University of Illinois Extension

Teacher's Guide

The All-Star River Explorers - Discover the Basics of Rivers and How They Are Formed - Teacher's Guide

Welcome to The All-Star River Explorers, an elementary program for third through fifth grade students.

The All-Star River Explorers is designed to introduce students to the basics of hydrology and increase their understanding of how rivers are formed and their importance in our lives. Activities will enhance student’s skills in math, science, language arts, social studies, and art.

You will have many options in using this website with your students. Choose any or all of the suggested activities for your class.

Many activities are for students to work independently and some will be ideal for group work. We in University of Illinois Extension hope you enjoy using the The All-Star River Explorers with your students and discovering the rich history of our river explorers.

If you complete our online request form, we will send you a poster for your classroom featuring The All-Star River Explorers.


Rivers are an essential part of our world. Since the beginning of time, people have traveled on them and built cities along them. Rivers have provided food as well as a source of commerce and entertainment for centuries.

Getting Ready

Talk about rivers and the great river explorers with your students before you begin using The All-Star River Explorers.

Determine how much they know by asking the following:

  • What is a river?
  • How are rivers formed?
  • Why are rivers important to us?
  • How are rivers discovered?
  • What are the many uses of a river?
  • Do rivers change over time or stay the same?

River Facts Students Should Know

  • Rivers never flow in a straight line.
  • Rivers have many different uses.
  • Rivers are managed for use by humans.
  • What you do upstream, affects people downstream.
  • Rivers are subject to climatological changes such as too much or too little rain, which leads to flooding or drought.
  • The All Star-River Explorers opened doors to the West.

Activities for Your Classroom

Some activities include worksheets in Adobe PDF format. Click here to download the free Adobe Acrobat Reader if you do not already have it installed on your computer.

Find a River

Where are rivers? Ask the students to look at a map and highlight all the rivers in their state or country. Then choose one of the rivers that is close to your community. Discuss how long it is, where does it begin, who or what is it named after. What kind of fish and wildlife live in or near the river? Ask a local historian, water biologist, or conservationist to meet with the class to discuss the river and the wildlife that is dependent on the river.

Make a Stream Table

You can make a stream table to demonstrate how river features like a meander or oxbow lake are formed.

Rivers of the World - Write a River Biography

Ask the students to select a state in the U.S. or a country in the world and choose a river to study.

Got Your Game On

A fun activity for the class is to play Got Your Game On to learn more about interesting river facts.

Up Close and Personal with an Explorer

Our river explorers were very interesting people. Have the students think about what it would have been like to be one of our explorers. Have them use their imagination to write a story about a day on the river.

Design Your Boat

Each student is an All-Star River Explorer. Ask them to draw a picture of the boat they will use. What is its name? What special features does it have?

Invite a River Expert

Invite a river expert to visit with the class and discuss streams, stream bank erosion or channel navigation. You can find an expert at the Army Corps of Engineers, from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (a federal agency with offices in almost every U.S. county), or your local or state Extension office.

Rolling Down the Stream

There is an easy way you can teach your students to measure the speed of a stream. It involves collecting data and then putting the data into a formula to arrive at the answer.

You will need to go to a moving body of water. Step off 100 feet and mark the beginning and ending. Have a person ready with a stopwatch or watch with a second hand at the beginning of the 100 feet. Then have a person at the end of the 100 feet that will signal when the stick has gone the distance.

To begin, have an adult toss a stick into the stream above the beginning marker. When the stick hits the beginning of the 100 feet, the timing starts. When the stick has gone the 100 feet, the person at this locale signals, and the timing stops. Record the number of seconds. The formula is 100 feet divided by the number of seconds equals the speed of the stream in feet per second.

For example: 100 feet / 10 seconds = 10 feet/second

It would be good to do this several times to show the difference during the year – during drought seasons or after a torrential rain.

Amazing Amounts!

Here’s how to figure out the volume of a stream for a particular section of stream. Estimate the width and depth of the stream in feet. Multiply this by the speed of the water. This equals cubic feet of water per second. This is called the discharge. A cubic foot of water is one foot high by one foot wide by one foot deep.

