This classroom activity will encourage students to investigate how changes on the land can alter the water in the Illinois River Watershed. Key points will include stormwater runoff, impervious surfaces, flooding, erosion, infiltration, tributaries, and low-impact development. Using three maps that represent land use changes over time, students will think critically about the connections between people and the path of stormwater.

 Benton County Rain Garden

Benton County Rain Garden

1. Ask your students to interview a parent, grandparent, neighbor, or family friend who has lived in the local area for several years. Have students take notes on how the land has changed over time.

2. Encourage a class discussion about their findings and emphasize any points about new roads, parking lots, or pavement. From these points, you can introduce the terms “impervious surface,” “infiltration,” and “stormwater runoff.” Ask students to compare and contrast the movement of stormwater runoff when it hits soil or vegetation (infiltrates, like through a sponge) versus pavement (runs off, like on a waterslide).

3. In a watershed, stormwater runoff moves downhill toward the lowest point in the area, where a waterway or drainage basin will be located. Ask students to use the Illinois River Watershed map to identify local creeks and streams, emphasizing that rainfall from the surrounding land drains to those creeks and streams. These are tributaries of the Illinois River, meaning that they then drain to the Illinois River, which is the lowest point and the common drainage basin for our watershed.

4. Once students have a basic understanding of stormwater, divide into groups of 2 or 3 students. Each group will get colored pencils or crayons and Maps A, B, and C, which represent land cover at different times over a 100-year period. (Download printable PDFs through resource links below)


PicMonkey Collage Maps


5 .Have your students designate a different color for each land use shown on the maps (forest can be green, grassland yellow, river blue, etc.), and then ask them to color each grid unit on each map accordingly.

6. When all three maps have been colored in, students can compare and contrast the land uses over time, noting how new development might affect the path of stormwater.

7 .Explain how flooding and erosion can impact our land. Have students summarize how changes in land use affect the quantity and quality of stormwater runoff in a watershed. Discuss land use practices in the community and how they may affect water discharge in the watershed.

8. Lead a class discussion about smart growth and low-impact development to demonstrate the positive actions that communities can take to grow responsibly and sustainably. Have each small group of students research and present a low-impact development feature that helps reduce stormwater runoff: rain gardens, rain barrels, wetlands, urban forests, green roofs, permeable pavement, vegetated walls, bioswales, etc.


Watershed Model

 Watershed Enviroscape Model

Supplemental Instruction:

The Illinois River Watershed Partnership has a portable Watershed Enviroscape Model that can be brought to your classroom to explain the concepts outlined in this lesson.  Contact Lauren Ray, Education Outreach Coordinator, at to schedule a Watershed Enviroscape lesson for your class!



Map A

Map B

Map C

Key Terms

Illinois River Watershed Map

U.S. EPA Low-Impact Development

IRWP Conservation and Restoration Projects


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Recycle Your Rain!