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Bring the Heat! A Desert Theme for Preschoolers

By Kara Bietz

Bring a little bit of the American Southwest to your preschool classroom with these desert themed activities. Prickly pear cactus, coyotes and tumbleweeds abound when you create a preschool desert theme that will introduce children to the landscape and culture of the Sonoran desert.

Get Creative

cohdrankndesertscene1 These art activities will help children understand some of the features of a desert landscape.

Cactus Sculpture: Provide children with green Play-Doh and several photos of cacti in a desert landscape. Fill a short clear plastic cup with rocks and sand and have children place their Play-Doh sculptures in the mini desert landscape. Break several pieces of dry spaghetti into small pieces. Children can use the small pieces as cactus spines by sticking them into the dough. To work those fine muscles and give children a different sensory experience, try using modeling clay for this activity instead of Play-Doh.

Sand and Tumbleweeds: Mix tan paint with a few handfuls of playground sand to create a gritty textured paint. Allow children to paint a sandy desert landscape on white paper and decorate it by drawing a cactus or other desert plants. Use pine straw, glued in a circle, to represent tumbleweeds. You can also use fine grit sandpaper for a sandy background.

Scratchy Paint Cactus: Have children draw the outline of a saguaro cactus on a piece of white paper. Mix green tempera paint with a few handfuls of sand or salt and add a few tablespoons of liquid starch. Mix well and have children paint their cactus outlines with the textured paint. When it dries, the cactus will have a scratchy texture.

Science Fun

Try some of these science activities with your preschoolers to promote curiosity about the desert.

Sensory Table: Turn your sensory table into a desert wonderland! Fill it with sand and small, smooth river rocks. Explain that there is very little water in the desert, and this is why there isn't any grass or tall trees living in most deserts. Place a few plastic lizards in your desert as well as some of the children's cactus sculptures to complete the scene. Try looking at a book of desert landscape pictures with the children and ask for suggestions of other things you can include in your sensory table desert.

Up Close and Personal: This science activity will require a fair amount of adult supervision. Most greenhouses sell small cactus plants. Buy two or three potted cactus plants for your classroom, as well as a few magnifying lenses. Allow children to look closely at the cactus using the lenses and make observations about its texture. Explain that you never touch a cactus because the spines, which are there to protect the cactus from predators, can hurt. Some cacti, such as the jumping cholla, have spines that will actually jump out and embed themselves in the skin if you get too close. Try to avoid bringing these particular cacti into your preschool classroom!

It's So Hot...: In some desert landscapes, the outdoor temperature in the summer can reach well past 120 degrees. As the sun heats up asphalt outdoors, you can actually fry an egg on the asphalt! If you live in a desert area, take the children outdoors and show them how the sun can fry an egg on the asphalt. If you do not live in the desert, try frying the egg on the stove for the children's snack. Ask the children what they think would happen if they stepped on asphalt that hot with bare feet!

Desert Math

Play some simple number games with a desert theme.

Cactus Arm Count: Create several cacti using green construction paper. Place a different number of arms on each saguaro cactus you create, up to ten arms. You may laminate these paper cacti for durability. Young preschoolers will enjoy counting the number of arms on each cactus. Use magnetic numbers, or create your own numbers using paper, and have children place the correct number on each cactus after counting the arms.

Cactus Patterns: Create several more identical saguaro cacti using green construction paper. Decorate half of these cacti in one manner, such as with white polka dots, and half in a different way, such as with red stripes. Laminate for durability and use these cacti for several different patterning activities with your preschool class.

Desert Animal Count: This is an extremely simple game appropriate for young preschoolers or older toddlers. Very young children will learn valuable turn-taking lessons as well as practice one to one correspondence. Collect several different species of plastic desert animals such as lizards, snakes, coyotes and javelinas (you may use pigs if you are unable to locate plastic javelinas). Create two dice using small cardboard boxes. One dice will display a number, while the other dice will display a desert animal. Young preschoolers will enjoy rolling both die and collecting the correct number and species of animals.

