How Do Leaves Breathe? A Simple Science Experiment for Kids

Learn how plants breathe with this easy outdoor science activity that makes the invisible visible!

I just realized that we haven't shared many Simple Science Experiments lately.

Our goal with Simple Science activities is to provide you with quick & easy ideas that help kids explore science! 

Most of these require very few items (many of which are found around your home) and can be set up in less than 5 minutes. If you'd like to introduce your child to science, these experiements are the perfect place to begin!

For today's Simple Science experiment, we're going to head outdoors and learn how leaves breathe!

All you'll need is a bowl of water and a leaf!

 

How do plants breathe? An easy science activity for kids that shows photosynthesis and transpiration

How Do Leaves Breathe?  A Simple Science Experiment

For this experiment, we're going to create an environment where we can actually see the oxygen/carbon dioxide process of plants! 

You don't need many supplies for this activity; we've listed affilite links for books and a few items that we found helpful when doing the experiment.

This activity is really VERY interesting for two reasons:

• first, kids don't always think of plants & trees as 'living' things so this helps them to visualize that concept and

• second, it's a way to actually SEE something that is normally invisible!

 

     

Before you begin the experiment, we suggest introducing the topic with a book.  Here are a few books we highly recommend:

Tell Me, Tree: All About Trees for Kids and  A Tree Is a Plant (Let's-Read-and-Find-Out Science) for preschool and elementary age kids.  Both books give a nice overview of the lifecycle of a tree including science terms.

 

      

For a more in-depth science look, try Botany: Plants, Cells and Photosynthesis (Super Smart Science) for middle schoolers

or if you're looking for LOTS of great answers to botany science questions, see V is for Venus Flytrap: A Plant Science Alphabet!

If you're also studying plant cells as part of a biology unit, the Learning Resources Cross Section Plant Cell model or the Giant Magnetic Plant Cell are both awesome teaching tools for this concept!

 

How does a plant or tree breathe? Easy science experiment to see photosynthesis and respiration

Exploring How Plants & Trees Breathe

Even though we chose to use a tree leaf, you can also conduct this experiment using a leaf from a plant -- the important step is including an ACTIVE leaf (meaning one that you remove from the tree or plant).

 

Step 1:  Fill a large bowl with lukewarm water

You can use a glass or plastic bowl (personally, I like glass bowls better as you'll be able to see the experiment from all angles however you will probably have the bowl outside so you may want to use plastic).

If you're replicating this experiment in the classroom, a large size beaker would also work -- in fact, you can extend the experiment by measuring the amount of water you use to cover the leaf to see if that has any impact on the results!

I have not tried this experiment with a metal bowl so if you do, leave me a note and let me know how it turns out!

 

Step 2:  Head outside and find a large leaf

You'll want to remove a leaf from a tree or plant and not just pick one up off the ground as we want an 'active' leaf for the project.

If you'd like to, have some fun with art & science by making a leaf rubbing before you go to the next step!

 

How do leaves breathe and how do plants breathe? An easy science activity for kids

Step 3:  Place the leaf in the bowl of water and put a small rock on top of it so it is FULLY submerged under the water

Then put the bowl in a sunny spot.

As you can see, this is really the benefit of using a glass bowl -- you can be sure your entire leaf is underwater.

If you have a place inside that's super sunny, you can also try keeping the bowl there.

 

Step 4:  WAIT!

Oh yea, did I mention that now we need to wait a few hours ;)

I know -- one of the hardest things for kids.  So go on with your day -- maybe set the experiment up before lunch or quiet time.  Or your kids can get it ready before they head off to school or the park and it will be waiting for them when they come back.

And while you're waiting, here are a few other simple science experiments you can browse:

Does your Food Sink or Float?  {physics & density for kids}

Create Your Own Gong! {science of soundwaves for elementary & middle school}

How Much Water is in Snow? {evaporation & weather science}

 

How do leaves breathe and how do plants breathe? An easy science activity for kids

Step 5:  Take a peek a few hours later

What you should be seeing is small bubbles that form around the leaf and the edges of the bowl.  These are easy to see with the naked eye but having a large magnifying glass on hand always makes an experiment feel more scienc-y ;)

Ask your kids what would happen if they held their breath, went underwater in the pool and then let their breath out -- they would see bubbles coming up in the water.

