Primary Productivity Activities

Instructor: Heather Jenkins

Heather has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in special education. She was a public school teacher and administrator for 11 years.

If your class is studying plants or ecosystems, then understanding primary productivity and its importance to sustaining life in ecosystems is vital. Use these activities to help students learn about primary productivity.

Primary Productivity

If students have ever been to a Japanese steakhouse, they've watched their food being prepared and cooked for their consumption. In the same way, when students see plants growing, they are actually watching their food being prepared either for direct consumption, as vegetables and fruit, or indirectly as food for another animal, such as a cow, that they will then eat. They are also experiencing these same plants making oxygen for them to breathe.

Primary productivity measures the amount of new organic material made by autotrophs in an ecosystem. When students learn about primary productivity, they can understand the importance of maintaining healthy levels of autotrophs to support an ecosystem. They can also learn about the diversity of primary production in different ecosystems. Let's look at some activities to help students learn about primary productivity.

Comparing Ecosystems Displays

Students will create a two-sided display to show primary productivity in a terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem.


  • Charts, graphs, tables showing primary productivity measurements from various ecosystems
  • Access to online/print resources
  • Poster board
  • Glue
  • Art supplies (colored pencils, markers, pencils)

Teacher Directions

  1. Define ''primary productivity'' for students. Discuss why primary productivity is important for all life on earth.
  2. Show students various charts, graphs, and tables showing primary productivity measurements from various ecosystems. Discuss primary production in both terrestrial and aquatic environments, including which ecosystems in each category have the greatest primary productivity.
  3. Divide the class into pairs, and provide each pair with two pieces of poster board, glue, and art supplies.
  4. Students will select one terrestrial ecosystem and one aquatic ecosystem to research. Students will research the primary productivity of each ecosystem, including the variety of autotrophs in each environment, its level of primary productivity, and conditions in the environment that encourage or discourage primary productivity.
  5. Have the pairs fold each poster board in half, and have them glue the top half of each poster board together. This will look like two letter L's placed back to back.
  6. On each side of the display, students should use pictures and text to display their research information.
  7. When students are finished, have them share their displays with the class.

Discussion Questions

  • How were your ecosystems similar and different in terms of primary productivity?
  • Why do you think places like coral reefs and rainforests have high levels of primary productivity while places like deserts have lower levels of primary productivity?

Measurement Skits

Have students create skits showing how scientists measure primary productivity in different ecosystems.


  • Pictures and/or video clips of scientists measuring primary productivity
  • Access to online/print resources
  • (Optional) Props for skits (ex. film canisters, scale, container of water, etc.)

Teacher Directions

  1. Discuss with the class different ways that scientists measure primary productivity in an ecosystem. Include pictures and/or video clips of scientists measuring primary productivity.
  2. Divide the class into small groups.
  3. Have each group do additional research about how measurements of primary productivity are taken in an ecosystem of their choice.
  4. Students will then use props to create skits showing how primary productivity is measured in the ecosystem. For example, if students chose an aquatic ecosystem, they could pretend to put film canisters in the water and create light and dark canisters to measure photosynthesis and respiration. For a terrestrial ecosystem, students could act out measuring the difference between the weight of harvested plants and their seeds on a scale.
  5. When finished, students will present their skits to the class.

Discussion Questions

  • How does measuring primary productivity vary in different ecosystems?
  • Why do scientists measure primary productivity?

What If Picture Books

Have students create picture books about factors that can affect the primary productivity of an ecosystem.


  • Access to online/print resources
  • Blank paper
  • Art supplies (colored pencils, pencils, markers)
  • Stapler

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