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Salmon Life Cycle

The life cycle of sockeye salmon is an incredible journey that begins and ends in the cold freshwater streams of the Pacific Northwest. In this activity, your students learn about the salmon life cycle by developing a board game based on the many helpful and harmful events salmon encounter during their incredible journey. This activity is designed for upper elementary and middle school students and addresses the following National Science Education Standards:

Grades K-4

  • Characteristics of Organisms
  • Organisms and Environments
  • Characteristics and Changes in Populations

Grades 5-8

  • Reproduction and Heredity
  • Regulation and Behavior
  • Diversity and Adaptations of Organisms


Sockeye salmon are one of 5 species of fish in North America referred to as Pacific salmon. They have an amazing and unusual life cycle because they hatch in freshwater streams and migrate to the ocean to mature. After reaching maturity, they return to their home streams to spawn and eventually die. Pacific salmon are called anadromous fish because they are born in freshwater and then migrate to saltwater.

Their lives begin in freshwater streams during the fall when adult females lay their eggs in gravel nests called redds, which they have dug in the streambed. After adult males fertilize the eggs, the adult females cover the eggs with gravel for protection until they hatch. The adults, exhausted after their journey and digging and guarding their redds, die about a week after spawning. In the spring, the eggs hatch into small larval fish called alevin that still have their yolk sacs attached. Alevin usually stay in the redds until they absorb their yolk sacs, and then they emerge as salmon fry to hunt for food. The young fry stay in the freshwater streams and continue to grow and develop before they migrate to the ocean. Young salmon that are ready to enter the ocean are called smolts.

Smolts face many daunting hazards on their journey to the ocean, such as predators, hydroelectric dams, and pollution. These hazards claim the lives of many of them. Those that survive the journey feed and grow in the ocean until they reach full maturity and become adult salmon. After a number of years in the ocean, adult salmon are ready to return to their home streams to spawn. The journey home is also plagued by the same hazards as the journey to the ocean, and thus claims the lives of many adults. The few that arrive safely at their home streams and spawn ensure the survival of future generations.

The goal of this activity is to help your students learn about the incredible journey of sockeye salmon. During the course of the activity, students gather information on the salmon life cycle and use that information to develop a Salmon Life Cycle board game. Developing and playing the game helps reinforce concepts and terms and serves as a valuable learning tool.

Materials (per group)

Preparation (teacher)

  1. Make enough copies of the crossword puzzle and word bank so that each student has his or her own copy of each.
  2. Make a copy of the Salmon Life Cycle game board for each group of 3 or 4 students. Hint: You can use your photocopier to enlarge the game boards when you copy them so that they are bigger and easier to use.
  3. Make 5 copies of the Salmon Life Cycle game card sheet for each group


  1. Use the background information provided with this activity to introduce your students to the salmon life cycle. You may also choose to have your students gather additional resources from the Internet.
  2. Divide your class into groups of 3 or 4 students each.
  3. Distribute copies of the crossword puzzle to each student. Students complete the puzzle using knowledge gained from the background information and the Internet. If your students do not have access to the Internet, you can pass out the word bank and let them use it as a guide. Note: An extra term, anadromous, that is not used in the puzzle was added to the word bank to generate discussion and challenge students. The word bank can also be used on its own as a vocabulary sheet, e.g., instead of passing out the crossword puzzle you may choose to just pass out the word bank and have your students research each term on it.
  4. Distribute a copy of the Salmon Life Cycle game board to each group that has completed its research, crossword puzzles, and word banks. Have each group decorate its board using crayons or colored pencils. Hint: A small piece of tape on each corner of the board prevents it from sliding on a desk or table.
  5. Pass out at least 5 copies of the salmon life cycle game card sheet to each group. Each group needs to decorate and cut out the cards before it can begin developing its game and should have at least 30 game cards along with its game board.
  6. Challenge each group to come up with 15 events that could be helpful to the salmon life cycle and 15 events that could be harmful to it. Students can use information from their research or possibly information from the crossword puzzle to help them with this task. Once each group has its 30 events, group members write each event on an individual game card. All events that are helpful to the salmon life cycle are followed by a command that tells the player to go forward one, 2, or 3 spaces (or more if you like). All events that are harmful to the salmon life cycle are followed by a command that tells the player to go back one or 2 spaces (or miss a turn). For example, “a fishing trawler is in the water above you—go back one space” or “a fish ladder has been constructed to help you go upstream—go forward 2 spaces.”
  7. Have each student make or choose his or her own game piece. Students can use a small item such as a colored plastic chip or cut out a shape from paper, e.g., a salmon shape, and color it with crayons or colored pencils.
  8. Instruct each group to shuffle its game cards and place them face down in a stack next to the board. All players start with their game pieces on the “Start” position. The first player draws a card, follows its instructions, and places the card face up on the table to form a new stack. The player on his or her left draws a card, follows its instructions, and places his or her card face up on the new stack. Play continues in this manner until a player makes his or her way successfully to the “Finish” position, thus winning the game. If a group goes through the stack once with no winner, it reshuffles the cards and continues play until someone wins. If you find that groups are finishing too soon or not finishing at all, then have them add or delete “harmful event” and “helpful event” cards as needed.

Further investigation

  • After a few games you can have groups trade game cards. Each group will come up with a unique set of cards so this will give your students even more exposure to different aspects of the salmon life cycle.
  • Have students design their own game boards on a large piece of paper or poster board. Students can add special spaces to the board such as “Free” spaces or “Danger” spaces.
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