Science ideas for young children: Finding a flood

Teach young children about science by looking for signs of flooding.

Youth and teacher wading in water
Photo by Brandon Schroeder, Michigan Sea Grant Extension

Do you have a river or stream near you? Have you noticed the water level changing throughout the year? Why do you think the water level changes? What time of year do you think the water is highest? Can you use observations to guess how high the water has been in the past?

Most streams have a typical high-water level in the spring. Melting snow combined with spring rains along with lower temperatures to reduce evaporation, and less plant life to collect the water and conduct transpiration, all lead to higher water levels.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) keeps track of water levels in many streams and rivers across the country through gauging stations. A listing of all USGS gauging stations in Michigan is available online. You can also view the sites on a map for the entire country. This site gives the average (mean), minimum and maximum flow for any particular day at the given location. You can also look at graphs for different time periods. Is the creek near you low, high or average? How do you know that?

What if your site isn’t near a gauging station? Are there signs you can look for near a stream? Here are some things to notice:

  • Has the streambank been eroded to a particular level? Can you see where higher water has cut away the soil in certain spots? Do some spots along the banks show more erosion than others? Why might that be? Usually, water moves faster on the outside of a curve than inside of a curve.
  • Are there any changes in color on tree trunks or structures like bridge abutments or culverts near the water? Many times, there will be a high-water line you can see where the typical spring water levels are.
  • Is there debris caught in overhanging branches in the stream? When water levels rise, branches that aren’t normally underwater become submerged. When water levels are higher, it also tends to be moving faster. Debris moving through the stream, such as trash, leaves and twigs, get caught in the submerged branch. When the water recedes, those things are still left behind. This can be several feet above the current water level.
  • Do you notice any changes in the plant life as you move farther from the river? Some plants are more tolerant of changing water levels than others. By observing these changes, you might be able to get an idea of how the water level has changed over time.

Next time you visit a river, engage young people in thinking and discussing how water levels have changed over time, and use this to build their skills in science and engineering practices.

This article is part of a series by Michigan State University Extension about conducting science activities with children in the natural world. This can be done within a family, in a daycare setting, as part of school activities, with a 4-H club or with any group working with young children.

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