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Anytime Lesson Plan: Carbon Cycle Roleplay (3-12)


In this activity, students will learn that there is a finite amount of carbon on earth, which moves around in the environment, from one place to another.

We recommend using the What Contains Carbon? lesson to set the stage for this activity.


In this activity, students will:

  1. learn that there is a finite amount of carbon on earth.
  2. learn that carbon moves around in the environment, from one place to another.


  • ping pong balls (at least 14)
  • permanent marker
  • chalk
  • Carbon Cycle Role-Play Cards (provided)


  • carbon: a naturally abundant, nonmetallic element that occurs in all organic compounds and can be found in all known forms of life
  • carbon dioxide: a colorless, odorless gas that is present in the atmosphere, formed during respiration, produced during organic decomposition, used by plants in photosynthesis, and formed when any fuel containing carbon is burned
  • atmosphere: the mixture of gases surrounding the earth, held in place by gravity
  • lithosphere: rigid, rocky outer layer of the earth
  • hydrosphere: all of the earth's water, including surface water (water in oceans, lakes, and rivers), groundwater (water in soil and beneath the earth's surface), snowcover, ice, and water in the atmosphere, including water vapor
  • biosphere: the parts of the land, sea, and atmosphere in which organisms are able to live
  • algae: a general term for microscopic or larger aquatic plants. They differ from trees, bushes, and other flowering plants because they lack true roots, stems, and leaves.
  • photosynthesis: the process by which green plants, algae, diatoms, and certain forms of bacteria make carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water, using energy captured from sunlight
  • respiration: processes that take place in the cells and tissues during which energy is released and carbon dioxide is produced



  1. Collect 14-28 ping pong balls.
  2. Write the chemical symbol for carbon (C) on each ping pong ball with a permanent marker. 
  3. Print the role-play cards. Make sure that they are double-sided.
  4. Designate a large open space for this activity. If working outside, use chalk to designate a large rectangular area. Then, use chalk to divide the space into three regions, one for the ocean, one for the land, and one for the atmosphere as shown below. Another option is to draw a picture on the board of the three regions shown below and then designate different areas of the classroom to represent the ocean, the land, and the atmosphere.


We suggest using the “What Contains Carbon?” activity as an introduction to the “Carbon Cycle Role-Play.” Review with your students that carbon is a common element on earth. Have students recall some of the things in their daily lives that contain carbon.  Make a list of these items on the board. Then tell your students that the carbon contained in any one thing doesn’t stay there forever. The carbon atoms move from one thing to another in what is called the carbon cycle. Parts of the carbon cycle happen very quickly, like when plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for photosynthesis. But, other parts of the carbon cycle happen very slowly. Tell students that in this activity, they will learn how carbon moves from one place to another, by performing a carbon cycle role-play.



  1. Divide students evenly into 7 groups. Each group will be a team of actors that will play a certain part of the carbon cycle. The groups are listed in the table below.
  2. Distribute the appropriate role-play card to each group.
  3. Distribute 2-4 ping pong balls to each group and explain that these represent carbon atoms.
  4. Tell students that they need to look at their role-play card as a group to figure out their role and what they get to do in the role-play activity.
  5. Tell students that they need to decide as a group how they are going to move their carbon. Their options are listed in the “Options for carbon movement” section on their cards.
  6. Tell students that they can’t give away all their carbon: they must keep at least one carbon atom. This is because the carbon cycle doesn’t move all the carbon in one place to another place. Rather, carbon exists in all of these things at the same time and only some carbon from each thing moves.
  7. You might want to conduct one round where students give only one carbon atom to one other group and then conduct a second round where they can split their carbon between different groups, if each group has more than two carbon atoms.
  8. One at a time, ask each group to give their carbon to another group (or groups).
  9. Tell students that as they move their carbon, they must say their script lines to explain the carbon movement that they have chosen.
  10. Run the role-play a number of times, telling students to make different choices about carbon movement each time.
  11. Consider running the role-play one time with all the groups moving their carbon at the same time. To do this, have one person from each group be the deliverer of carbon and the other group members remain to receive carbon from other groups. Tell students that this is a more chaotic, but more realistic acting out of the carbon cycle, since in the real world carbon moves between all these areas at the same time.




