An Air Affair

Reviewed April 2020

Take a deep breath and feel your chest getting bigger – what is happening?

We need oxygen for our bodies to work, and the lungs help us get the air we need! Take a deep breath and feel your chest expand – those are your lungs inflating. Exhale and feel them deflate!

Objectives:
Identify and locate the lungs in the human body
Explain that lungs expand and contract when you inhale and exhale  
Key Vocabulary:
Lungs, Breathe, Inhale, Exhale, Oxygen, Inflate, Deflate  

In this activity, you will create a model of the lungs that show what happens when you breathe!

Background:

  • The lungs are a part of the respiratory system, which helps bring oxygen from the air into the body.
  • Air flows in through the nose or mouth, down the windpipe (called the trachea) and into the bronchial tubes, root-like tubes/small tunnels that help the air flow through the lungs
  • At the end of the bronchi are alveoli, which are tiny air pockets. The alveoli help the oxygen get into red blood cells. There are hundreds of millions of alveoli in the lungs.
  • Our lungs take a gas called oxygen out of the air and into our blood, which delivers it to our cells. Once all the oxygen is used up, the blood now has carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is passed back out through the bronchi, into the trachea, and out of the mouth or nose.
  • Blood passes through the lungs and picks up the oxygen. The blood carries the oxygen to cells throughout the body, because it reacts with the sugar we get from food, creating energy that powers the body.
  • When we inhale, the lungs inflate. Exhale, deflate.
  • When we exercise, we use more oxygen and our breathing quickens.
  • When we sleep, we use less oxygen and our breathing slows down.

Asthma:

  • Asthma is characterized by episodes or attacks of inflammation and narrowing of small airways
  • It is not well understood as to how and why some children and adults develop asthma and others do not – possibly related to environment factors and individual genetic disposition (Guilbert & Krawiec, 2003)
  • Children with asthma can present with a variety of symptoms such as
    • shortness of breath
    • wheezing
    • coughing
    • chest tightness
    • pain
  • Asthma triggers can elevate the severity of asthma at an alarming rate. Common triggers include:
  • “exercise, viral respiratory infections, air pollution, irritants, weather, allergens, coughing, and emotions” (Lim et al., 2009).
  • People with asthma usually have two types of inhalers: a controller and a rescue
  • Controller inhaler is typically used in the morning or night and contains medication that helps prevent asthma-related symptoms
  • Rescue inhaler is used in response to a sudden onset of asthma symptoms (i.e. an asthma attack)

For more information about asthma for parents, children and educators, please see IMPACT DC.

Kid Friendly Language:

  • We have two lungs in our bodies. Our lungs are organs that help us breathe!
  • Our lungs look just like squishy, pink sponges
  • The air around us has lots of small things that you can’t see – an important one for us (and even plants) is called oxygen
  • Oxygen gets delivered to all different parts of our body through our blood. We need oxygen in all parts of our body to run, think, play, talk, and generally live!
  • The air, full of oxygen, flows in through your nose or mouth, down your windpipe, and into small tunnels in the lungs (bronchial tubes), which bring them to tiny air pockets (alveoli)
  • There are hundreds of millions of alveoli in the lungs
  • Try putting your hand on your chest and taking a deep breath – when your hand moves out, your lungs are filling with air. We call that expanding. When you blow out a big breath and your hand moves in toward your body, your lungs are pushing out all that air, or deflating.

Key Questions

Materials:

  • 1-2 plastic straws
  • 1-2 small plastic sandwich bags (fold top, not Ziplock)
  • Colorful masking tape or clear tape
  • Sharpies

Activity Plan

  1. Connect to prior knowledge:
    1. Ask: Have you ever run a really fast race? What did it feel like in your chest afterward?
    1. Engage: Instruct children to place a hand on their chest and breathe normally. Make observations about how their hands are moving. Then, instruct them to perform 15 jumping jacks. Observe how their hands are moving on their chests this time.
    1. Explain: Your hands are moving more because your lungs need more oxygen after all that hard work.
    1. Ask: What do you think your lungs do? 
  2. Explain that there are millions of tiny tunnels in the lungs that help transport the oxygen throughout the lungs. Using a Sharpie, trace or draw a representation of the tubes onto the plastic baggie.
  3. Place a straw inside the bag…
  4. …and twist the top of the bag tightly around the straw.
  5. Secure the twist with tape, ensuring there is a tight seal. You may need two pieces of tape to get all of the holes sealed up.
  6. [optional] Repeat with the other straw and bag and tape the two together, representing both lungs.
  7. Gently blow into the straws and watch your plastic bag lungs inflate.

As with all activities, adult supervision may be required as small children should not play with plastic baggies.

Follow-Up Questions

  • What happens when you blow into the straws?
  • What part of the respiratory system do the straws represent? The bags?
  • What is missing from this model? What could we add?

Extension Activities

  • Using large straws, put some slime in one and leave one clear. Have one child use the slime straw and one child use the clear straw to have pinwheel races, blow boats across water, etc. to show that the blocked straw (or the asthmatic lung) is harder to get air through.

Check it Out!

Books:

Amazon.com: What's Inside Me? My Lungs/ Que Hay Dentro De Mi?/ Los ...

Que Hay Dentro De Mi? Los Pulmones/ What’s Inside Me? My Lungs by Dana Meachen Rau (Grades 1-2)

Lungs: Your Respiratory System by Seymour Simon (Grades 3-6)

To give your body the oxygen it needs, you breathe twenty times every minute. You breathe more than twenty thousand times each and every day. Acclaimed science writer Seymour Simon explores the important journey that air takes in and out of your lungs

Videos:

Say hello to Chloe and Nurb and let them take you on a tour of the human body. You’ll find out how the body’s organs work and learn about body systems like the digestive system and brain and nervous system. Enjoy your tour!

Reviewed April 2020 by Tiffani Sherrer, MPH, CHES, IMACT DC

NGSS Connections (Life Science)

Disciplinary Core IdeaConnect It!
LS1.A: Structure and Function All organisms have external parts. Different animals use their body parts in different ways to see, hear, grasp objects, protect themselves, move from place to place, and seek, find, and take in food, water and air. Plants also have different parts (roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits) that help them survive and grow. (1-LS1-1)Humans use lungs to take in air. How are our lungs similar or different to other organisms’ lungs? How do plants take in air?
LS1.A: Structure and Function Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction. (4-LS1-1)
LS4.D: Biodiversity and Humans Populations live in a variety of habitats, and change in those habitats affects the organisms living there. (3-LS4-4)Look at asthma rates in different areas. Why do some communities/places have higher rates of asthma than other places? How is the environment affecting how people can breathe? More background on this topic.
LS2.B: Cycles of Matter and Energy Transfer in Ecosystems Matter cycles between the air and soil and among plants, animals, and microbes as these organisms live and die. Organisms obtain gases, and water, from the environment, and release waste matter (gas, liquid, or solid) back into the environment. (5-LS2-1)Compare and contrast how plants and animals breathe.