That's what they are seeing here -- the leaf is still using the sunlight as part of the photosynthesis process (where leaves convert sunlight to energy). 

As a leaf creates that energy, it needs to get rid of the items it no longer needs so it will expel both the extra oxygen during  photosysthesis along with water (the release of water from a plant is called transpiration). 

The process of photosynthesis is what allows us to see the bubbles -- as the leaf releases its' extra oxygen while submerged, the oxygen can be seen as bubbles in the water.

And since oxygen is lighter than water, the bubbles will eventually rise to the surface.

 

Related Activity: Name that Tree! Leaf & Seed Identification

 

Now does a tree or plant breathe the same as we (humans) do?

Nope!

A plant, tree or leaf doesn't have any lungs or respiratory system. 

But it is a living organism just like we are!  It takes in air through their stomata.

A human takes in air with oxygen and as they exhale, they release carbon dioxide.

Plants take in carbon dioxide from the air and then release oxygen as photosynthesis and respiration occur.

So there you have it -- you can tell the kids they are 'seeing the invisible' because when leaves are on the tree, you aren't able to really see  the process of photosynthesis in the works ;)

If you're looking for more plant science, try using a Garden Root Viewer to see how plants grow or the Nature Series: Science in a Garden kit!

 

 

 

Here are a few more leaf activities you'll enjoy --

18 Fall Leaf Crafts & Experiments

Using Leaf Rubbings to Study the Parts of a Leaf

 

More Simple Science Activities

Looking for more easy science experiments?  Try these!

Dissecting a Flower

12 Citizen Science Projects for Kids

20 Science Experiments you can do in a Jar

 

easy science experiments for kids

 

 

 

How do plants breathe? An easy science activity for kids that shows photosynthesis and transpiration

 

 

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Comments

Lauren on Wednesday, 07 October 2015 18:34

I LOVE this experiment. I can do it with things I already have, there is very little preparation required, and it makes a process visible that is normally invisible. I can't wait to try this!

I LOVE this experiment. I can do it with things I already have, there is very little preparation required, and it makes a process visible that is normally invisible. I can't wait to try this!
Guest - Debbie Vann on Friday, 10 June 2016 17:27

I am concerned about the science terms you misused in this experiment. The process you are showing is photosynthesis not breathing. It is during photosynthesis that oxygen is created when the plant keeps the carbon from the CO2 it absorbs. However, the plant does also "breathe" (cellular respiration). Plants carry on respiration just like animals. They take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide (one of the reasons they can survive in a sealed container). Transpiration is the process by which water is carried throughout the plant and excess water is released. The waste product - oxygen is released when the stomata are open but this is not part of transpiration.
I think the experiment is a good one, but the science of what they are seeing needs to be accurate. Otherwise, students will have misconceptions later that will need to be corrected later.

I am concerned about the science terms you misused in this experiment. The process you are showing is photosynthesis not breathing. It is during photosynthesis that oxygen is created when the plant keeps the carbon from the CO2 it absorbs. However, the plant does also "breathe" (cellular respiration). Plants carry on respiration just like animals. They take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide (one of the reasons they can survive in a sealed container). Transpiration is the process by which water is carried throughout the plant and excess water is released. The waste product - oxygen is released when the stomata are open but this is not part of transpiration. I think the experiment is a good one, but the science of what they are seeing needs to be accurate. Otherwise, students will have misconceptions later that will need to be corrected later.
Tara Pioth on Monday, 10 October 2016 21:50

For younger children... This "breathing" term makes sense. They have plenty of time to learn about photosynthesis ?

For younger children... This "breathing" term makes sense. They have plenty of time to learn about photosynthesis ?
Femi on Friday, 28 October 2016 03:51

since you explained about the leaf that releases oxygen (bubbles) in this experiment, the tittle of this experiment might be how prove plant carry out photosynthesis by seing its byproduct

since you explained about the leaf that releases oxygen (bubbles) in this experiment, the tittle of this experiment might be how prove plant carry out photosynthesis by seing its byproduct
Guest - priyanka on Thursday, 24 November 2016 07:10

name the exact part which help to the leaf in breathing

name the exact part which help to the leaf in breathing
Guest - Stephanie LaMaster on Tuesday, 01 May 2018 20:25

The gas exchange takes place through the stomata, small holes in the leaf. The carbon dioxide is taken in through the stomata, and excess oxygen is released through them as well.