Options for CARBON


Explanation for each CARBON FLOW





1. water

2. trees


1. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere diffuses and dissolves into water.


2. Carbon dioxide is taken up by land plants to perform photosynthesis.

1. I am giving carbon dioxide gas to water. It will dissolve in water.


2. I am giving carbon dioxide gas to trees to use for photosynthesis.



1. algae

2. marine snails

3. atmosphere


1. Aquatic plants use carbon dioxide from the water to perform photosynthesis.


2. Some marine organisms take carbon from the water to build their skeletons and shells.


3. Carbon dioxide can diffuse back into the atmosphere.


1. I am giving dissolved carbon dioxide to algae for photosynthesis.


2. I am giving carbon to marine snails to help build their shells.


3. I am taking dissolved carbon dioxide and putting it back in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide gas.




(Aquatic Plants)


1. water

2. sediments and rocks

3.marine snails

1. Cellular respiration and decomposition put carbon back into the water.


2. Carbon from dead plants can be incorporated into sediments.


3. Animals consume aquatic plants and use it as energy or store it in tissues.

1. I am giving carbon to water when I die and decompose and when I perform respiration.


2. I am giving carbon to sediments and rocks because after I die, some of the carbon in my structures is laid down in sediments, which can turn to rock.


3. I am giving carbon to marine snails because they use their mouths to scrap me off the rocks and eat me.


Marine Snails (Aquatic



1. water

2. sediments and rocks

1. Respiration and decomposition put carbon back into the water.


2. Carbon from dead animals can be incorporated into sediments on the ocean floor and can eventually become sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.

1. I am giving carbon to water when I perform respiration and when I die and decompose.


2. I am giving carbon to sediments and rocks because when I die my hard, carbon-containing shell sinks to the ocean floor and becomes part of the sediment, which can then become rock.



Sediments and Rocks


1. water

2. volcano to atmosphere


1. Weathering and erosion of rocks deposits carbon in rivers and oceans.


2. Volcanic eruptions spew carbon-containing gases into the atmosphere.

1. I am giving carbon to water because when I am weathered and eroded, my carbon flows into water.


2. I am giving carbon to the atmosphere in a quick fury because volcanoes erupt and put carbon from rocks back into the atmosphere.


Trees (Land Plants)

1. atmosphere

2. sediments and rocks

3. caterpillars

1. Cellular respiration and decomposition put carbon back into the atmosphere.


2. Carbon from dead trees can be buried and incorporated into sediments.


3. Plants are consumed by animals that use carbon for energy or store it in tissue.

1. I am giving carbon to the atmosphere when I perform respiration and when I die and decompose.


2. I am giving carbon to sediments and rocks because when I die, I can be buried in sediments and slowly become part of the rocks.


3. I am giving carbon to caterpillars because you have eaten me and will use my carbon for energy or to make your body’s structures.

Caterpillars (Land Animals)

1. atmosphere

2. sediments and rocks

1. Respiration and the decomposition of dead animals put carbon back into the atmosphere.


2. Carbon from dead animals can be buried and incorporated into sediments.

1. I am giving carbon to the atmosphere because when I breathe I release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.


2. I am giving carbon to sediments and rocks because when I die I can be buried and some of the carbon in my body can become part of sediments.

Either as a pre-teach tool, or as a review after the role-play activity, work with your students to draw all the carbon-related interactions on the board. Use the picture below as a template. carbon cycle diagram



Tell students that they just acted out the carbon cycle without human involvement. But, humans greatly influence the carbon cycle with some of their activities. Pull a few students aside and have them be the humans. Ask them to move the carbon in the appropriate manner for each of the following human alterations. First have students guess what the movement will be and then help them make the appropriate movement.