For instance:

20 feet wide x 3 feet deep x 3 feet/second = 180 cubic feet/second (discharge)

Settle Down!

You will need a quart clear glass or plastic jar with a lid. Get enough soil to fill the jar half way. You can get soil from along a stream, in a channel bottom or in your backyard. Now add water to fill the jar and put the lid on. Shake well! Now sit the jar down and wait. Ask the students what they think will happen.

The shaking represents a turbulent stream of water moving fast that is able to carry lots of sediment in suspension. When it sits, it represents sedimentation or particles settling out as a result of slower moving water. Note the layers you will get as a result of the settling. The large, heavier particles are on the bottom and the smallest particles may stay in suspension for a long time – even a week, making the water cloudy.

Now what do you think happens during and after a flood?

During a flood the water moves faster, causing more sediment to be picked up in the channel. Wherever the water flows the sediment will drop out downstream or in the flood plain.

How Much of Your State Is Wet?

What percent of your state do you think is covered by water? Which state has the highest percentage of water area? Is the West really "drier" than the rest of the country? The table below shows the total land area of each state, the water area, and the percent of total area that is water.

These data represent only "inland" water -- water that is surrounded by lands of the United States. Areas, such as the Great Lakes, are excluded.

State Land area (sq. miles) Water area (sq. miles) Percent of state that is water
Rhode Island 1,212 158 13.00%
D. C. 69 6 8.70%
Florida 58,664 4,511 7.70%
North Carolina 52,669 3,826 7.30%
Maine 33,265 2,270 6.80%
Louisiana 47,752 3,230 6.80%
Maryland 10,460 623 6.00%
Minnesota 84,402 4,854 5.80%
Massachusetts 8,284 460 5.60%
Delaware 2,045 112 5.50%
New Jersey 7,787 319 4.10%
Vermont 9,614 341 3.50%
New York 49,108 1,731 3.50%
Alaska 591,004 20,171 3.40%
Utah 84,899 2,826 3.30%
New Hampshire 9,279 286 3.10%
Wisconsin 56,153 1,727 3.10%
Connecticut 5,018 147 2.90%
South Carolina 31,113 909 2.90%
Michigan 58,527 1,573 2.70%
Virginia 40,767 1,063 2.60%
Washington 68,139 1,627 2.40%
Tennessee 42,144 989 2.30%
Arkansas 53,187 1,109 2.10%
North Dakota 70,702 1,403 2.00%
Oklahoma 69,956 1,301 1.90%
Kentucky 40,410 740 1.80%
Alabama 51,705 938 1.80%
Texas 266,807 4,790 1.80%
California 157,706 2,407 1.50%
South Dakota 77,116 1,164 1.50%
Georgia 58,910 854 1.40%
Idaho 83,564 1,153 1.40%
Illinois 56,345 700 1.20%
Montana 147,046 1,658 1.10%
Missouri 69,697 752 1.10%
Mississippi 47,689 457 1.00%
Pennsylvania 45,308 420 0.90%
Nebraska 77,355 711 0.90%
Oregon 97,073 889 0.90%
Wyoming 97,809 820 0.80%
Ohio 41,330 325 0.80%
Hawaii 6471 46 0.70%
Indiana 36,185 253 0.70%
Kansas 82,277 499 0.60%
Nevada 110,561 667 0.60%
Iowa 56,275 310 0.60%
Colorado 104,091 496 0.50%
West Virginia 24,232 112 0.50%
Arizona 114,000 492 0.40%
New Mexico 121,593 258 0.20%
United States 3,618,770 79,481 2.20%

Where We Settle

Let’s look at a map and locate several U.S. cities. Look for Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Portland ( Oregon), Seattle, and Duluth. Are they on a river? Which rivers? Why do you think the cities grew up there?

Or take a map in your classroom and circle all the major cities that are on rivers.

Historically rivers have provided many benefits for cities. These include transportation, commerce, drinking water, water power for industry and electricity, and a means of sewage disposal. And cities that were located inland had links to the rivers via railroads. It is a complex network of transportation with origins in the waterways.