Inherited vs. Learned Traits

By Laura Hospitál on Jul 20, 2015

This short activity was created for a group of students younger than I have normally taught.  At the early to mid-elementary level, most students will not be learning about the manner in which traits are inherited (DNA) but rather simply the difference between inherited traits and learned traits.  This activity came about as a result of the need to provide instruction on this content without going into the basic genetics that would be part of a high school biology class. 
Students will often focus discussion of traits on human traits.  This activity allows students to consider learned and inherited traits in animals as well.


  • Prepare models of several animals.  These can be mammals, insects, reptiles, fish, etc. 
  • Choose models of animals that the students are at least somewhat familiar with.


  • Model of an animal familar to the student.  One model per student. 
  • Place the models on the students' desks before they arrive.


  • This activity should be completed with students after initial instruction on learned and inherited traits.
  • Students should each have a model of an animal on their desks when they arrive. 
  Warm Up: Begin the activity by discussing which animal each student has.  If a student struggles with what animal he/she has, provide assistance as necessary but only after giving the student time to think about it.  One student in my class thought the animal was a zebra which was a logical thought given that the animal this student was observing was a horse.  He was prompted that the animal didn't have stripes and was able to determine that the animal was a horse from that clue.Talk about characteristics of each student's animal in groups of two or three students.    Guided: If possible, have a teacher or teacher assistant with each group or mill around the class to support each group. Students may have questions about certain traits of their animals.  Once the students are comfortable with some of the animal's basic characteristics, have each group make a list of inherited characteristics of each animal and learned characteristics.  If students know how ot build a T-chart, this would be appropriate. Otherwise, have students create 2 lists in print and/or braille. I found that students struggled to think of  learned characteristics.  Some of the learned characteristics that occured to the groups were characteristics that describe various ways that the animals have learned behavior from humans.  Examples were herding cattle, performing in a circus, or taming a horse.   Closure: Discuss the learned and inherited traits described for each animal.  

NGSS Standards:

Grade 3 - Inheritance and Variation of Traits: Life Cycles and Traits
LS3.A: Inheritance of Traits
Many characteristics of organisms are inherited from their parents. (3-LS3-1)
Other characteristics result from individuals’ interactions with Other characteristics result from individuals’ interactions with the environment, which can range from diet to learning. Many characteristics involve both inheritance and environment. (3-
LS3.B: Variation of Traits
Different organisms vary in how they look and function because they have different inherited information. (3-LS3-1)
The environment also affects the traits that an organism develops. (3-LS3-2)
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