  • Humans extract and burn fossil fuels for energy – carbon moves from the sediments and rocks where fossil fuels are buried into the atmosphere.
  • Humans cut and burn trees to use land for farming, ranching, or building – carbon moves from the land plants into the atmosphere.

Aid students in understanding these human alterations. Explain that burning fossil fuels takes carbon from sediments and rocks where fossil fuels are buried and puts it into the atmosphere because when fossil fuels are burned they release carbon-containing gases. Explain that cutting and burning trees takes carbon from the land plants and puts it into the atmosphere because when trees are burned, the carbon that was stored in their structures is released as carbon-containing gases. Explain that humans have not created more carbon on earth, but that we move carbon from one place to another more quickly than would naturally happen and that this has consequences for the climate of the planet.





  • Trace the journeys of a few carbon atoms: Use only one carbon atom (ping pong ball) and start it with one group. Each group that gets the atom makes a decision about where it goes next. Assign one student to write the journey on the board or a piece of paper. Do this multiple times so that you can compare the journeys of several individual atoms. Then, look at the different journeys different carbon atoms can take through the spheres.  Explain that the carbon cycle does not move in one direction, but moves in lots of different directions at the same time. 
  • Adapt this activity to be more advanced by having students design their own role-play exercise.
  • Follow this activity with the Carbon Cycle Poster (3-12) activity, which serves as a form of assessment.


  • Mackenzie, F.T. (2003). Our Changing Planet:  An Introduction to Earth Science and Global Environmental Change. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • NASA, earth observatory. The carbon cycle. Retrieved on January 14, 2008 from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/CarbonCycle/carbon_cycle2.html
  • Tarbuck, E.J., & Lutgens, F.K. (2002). Earth: An Introduction to Physical Geology.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.     


California Content Standards

Grade Three

Physical Sciences

  • 1a. Students know energy comes from the Sun to Earth in the form of light.

Life Sciences

  • 3c. Students know living things cause changes in the environment in which they live:  some of these changes are detrimental to the organism and some are beneficial.

Grade Four

Life Sciences

  • 2c. Students know decomposers, including many fungi, insects, and microorganisms, recycle matter from dead plants and animals.

Earth Sciences

  • 5a. Students know some changes in the earth are due to slow processes, such as erosion, and some changes are due to rapid processes, such as landslides, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.

Grade Five

Physical Sciences

  • 1a. Students know that during chemical reactions the atoms in the reactants rearrange to form products with different properties.
  • 1b. Students know all matter is made of atoms, which may combine to form molecules.
  • 1g. Students know properties of solid, liquid, and gaseous substances, such as sugar (C6HO6), water (H2O), helium (He), oxygen (O2), nitrogen (N2), and carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • 1h. Students know living organisms and most materials are composed of just a few elements.

Life Sciences

  • 2f. Students know plants use carbon dioxide (CO2) and energy from sunlight to build molecules of sugar and release oxygen.
  • 2g. Students know plant and animal cells break down sugar to obtain energy, a process resulting in carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (respiration).

Grade Six

Life Sciences

  • 5a. Students know energy entering ecosystems as sunlight is transferred by producers into chemical energy through photosynthesis and then from organism to organism through food webs.
  • 5b. Students know that matter is transferred over time from one organism to others in the food web and between organisms and the physical environment.

Grade Eight

Life Sciences

  • 6a. Students know carbon, because of its ability to combine in many ways with itself and other elements, has a central role in the chemistry of living organisms.
  • 6b. Students know that living organisms are made of molecules consisting largely of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

Grades Nine Through Twelve

Biology/Life Sciences: Ecology

  • 6b. Students know how to analyze changes in an ecosystem resulting from changes in climate, human activity, introduction of nonnative species, or changes in population size.
  • 6d. Students know how water, carbon, and nitrogen cycle between abiotic resources and organic matter in the ecosystem and how oxygen cycles through photosynthesis and respiration.

