[BEARS: Imagination and Reality.  At the San Diego Natural History Museum from October 21, 2000 through January 2, 2001.]

Teacher's Guide
Classroom Activity: Build a Bear Habitat

Art, science

Two or three 45-minute periods

After constructing a bear habitat, students will be able to list the elements necessary for a bear habitat and explain why each is vital.

Bears live in a complex habitat which provides four critical elements: food, water, shelter, and space.

Creating, critical thinking, model building

ocardboard to build upright supports—a few medium-sized cardboard boxes should be sufficient
ochalkboard and chalk
ocolored paper—red, black, brown, blue, green, yellow
oglue, glue sticks, or paste—about one for every 4 students
olarge (3 x 5 feet), white art paper, butcher paper, or poster board
1 for each group of four
oroll of tape—about one for every 4 students
oscissors—about one for every 4 students

habitat—a place where a bear lives which meets its basic needs
seasonal lethargy—to pass the winter in a dormant or sleeping state, like a bear


1. Discuss the type of areas in which bears live naturally. Remind your students that you are describing the grizzly bear and the black bear of North America. (Black bears usually live in forests and forest openings whereas grizzlies live in more open areas, but still need some cover. By nature, bears usually avoid humans and human developments. Bears need areas that give them access to natural foods. Bears' habitats must include food, water, shelter, and space.)

2. Discuss the four basic elements of a bear habitat: food, water, shelter, and space.

a. Food.
The usual diet of grizzlies and black bears consists of nuts, roots, berries, fruit, insects (such as ants), fish, small mammals (such as mice), and occasionally large mammals (such as bison, elk, and deer, mostly in the form of carrion—rotting flesh). However, plants comprise most of their diet.

The food bears eat varies with where they live and the season of the year. For example, bears eat honey, if it is available—in fact, they may even eat the bees. In the spring, before bears can forage for fruit or berries, bears dig for roots, graze on young grass shoots, or claw insect larvae from inside rotten trees.

Bears eat a great volume of food and pass it rapidly through their digestive tract. They eat certain plants when the plants are at their peak nutritional value.

b. Water.
Bears need a water source such as a lake, stream, pond, or river. Many bears may use the same source if water is scarce.

c. Shelter or cover.
Bears usually rest in dense cover during part of the day. They make daytime shelters for napping called daybeds. They may scrape leaves into a pile under a tree or just lie under dense bushes.

In the fall, bears search for a place to sleep during the winter. They may dig a den in the ground or use hollow logs, brush piles, or natural caves. Some bears simply make an above ground nest. They may spend a few weeks preparing their dens.

Mature female bears need a place with cover to raise cubs.

d. Space.
Bears need space to obtain sufficient amounts of food. In areas with poor soil and vegetation, bears require large territories. Bears living in areas with rich, fertile soil have smaller territories since plant foods are more abundant.

3. List the various needs of bears on the chalkboard so the students can refer to them while they devise their bear habitat.

4. Tell the students that they will work in groups of four to build a model of a bear habitat. Suggest that they include bears, but caution them not to include impossible group arrangements (e.g., a mother, a father, and a cub). A female bear and her cubs (one to four cubs are possible) live in one territory. Adult females without cubs and adult males live alone in their own territories. Young bears that are independent from their mother may establish their own individual territories or share one.

5. Divide the class into groups of four or less. Pass out a large (3' x 5') white sheet of art paper, butcher paper, or poster board to each group. Put out several colors of construction paper. Show the students the other supplies that are available.

6. Explain that each group will design its own bear habitat, including all four critical elements. Each person in a group is responsible for a critical part of the habitat-food, water, shelter, and space. Remind the groups to include bears. Encourage the groups to make their habitats three-dimensional. Suggest they use cardboard to support their creations. Ask students to consider including other elements in their bear habitats, such as highways, dumps, hunters, farms, houses, campgrounds, or hiking trails. Encourage creativity.

7. Ask the groups to begin the project by brainstorming, planning, and then assigning themselves tasks before they start constructing their bear habitat. Tell them they may continue the following day. To help guide the groups, informally ask students these questions:

a. What do bears use to build summer daybeds or winter dens?
Bears need trees for protection from predators, wind, and the elements. They may scrape leaves and other materials into their site to soften and insulate their daybed or den. For winter dens, they need hollow logs, dense thickets, caves, or depressions in hillsides they can deepen.

b. What kind of food sources do bears need?
An area with trees, shrubs, herbs, and grasses, as well as berries, nuts, insects, and small mammals, provides food throughout the seasons. Bears are omnivorous, but eat mostly plants. However, they will eat meat, mostly carrion (rotting flesh), when available. Grizzlies and black bears are not skilled predators in contrast to wolves and cats.

c. Where can bears find water?
Possible sources include ponds, streams, and lakes, which can also provide fish.

8. When the projects are completed, ask each group to show their habitat to the class and explain the way their design meets the needs of bears.

9. Show off the habitat creations to other school classes, take photographs, make a video production, or display them in the school.

Questions for Discussion

1. Why does a bear live in a particular habitat?
It contains the combinations of food, water, shelter, and space that a bear needs to survive. Depending on what they contain, some habitats are marginal and others are optimal.

2. Why would bears enter a town?
Bears may enter towns in search of food. Bears are naturally afraid of people. Occasionally people train bears not to be afraid of them-by feeding them, leaving garbage at camp sites, and in other ways. Bears that are less afraid of people are more likely to come to town in search of food. However, when food is very scarce, perhaps due to drought, bears are more likely to enter towns. Some towns are built in areas where there are many bears-in these cases, bears may inadvertently wander through town.

3. What might occur if bears lived in an urban setting?
Bears might eat unnatural foods (e.g., garbage) or more "natural" foods, such as ornamental fruit trees or garden vegetables. This might lead to possible confrontations between bears and people, possibly involving injuries or death. However, most bears are killed or relocated elsewhere. There are few examples of bears living near urban areas since people usually do not tolerate them and insist on their removal. Few people are willing to change their own behavior or limit their actions to accommodate bears in this setting.

Taking it Further

1. Put the various habitats together to form several territories of bear families.

2. Challenge students to build a large-scale bear habitat, including a den. They may wish to stand up pieces of cardboard, hang objects from the ceiling, and create a background mural. Select a place in the classroom where this habitat can remain undisturbed.

3. Ask a group of students to build a zoo habitat for a bear family and compare it to a natural habitat.


Exhibit Overview

Background Information


At the Museum

Pre- and Post-visit Activities
Build a Bear Habitat
Hunt for the Bear Above


bear drawing

Teacher's Guide | Bears | Exhibits