Pop Bottle Ecosystem

We are going to show you how to make a Pop Bottle Ecosytem to help your kids learn about systems and how life is interconnected.  We’ll also share a little lesson on responsibility at the end.  But first . . .

Make a Pop Bottle Ecosystem to show illustrate how the animals, plants, and non-living things in an environment all affect one another. Also includes a lesson on responsibility.

My kids did this at a cub scout meeting and so you will see lots of uniforms. This is Garrett with his finished Pop Bottle Ecosystem.

What Is An Ecosystem?

A system is a set of interconnected processes that depend on each other for their function.  An ecosystem is a particular interconnected zone where life exists.  It includes the air, the water, the soil, the animals, the plants, and the bacteria in that zone.  The space an ecosystem takes up depends on how a person defines it.  The entire Amazon rain forest could be an ecosystem, but so could the life cradled in the water trapped in a single leaf high in the canopy of the rain forest.  When scientists start to talk about a particular ecosystem they define the area they are talking about.  The concept of an ecosystem is used to help people understand how living things interact with each other and with the non-living things in their environment.  It helps us see that life is interconnected and when one living thing or species is affected so are they all.  We see how materials, like water, are cycled through the whole ecosystem to benefit each part of it.  The fish and the plants and the soil are all affected by the same water, for example.  You can make a small ecosystem in a pop bottle.

How To Make A Pop Bottle Ecosystem

Start with a 2 liter bottle, clear is best so you can see through it.  Cut the top off the bottle, just below where the straight sides begin on the bottle.

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Next add some aquarium rocks, some water, and a few goldfish.  Make sure you use water your goldfish are acclimated to temperature wise.  If you leave the water sitting out at room temperature for a few hours before you add it to the goldfish water it will be fine.

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Now get two coffee filter papers and cut two small holes in the center.  Cut a piece of string long enough so it can reach from the top of the bottle down to the water with the goldfish.  Tie a knot in one end of the string.  Thread the un-knotted end through the top of the filter papers, through the little holes you made.  Set the filter paper down inside the inverted top of the bottle that you already cut off.

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Get a plant from the garden center and place it into the coffee filter inside the inverted top of the pop bottle.  You may need a little extra gardening soil to fill up the space.

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The base of the plant should end up about level with the upper cut edge of the pop bottle.

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Place the plant and top of the bottle into the lower part of the bottle, the part with the goldfish in it, so that the string dangles down into the water.

Make a Pop Bottle Ecosystem to show illustrate how the animals, plants, and non-living things in an environment all affect one another. Also includes a lesson on responsibility.

Poke a small hole in the side of the lower part of the bottle, above the water line, but low enough that your child can put a flake or two of fish food through the hole to feed the fish each day.  The water, rich with nutrients from the fish, will wick up the string to water your plants.  You have made a little ecosystem with a plant, animals, water, soil, rocks, air, sunlight, and food that you replenish every day.

Responsibility

When you are finished making the Pop Bottle Ecosystem place it in a windowsill and explain to your child that he or she must feed the fish each morning, without reminders.  Explain how much food to give the fish, just a flake, or two if the flakes are small.   Talk about responsibility.  When we are responsible for things that means they depend on us.  If we fail there are always consequences, even if someone else picks up our slack.  Relate this to some of the other things your child is responsible for and the consequences that happen when those things don’t get taken care of.   Your child is now responsible for the life of the plant and the fish.  Discuss how their failure will cause the death of the animals in their care.  Chose a reward for your child if they still have living fish in a month’s time.  (Goldfish have a high mortality rate so make sure your start off with three or four fish.  If your child is responsible, but the fish die anyway, talk about that lesson as well.)

Additional Layers

  • Learn about a particular ecosystem near where you live.  Find out about the animals and plants that live there and the amount of water and sunlight the area gets.  Are there any endangered species or invasive species that have changed the ecosystem lately?  What is the human impact on the ecosystem.  Read everything you can and then if possible go visit in person and observe what it is like in your local ecosystem.
  • Responsibility applies well to ecosystems because if people are not responsible in using resources then we can have unintended and harmful consequences on our environment.  Find out about a company or organization that is using resources responsibly.  It could be a power production plant, a timber company, a mining company, a recreation area, a farm, or something similar.  What does this company do to be careful of the natural world?  If possible see if you can take a tour of their plant or talk with someone who can explain to you how the company works to make sure people can have what they need while being responsible in use of natural resources.
  • Write a story about a little person inside your Pop Bottle Ecosystem.  What would your little person eat?  How would she get down to the water?  How would the water get clean enough for your little person to drink it?

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18 Responses to Pop Bottle Ecosystem

  1. Diana says:

    This is amazing!!! A very good “hands on” for younger kids. A good way to see and understand the concept of ecosystem and even more help children take responsibilities.

    • Yes, we didn’t invent the project, it’s been around for decades, but we liked how it ties ecosystems in with responsibility, especially as one of the responsibilities people have is to help care for the earth.

  2. Lisa says:

    Does the water ever need replenishing, or cleaning?

  3. Susan says:

    What kinds of plants work best for this project?

  4. Kelly McCabe says:

    Exactly what kind of string is recommended?

  5. victor says:

    what kind of plant is it

    • It’s just an inexpensive little annual. I can’t remember which kind. They are easier to find in the spring, but you can use any plant that you would use as a house plant as well.

  6. Katie says:

    Ten gallon tank kits can easily be found at retail stores such as Walmart, Petco, and Petsmart. They usually retail for under $50, even cheaper at local yard sales.
    There are grants available to help fund pets in the classroom- then the experience becomes year long, instead of one unit!

    Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a cool concept, but it’s important to teach children proper animal care regardless of species.

    • Thanks, Katie, for the tips. Most of our audience consists of homeschoolers though so costs are perhaps a bit more of an issue. But I love the idea of a more permanent tank set up, especially if you are doing a longer ecology unit. The tank, it’s plants, and animals could serve for lots of lessons. And you are right about animal care. In fact, a major component of this lesson is taking responsibility.

    • jeannie says:

      Katie I am doing this for my students in my class 40 of them.. What are your suggestions.. I don’t have that money for each kid…I will use the guppies however, not spending $2000.00 …

  7. Ajith says:

    Great idea- doing the same for a school project. One query though, if the top part covers the lower part fully, is it fine for the fish – will it need the outside air for circulation. Had a query on this. Thanks- hope it is much loved and kids learn from this.

  8. Heather says:

    First, I want to say thank you for sharing this! I plan on using this as a badge project for my Brownie troop and am very excited. They are going to love it! I do have a question about the string/wick and the soil. Do you bury the wick at the bottom or does it need to be fed up through the dirt somehow? We will be using our own mix of water saving soil (a separate project made from ‘gently used’ disposable diapers and regular dirt from our yards- very easy with good results), so I am also wondering if we should water from the top initially?

    • Your soil should be moist before you plant the flower. The wick should be knotted at the top with a bit of extra string hanging off the end, maybe an inch or so. The water will climb right up the string and from there spread through the soil.