The chloroplasts are the organelles in the cell that take in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to make oxygen gas and glucose.
The mitochondria are the organelles in the cell that take in glucose and oxygen to make ATP, to give the plant energy.

The gas exchange takes place through the stomata, small holes in the leaf. The carbon dioxide is taken in through the stomata, and excess oxygen is released through them as well. The chloroplasts are the organelles in the cell that take in sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to make oxygen gas and glucose. The mitochondria are the organelles in the cell that take in glucose and oxygen to make ATP, to give the plant energy.
Guest - Alyssa on Wednesday, 26 April 2017 18:36

Great experiment. I am featuring this with a link on my blog.

Great experiment. I am featuring this with a link on my blog.
Guest - Melinda on Thursday, 22 February 2018 03:07

I love the idea of demonstrating photosynthesis but as was mentioned earlier the term "breathing" is incorrect. I teach science in college and I have a hard time reversing this long-held belief that plants breathe carbon dioxide. They "breathe" oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide just like humans do. Additionally they convert carbon dioxide and water and light energy into sugar. A byproduct of this process is oxygen gas. Why not explain that plants "make sugar" and store the sun's energy in these sugar molecules and that oxygen is produced at the same time?

I love the idea of demonstrating photosynthesis but as was mentioned earlier the term "breathing" is incorrect. I teach science in college and I have a hard time reversing this long-held belief that plants breathe carbon dioxide. They "breathe" oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide just like humans do. Additionally they convert carbon dioxide and water and light energy into sugar. A byproduct of this process is oxygen gas. Why not explain that plants "make sugar" and store the sun's energy in these sugar molecules and that oxygen is produced at the same time?
Jacquie Fisher on Monday, 26 February 2018 21:13

Hi Melinda - thanks for your questions. The main reason we use to term 'breathing' is exactly what you said -- we try to meet kids where they are with their knowledge and many kids (and their parents) ask the question "how does a plant breathe?'

Since our readers are looking for experiments to try with their 5 - 12 year olds, we feel that making a parallel comparison of 'breathing' or respiration for plants and humans helps children to better understand the process of photosynthesis at a younger age.

Hi Melinda - thanks for your questions. The main reason we use to term 'breathing' is exactly what you said -- we try to meet kids where they are with their knowledge and many kids (and their parents) ask the question "how does a plant breathe?' Since our readers are looking for experiments to try with their 5 - 12 year olds, we feel that making a parallel comparison of 'breathing' or respiration for plants and humans helps children to better understand the process of photosynthesis at a younger age.
Guest - Emily Sheehan on Wednesday, 25 April 2018 02:19

I'm terrible with science projects, but like this idea for a science fair project. Could I modify it and use 2 bowls - one covered with plastic or some other material and one not covered? That way they can truly understand that plants need the sunlight to "breath" and so if one is covered it can't do that? Thanks!

I'm terrible with science projects, but like this idea for a science fair project. Could I modify it and use 2 bowls - one covered with plastic or some other material and one not covered? That way they can truly understand that plants need the sunlight to "breath" and so if one is covered it can't do that? Thanks!
Guest - Jennifer Brabbin on Tuesday, 17 July 2018 13:19

Awesome stuff!!!!

Awesome stuff!!!!
Joseph Oyeniya on Wednesday, 25 July 2018 15:47

As a user, I all like some sample experimriment for k11to k12 students.

As a user, I all like some sample experimriment for k11to k12 students.
Guest - Dianne Bassett on Saturday, 11 August 2018 13:57

A little baking soda (NaHCO3) added to the water will make the results immediate. Plants need CO2. Submerging the leaf requires it to use CO2 from its stores and it will take longer.

A little baking soda (NaHCO3) added to the water will make the results immediate. Plants need CO2. Submerging the leaf requires it to use CO2 from its stores and it will take longer.
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