Earth Sciences

  • 7a. Students know the carbon cycle of photosynthesis and respiration and the nitrogen cycle.
  • 7b. Students know the global carbon cycle: the different physical and chemical forms of carbon in the atmosphere, oceans, biomass, fossil fuels, and the movement of carbon among these reservoirs.
  • 7c. Students know the movement of matter among reservoirs is driven by Earth's internal and external sources of energy.



Carbon is an extremely common element on earth and can be found in all four major spheres of the planet: biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. Carbon is found in both the living and non-living parts of the planet, as a component in organisms, atmospheric gases, water, and rocks. The carbon contained in any of the planet’s spheres does not remain there forever. Instead, it moves from one sphere to another in an ongoing process known as the carbon cycle. The carbon cycle is extremely important on earth as it influences crucial life processes such as photosynthesis and respiration, contributes to fossil fuel formation, and impacts the earth’s climate.

Besides the relatively small additions of carbon from meteorites, the amount of carbon on the planet is stable. But, the amount of carbon in any given sphere of the planet can increase or decrease depending on the fluctuations of the carbon cycle. The cycle can be thought of in terms of reservoirs (places where carbon is stored) and flows (the movement between reservoirs). The atmosphere, the biosphere, the hydrosphere, and the lithosphere are the reservoirs and the processes by which carbon moves from one reservoir to another are the flows. Although carbon is extremely common on earth, pure carbon is not common. Rather, carbon is usually bound to other elements in compounds. Thus, when carbon moves or cycles, it is usually doing so within compounds, such as carbon dioxide and methane. 

The many processes that move carbon from one place to another happen on different time scales. Some of them happen on short time scales, such as photosynthesis, which moves carbon from the atmosphere into the biosphere as plants extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Some carbon cycle processes happen over much longer time scales. For example, in the ocean, organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons and shells die and some of their remains, those that don’t decompose, sink towards the ocean floor. Upon reaching the ocean floor, the carbon that was stored in their bodies becomes part of the carbon-rich sediment and is eventually carried along, via plate tectonic movement, to subduction zones where it is converted into metamorphic rock. These two examples show the extreme variety of processes that take place in the carbon cycle.

In general, the short-term carbon cycle encompasses photosynthesis, respiration, and predator-prey transfer of carbon. On land, there is a flow of carbon from the atmosphere to plants with photosynthesis and then a flow back to the atmosphere with plant and animal respiration and decomposition. For aquatic plants, photosynthesis involves taking carbon dioxide dissolved in the water around them and respiration and decomposition put carbon dioxide back into the water. In addition to moving between plants and the atmosphere or the water, carbon dioxide is also constantly moving between the atmosphere and water via diffusion. The long-term carbon cycle encompasses more of the lithospheric processes. It involves the weathering and erosion of carbon-containing rocks, the accumulation of carbon-rich plant and animal material in sediments, and the slow movement of those sediments through the rock cycle. 

There are natural fluctuations in the carbon cycle, but humans have been changing the carbon flows on earth at an unnatural rate. The major human-induced changes result in increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The largest source of this change is burning fossil fuels, but other actions such as deforestation and cement manufacturing also contribute to this change in the carbon cycle. Because carbon dioxide and methane are greenhouse gases that help to control the temperature of the planet, the human-induced increase in atmospheric carbon levels is resulting in a host of climatic changes on our planet. As discussed above, the natural carbon cycle is important to learn because it is crucial to many of earth’s processes, but an understanding of the carbon cycle is especially important at this time in human history because of the dramatic and consequential alterations we are making to the cycle.

The entire carbon cycle is composed of even more specific flows between the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere than those discussed here. This role-play teaches an age-appropriate version of the carbon cycle. Although there are more specific details involved in the earth’s complicated carbon cycle, this version will highlight some of the most important components and will teach students the overall concept that carbon is finite and moves through the different spheres of the planet. Before teaching the Carbon Cycle Role-Play, read through the table in the procedure section to get a better understanding of the specific flows your students will be learning. For more detailed carbon cycle information investigate the resources and references listed at the end of the lesson plan.


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