Dramatic Play

Bring the desert to your dress up and dramatic play area with these simple activities.

Animal Homes: Use unit blocks to create some "underground" animal homes. Explain that some animals in the desert make their homes underground to escape the sun and heat, such as rattlesnakes and lizards. Others live in the shade of caves in the mountains such as coyotes. Use blankets, pillows and bed sheets to create shady mountain hideaways for your preschool coyotes!

Desert Walk: Keeping cool and hydrated in the desert are very important! Explain to children that wearing light colored clothing in the bright sun will actually keep your body cooler than wearing dark colored clothing. Remembering that tidbit, have children brainstorm the type of clothing they would need if they were going on a hike or a safari in the desert. Stock your dress up area with light colored vests, hats with visors and plastic water bottles to encourage desert safari dramatic play.

Animal Safari Hunt: This simple game is a version of Going On A Bear Hunt. Allow children to use the dress up clothes you collected in the earlier activity and dress up as if they are going on a safari. Give children binoculars and magnifying lenses to complete their safari costumes. Go on a pretend desert animal hunt in your classroom or on the playground. Have children brainstorm the types of desert animals and plants they will see on their safari.

Books About the Desert

There are several children's books available that introduce children to the interesting landscapes and animals of the desert.

Cactus Hotel by Brenda Z. Guiberson: This story follows the life of a saguaro cactus in the North American Sonoran desert. As the cactus ages, other plants and animals make their home within the giant saguaro. The story illustrates the relationship of plants and animals in a desert ecosystem.

The Three Little Javelinas by Susan Lowell: This is a retelling of the classic Three Little Pigs tale, set in the American Southwest. The three pigs are now javelinas, and the wolf is a coyote in this version. Some details of the story are reimagined to reflect the culture and landscape of the Southwest.

There Was A Coyote Who Swallowed A Flea by Jennifer Ward: In another retelling of a classic rhyme, There Was A Coyote Who Swallowed A Flea is a richly illustrated funny story of a coyote in the desert. He swallows a number of desert themed plants and animals including a cactus, a chili pepper, a snake and a lizard!

Non-Fiction Book Selections: There are several non-fiction books that are appropriate for preschoolers which contain vivid pictures of desert life. Among some of the best for your preschool classroom are:

  • A Desert Habitat by Kelley MacAulay
  • Who Lives Here? Desert Animals by Deborah Hodge
  • The Sonoran Desert by Day and Night by Dot Barlow

Other Activities

There are so many activities you can include when planning a preschool desert theme, you may have trouble fitting it all in to one week! Try some of these other activities to round out your learning.

Jackrabbit Hop: Fashion jackrabbit ears from pipe cleaners and play a version of freeze tag or freeze dance while children pretend to hop like desert jackrabbits.

Cactus Tasting: Certain grocery stores may have cactus for tasting in their specialty food section. Ask around and see if you can find a few different types of cactus for children to taste. Or, find an online resource for prickly pear jelly, a sweet treat made from the fruit of a prickly pear cactus.

The Animals in the Desert: Sing a version of the Wheels On The Bus but replace the verses with facts about animals in the desert. Use common desert animals such as the jackrabbit, rattlesnake, lizard and coyote.



Mayesky, Mary. Creative Activities for Young Children. Delmar Publishers (1995).

Guiberson, Brenda. Cactus Hotel. Henry Holt and Company (1993).

Lowell, Susan. The Three Little Javelinas. Rising Moon Books (1992).

Ward, Jennifer. There Was a Coyote Who Swallowed a Flea. Cooper Square Publishing (2007).

MacAulay, Kelley. A Desert Habitat. Crabtree Publishing Company (2006).

Hodge, Deborah. Who Lives Here? Desert Animals. Kids Can Press (2008)

Barlow, Dot. The Sonoran Desert by Day and Night. Dover Publications (2003)

Author's own classroom experience

Photo Credit: cohdra