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Summer Brain Games

Experiment: Terrarium

There’s no better time than summer to explore nature. An ecosystem is a community of plants, animals and smaller organisms that live, feed, reproduce and interact in the same area. Ecosystems can be large like an ocean or small like your backyard. Make your own ecosystem for a bug’s-eye view of science at work!

Instrucciones en Español


Clear container with a clear lid
Activated charcoal (optional)
Spanish moss
Plant leaves
Low-growing woodland plants (like ivy, African violet, moss)
Earthworms and bugs (sow bugs, pill bugs)
Small toys and figurines


  1. Start with a layer of rocks in the container for drainage. Add a small layer of activated charcoal if you’d like the terrarium to last; it helps keep the water and air clean.
  2. Add a layer of Spanish moss so soil doesn’t clog the drainage channels.
  3. Collect some fallen leaves (moist is best) and break them into pieces. Mix one part of this leaf litter with two parts soil and add a layer that’s several inches deep.
  4. If the container is large, landscape the soil into hills and valleys. Sprinkle some leaf litter on top (as shelter for the bugs). Add plants, bugs and earthworms.
  5. Make a scene by adding small toys or figurines.
  6. Water the plants with a few tablespoons of water and close the lid. Add a little water once a week, and use a thermometer and ruler to measure changes.

What's Happening?

A habitat is a specific natural area inhabited by particular populations of plants or animals. They contain everything that population needs to survive: food, water, shelter, air and space. A community of living (biotic) things interacts with non-living (abiotic) things to form an ecosystem. The Chicago area has several ecosystems, including woodland ecosystems like the one in your terrarium. Woodland ecosystems have dense tree growth and temperate deciduous forests (i.e. trees that lose their leaves in the fall). These ecosystems grow best with cold winters and hot, wet summers. 

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