading and writing workshop times for instance.

  2. Settle the first volunteer at the computer with the observation journal.

  3. Allow the student time to observe the camera uninterrupted. Be sure to allow some additional time to complete the observation entry as well. You should remain available in case the student observer encounters a technical problem.

  4. Check with the student before time to share the observations with the class to answer any questions or address any concerns. If the student has questions about what was observed on the camera, encourage the student to share the question with the class, rather than providing an answer yourself.

  5. When time comes to share the entry, the observer will read the entry to the class. If the entry includes any drawings or other visual elements, the student should share those as well.

  6. Invite students to respond to the observation entry, encouraging them to ask questions about the entry that has been presented.

  7. If the class discussion raises questions that students cannot resolve on their own, introduce nonfiction resources that students can use to look for additional information. You might begin by asking students to suggest places they can look first. If you have a classroom library with books available on the animal(s) you're observing, students will likely begin with those resources. A visit to the library is another option.

  8. If the observers desire, allow them to add information to their entries after the class discussion. For instance, they may realize a detail that they failed to include and want to add. In order to encourage student-ownership of the project and of the journal, do not make any kind of revision requirements. Allow students themselves to make these decisions.

  9. As you repeat the observations in the classroom, you can encourage more inquiry and exploration using ideas outlined in the Extensions section.


  • If you need to encourage class discussion further, ask students if there are any words in the entry that caught their attention and to explain why they mention the words that they do. Explore other words that could have been chosen and how the different words would change the entry. For instance, in the birdfeeder entries that the Whitins' class participated in, one of the students wrote "If one was at the humming feeder, the other bird following would peck the other's body." Class discussion focused on the word "peck," exploring the other words that might have been used: "tap, bump, push, get the bird's attention, kiss, and nudge" and talking about how the word that is used "conjures up different images and helped the children understand that in their role as scientists they must be thoughtful about the words that they use" (83).

  • As students examine outside resources such as books or encyclopedia entries, encourage them to ask the same kinds of questions that they ask when observation entries are read from the journal. Your pedagogical goal is to help students recognize that sources of information are always open to exploration and questioning. As the Whitins' article explains, "when learners read pieces of nonfiction, they must be critical, analytical inquirers." Extend your "norm of questioning one another's observations" by inviting students to question the nonfiction resources they consult. "Reading an article . . . [is] not an 'end' to a question but a beginning of a new cycle of questioning" (83).

  • After some time has been spent observing the animal, ask students to brainstorm the first two columns of KWL charts about the animal they will observe—What do they know? What do they want to know? Based on their they research and observations, they can begin filling in the third column on the chart—What have they learned about the animal?

  • Ask students to solve any challenges to observations that they encounter by brainstorming strategies they can test and adopt. David and Phyllis Whitin explain that one of their students expressed "frustration because it was hard to write everything down: 'Things happened so fast.'" Such situations are faced by scientists all the time, as the article explains, and the students are asked to "suggest strategies to overcome it. As a collaborative group, [they] developed the following strategies:

    1. Have two people watch the birds.

    2. Have the observer talk into a tape recorder.

    3. Use abbreviations when writing.

    4. Draw a site map that observers can use to record bird position and movement.

    5. Use a video camera so observers can revisit the activity later on.

    Shortly thereafter, the children implemented several of these suggestions. They developed some abbreviations to help them write faster, such as hb (hummingbird), se (seed eater), and notations such as ' and " to designate minutes and seconds" (84). By inviting students to brainstorm and try various strategies in this way, you extend their inquiry process to explore not only the animals that they are observing but to questioning and analyzing the observation process itself. In the end their inquiry methods are strengthened by their exploration of options and the underlying, though likely implicit, suggestion that there is no one right answer or system to follow.

  • Another option to manage the demands of journal observations is to invite students to create an observation format or form that they will use. You can begin with the Observation Worksheet or Observation Summary Form, and have students create their own form that matches the animal(s) they are observing.

  • Invite students to use their knowledge "as a lens for viewing the behavior" that they see on the webcam. You can ask students to share anything they've read that relates to the observation entries. Use the journal itself as a nonfiction resource as well by encouraging students to look back to earlier entries and make comparisons. If your observations extend to more than one season, ask students to compare how the environmental changes affect the animals based on what they've observed. There are many comparisons students can explore: changes in the weather (sun versus rain), different times of day, interaction with others (animals as well as humans), or different activities the animals engage in (eating, playing, and so forth). Ideally, invite students to identify these differences by asking questions such as "how were the observations today different from what we saw last week?" Urge students to take the lead in comparing entries.

  • Encourage students to consider other webcams as resources. If they question the behavior of a particular animal that they are observing, you might ask them to brainstorm online nonfiction resources in addition to the more obvious resources in the library and their classroom. For instance, there are several cameras that show pandas. Ask students what they notice about the animals at the different zoos. There are also similar species to consider—different types of penguins, different bears, and so forth. Observations of these different webcams can lead to more inquiry and exploration in the classroom.

  • Several of the webcams have the ability to send an e-mail postcard of the animal. Ask students to brainstorm ways that they could use these e-mail postcards in their inquiry project. One possibility is to send postcards to the teacher, who can then print out the image on a printer (ideally a color printer). The printed pictures can can be added to the journal periodically. Students might make a point of choosing an image each week and creating a tracking chart on a classroom bulletin board.

Student Assessment / Reflections

Students' engagement in these inquiry-based observations will be documented in their observation journal entries, class discussion, and their engagement in additional research in books and other nonfiction resources. A basic checklist of questions can focus assessment of the activity:

  • Do students look closely at live events? Are they engaged in the observation?

  • Do students write notes about what they see (make factual observations)?

  • Do students share and present their observations to the class?

  • Do students engage in discussion of the observer's entries?

  • Do students work as scientists in the classroom, questioning and testing their observations and resources?

  • Do students question the "facts" of their observations and explore the possible conclusions they lead to?

  • Do students consult other nonfiction resources for additional information about their research? How do they work with these resources?