Rivers are the veins of the earth and its creeks are the capillaries. Rivers collect water from tributaries or smaller rivers that flow downstream. Rivers collect and carry fresh water from a high point like a hill or a mountain. The highest point of a creek or river is called its headwater. Headwaters are the start of a river and can be an underground spring, a small creek or several small streams. Rivers flow downstream from the headwater (highest point) to the mouth (or lowest point).Upstream usually means you are moving against the current or flow back up the river to the headwater. Downstream means the flow is moving towards the mouth or end destination of the river. Rivers form basins or channels depending upon the speed, volume and duration of their flow. Rivers provide fresh water for many living things along their riverbanks. Plants, trees, birds, insects, animals as well as people live along rivers.
“Most Americans live within a mile of a river or stream, and all of our drinking water comes directly or indirectly from rivers and streams.” - Americanrivers.org
tributary a river that carries water into a larger river
headwaters start of a river
riparian zone riverbank habitat
floodplains flat area river covers when water overflows
flowamount of water running in a river or stream
wetlands marshy area that filters/absorbs river water and supports wildlife habitation
mouth/delta end or lowest point of river
estuaries river habitat at the mouth of a river
Activity 1 – interact with a river
It is likely that everyday you pass by, cross over, or maybe even travel upon a river. Consider the rivers that you encounter on a daily basis. Think about your daily, routine interaction with rivers and how they affect you day-to-day. One way that rivers affect our daily life is by simply existing in their natural, beautiful form. Some rivers are happily in their natural state, with river banks, native vegetation and many insects, birds, fish and animals co-existing.
As you go about your regular day, pay attention to the natural beauty that rivers contribute to the area. Using pencil and watercolor, capture a moment of beauty involving a river that you encounter in daily life. In class, make a River Puzzle and discuss human impact on the natural riverscape.
Do you have more than one river in your town?
Activity 2 – read a river
All rivers have a beginning and an end. The four main points of a river are its head, its flow, its tributaries and its mouth.
First make a drawing in your journal of these paths. Draw a wiggly line (most rivers have some sort of wiggle) and diagram the parts of a river. Look at this diagram for help with identifying the components of a river.
Next, print a map (Google maps) of the area where you live. Now your quest is to locate a river close to where you live. Using Google Maps identify its main points. Label its source, body, branch and mouth. Identify its highest elevation and its lowest elevation. Track where it originates and where it ends up.
A river runs through it! Have you read your river?!
Activity 3 – urban rivers
People all over the world have settled by rivers for access to drinking water and fishing. As populations grew, the water became the first highway moving people and products to and fro. Research the history of your city. Collect maps showing where the first settlements were. Show how your city grew along the river. Write about the impact that development had on the life of your river. What industries came? What industries are still along the river? Write a paper about the importance of your city’s river.
Go out and take pictures of the river, and pay attention to anything that may contribute to the health of the river either negatively or positively. If you find a negative influence upon the river’s health, sketch a proposed idea to help alleviate the negative influence.
Watch this short film featuring the Chicago River.
Make a short film about life along your river.
Activity 4 – rivers of the world
Research the major rivers located on your continent. Locate the headwater for each river, and then locate the mouth of the river. Note all the points where a river intersects with another body.
Research major rivers and their tributaries around the world. Locate the headwater for the river, and then locate the mouth of the river. Note all the points where a river intersects with another body.
Make a map of the world’s rivers. Make a chart of the seven longest rivers noting their length, the headwater elevation, bodies of water encountered and their mouth.
Rivers are a worldly source!
Activity 5 – importance of rivers
Now that you understand how rivers work and what the various pieces of a river are, it’s time to take this knowledge a step further and find out why rivers are important to us. Using the resources listed in this journey, research why clean rivers are important and write a short paper about what problems threaten rivers. Investigate the top endangered rivers in the world and their primary threats. Endangered means that rivers may be or become so damaged that their water quality is not fit for humans or animals to drink and therefore, not capable of supporting life.
Let’s clean up the rivers together!
- The start of a river is called the
- When a river is flowing, it usually is moving water
- Smaller streams flowing into a river are called
- Which is the longest river in the world?
- Do dams help or hinder rivers?
- Amazon River
- American River Clean Up Days
- American Rivers
- America's Most Endangered Rivers
- Bill Nye Science Guy Streams and Rivers
- Christo + Jean Claude River Project
- Congo River
- CreekFreaks Start your program!
- Creek LIfe: Identify Environmental Issues & Pledge to Fix Them
- Falling Water, Frank Lloyd Wright's House over a waterfall
- FLOW: Can You See the River?
- Friends of the Chicago RIver
- How Wolves Change Rivers
- Mississippi River
- National Geographic River Photos
- NG River Puzzle
- Nile River
- Oregon Rivers
- Our Nation's River: A System on the Edge Video
- Project Wild Aquatics!
- Protecting River Resources
- River Basics
- River Explorer
- River Facts
- River Keepers
- River Pulse
- River Systems of the World
- Stoss Landscape and Urbanism Proposal for the upper Mississippi River
- Tim Cope paddles the Yenisey
- Track A RainDrop (click to begin)
- University of Illinois Extension Rivers
- Waterline Chicago
- Yangzte River