Easy Watershed Lesson with Art Project for 4K and Preschool

The National Association of Conservation Districts holds an annual poster contest for students grades K-12, encouraging students to care for their environment. This year, the theme is Watersheds: Our Water, Our Home. A representative from the local DNR came to the school and taught the students eligible for the contest about watersheds. Then, the students made posters to enter into the contest.

The 3EC and 4K kids aren’t eligible for the contest, though. Because of that, they didn’t go to the presentations. Yet, we still wanted the kids to learn about watersheds and make posters to display with the older kids’ posters.

I had to come up with two ideas. One: how to teach young kids about watersheds. Two: an appropriate poster theme. And I had to do it on a budget; I had to pay for the materials for the learning part of the project. (The school had paper, glue, and paint for the posters.)

What is a Watershed?

The US Geological Society defines a watershed as “an area of land that drains all the streams and rainfall to a common outlet such as the outflow of a reservoir, mouth of a bay, or any point along a stream channel.” It is all of the rivers and streams that flow into a larger body of water. A watershed also includes the land where water runs off into those streams. It also includes the groundwater that filters through the ground into those bodies of water. Learn more about watersheds with the video below.

Since there are so many parts of a watershed, any model of a watershed needs to include rivers, streams, smaller lakes, and a large lake or basin for the water to gather in. A full, comprehensive model would include sponges for groundwater, too. However, for kids this age, it’s better to focus on what they can easily see: surface water.

Watershed Project: Prepping

Prepare the foil balls and aluminum panKids this age learn best with hands-on learning, so I created a model watershed. It’s really quite easy. I used a large aluminum cooking pan from the dollar store as the base. Then, I loosely crumpled up balls of aluminum foil. These serve as the base for the mountains.

Shape sheets of foil over the foil balls.To keep the mountains from shifting (we’re learning about watersheds, not plate tectonics!), I sprayed the cooking pan with spray adhesive. Then, I placed balls around the bottom, making sure to leave a basin for water to drain into. Then, place balls above them, along the rim of the cooking pan. These won’t create a smooth, flowing surface, though. To solve that, I sprayed them with spray adhesive and laid sheets of aluminum foil over the balls, pressing them down to make ridges and valleys.

Brown spray painted mountains for watershed projectAs a finishing touch, I sprayed the model with brown spray paint I had leftover from another project. This is a totally optional step, and in retrospect, I probably would have used a lighter color to make things easier to see.

Watershed Project: Learning Activity

I used spray bottles (from the dollar store) to simulate rain. I used a little blue food coloring to make it easier to see. First, I demonstrated a clean watershed by having a few of the kids spray the water directly on the foil mountain model. The water ran into the valleys and down to the basin in the bottom. We made little lakes, rivers, and a big lake at the bottom; a perfect little watershed model!

Then I told explained what pollution is. I told them how some people put garbage, chemicals, and other bad things on the ground. These things don’t belong in nature, so they are pollution. To simulate pollution, I sprinkled red sugar sprinkles (like the ones you use for decorating cookies) all over the model. Then, I had the kids spray water on the model again. As they sprayed, I pointed out how the red sprinkles were mixing with the blue water and turning the water purple. The sprinkles were melting away and flowing away with the water. Pollution does the same thing.

Art Project

Prep Work:

Before the kids did the project, I prepped a few parts of the project. I used rubber cement to glue blue paper to the bottom of the poster board. This will serve as the basin water for the watershed poster. I also cut out brown triangles to represent the mountains and hills the water flows through. I cut a variety of sizes, since mountains are all sizes. I thought about adding white paper to the tops to represent snow, but that would just make the tops blend into the white posterboard, so I opted against it. If you’re using blue poster board, you may want to do that, too.


There are three main components to this project. 1: Mountains. 2: Rain. 3: Fish.

1: Have the kids glue the mountains to the top edge of the water. Use glue, glue sticks, or paste; whatever the students are most comfortable working with. Encourage the students to overlap the mountains. (Bonus less: learning about spatial relations like in front, behind, and overlapping.)

2: Once the mountains are glued down, the kids will paint the rain drops. Put a little acrylic paint in cups or on a plate for the kids. Using Q-Tips, have the students dip the tips into the paint. Then, they make dots on the sky (top of the poster) and on the mountains to represent rain.

3: Finally, the children put stickers of fish and other aquatic life. Try to avoid stickers that have lots of ocean and salt-water creatures, such as dolphins, starfish, sharks, and seahorses. I found the stickers the children used at the dollar store, but if they don’t have any fish stickers there, you can usually find some at your local craft store. Also, I found these stickers on Amazon, which would work.

Let the paint dry… and voila! A watershed work of art!

Disclaimer: This post is not sponsored by or affiliated with the National Association of Conservation Districts, merely inspired by their work to teach children responsible environmental behaviors. This post also contains an affiliate link to the fish stickers. By purchasing through this link, I can make a small commission at no additional cost to you. Thank you!

Easy project to teach young kids about watersheds and the dangers of pollution.

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