Penguins -- School-age


Emperor Penguin

Things to Know

Penguins are feathered birds that can swim but cannot fly. These seabirds move easily in water. On land they stand erect and flat-footed often in long lines with a walk that is so stately it is comical.

Penguins are birds that do not fly.

There are 17 species of penguins in the world. Penguins are found in the southern hemisphere. There are penguins living on the ice shelf in Antarctica, the warmth of the Galapagos, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Penguins do not have to live on ice. They need to live near bodies of water. The water the penguins live near in the southern hemisphere is cold water that comes from the Antarctic current. In the warmer climates penguins remain cool by staying in the water. In colder climates penguins survive with a layer of fat beneath their feathers.

Map showing the range of the penguin.

What Do Penguins Look Like?

Penguins come in many different sizes and colors. The smallest penguin is the Little Blue Penguin at about 15 to 16 inches (40 cm) to the largest, the Emperor Penguin which stands 4 feet tall (1.2m) and weighs from 70-90 pounds (40kg).

Blue Penguin
Blue Penguin

Penguins have stiff wings that act like paddles when they swim. Penguins have webbed feet with visible claws that do not retract. A penguins feet are set far back on their bodies, which causes them to stand in an upright position. On land penguins use their strong webbed feet for walking. In the water they use their feet for braking and steering as they dive and swim. A penguin has a large head, short neck, and an elongated body with a short wedge-shaped tail.

The penguin species most people are familiar with are the Antarctic Emperor penguins. The black-and white feathers provide camouflage when the penguin is in the water. The white bottom makes is difficult for anything looking up at the bird from beneath in the water to see the penguin. The black back of the penguin makes it difficult for animals above looking down into the water to see the penguin. Those above looking down at the water will only see the dark depths of the water.

Emperor Penguin
Emperor Penguin

How Do Penguins Stay Warm?

What keeps penguins warm in the water is an under-the-skin layer of fat. It insulates the penguin helping to keep it warm in the water. Penguin feathers are good at shedding water when the bird comes out of the water. On land the feathers help keep the penguin warm. Under the penguin’s feathers is an under-layer of fine woolly down. When the penguin gets cold, it can puff their feathers out to trap air for better insulation. Actually penguins have more of a problem of getting too hot. When they get to hot they puff their feathers out more so that the trapped warm air can escape and the penguin can cool down.

The area of a penguin that loses heat is its flippers and feet. The feet loose heat which can help keep the penguin cool. The penguins muscles that work the flippers and feet are not in the flipper or feet but deeper in the penguins body where it is warmer. It does not matter if the feet and flippers get cold as the muscles are in a warm area and will still work normally.

Penguins living in cold areas with ice and snow stand a lot. If they lay on the snow they have a large area of their body on the cold snow. If they stand they have a small area on the cold. If they stand on only a part of their feet there is a smaller area in contact with the cold snow and ice. When it is really cold penguins stand on their heels holding their toes up. How do they not fall over backwards? They use their tall to support themselves. Their stiff tail feathers lose no heat. In cold weather, penguins stand on their heels and a stiff tail.

Great Sliders and Swimmers

Penguins have short legs and when they want to move fast, they slide on the ice on their bellies. Some penguin species spend 75% of their lives in the water.

Most penguin species swim together in small groups or in large groups. They use their wings to propel themselves in the water. They hunch their heads into their shoulders for a streamline body with the least resistance in the water. A penguin will press their feet close to their bodies against their tails to aid in steering.

Penguin flappers are paddle-like and resemble the wing movements of flying birds as they glide underwater. Their feathers are coated with an oil to keep the water out. A penguin will quickly surface to take quick breaths so that they may stay underwater longer. They will leap in and out of the water as dolphins or porpoises do. Emperor penguins have been observed swimming 8.9 miles per hour (14.4 kph) though they usually swim about 6.7 mph (10.8 kph).


Dive Dive

Penguins hunt for food by diving underwater and swallowing their prey. They can hold their breath underwater for almost 20 minutes, this allows them to dive down and find food. Most prey of penguins inhabit the upper water layers so most penguins do not have to dive to great depths.

Penguins hunt food that clumps together in a group. It is very efficient for a penguin to dive and grab several prey than to dive and grab one prey at a time. Penguins eat three types of food: krill, fish, and squid.

Humboldt Penguin
Humboldt Penguin

Penguins do not drink water directly. A penguin also takes in water when it garbs its prey. The water penguins swim in is saltwater and they eat a lot of salty fish. The penguin has a gland located between their eyes that filters salt from the blood. The result is a fluid that flows from the gland and its excreted through the nasal passage. Often a penguin will look like it has a runny nose but it is actually a salty substance coming out of its nose.


Penguins are highly social birds. Some penguins court on land and nest in huge colonies called rookeries. These rookeries can contain hundreds of thousands of penguins. At one rookery in Antarctica half a million birds in 500 acres have been counted.


As penguins are birds, the female penguin lays eggs after mating. Most species of Emperor Penguin Eggpenguins build nest, the nest may consist only of small stones, pebbles and molted feathers, or hollows in the dirt. The color of the penguin eggs varies among species. Depending on the penguin species the eggs may be white to bluish or greenish. The shape and size of the eggs varies among penguin species, some are more round and some are pear-shaped.

Emperor Penguin Egg

Only six species of penguin breed in the Antarctic: the Emperor, Adelie, King, Gentoo, Chinstrap, and Macaroni penguins.

A nest of penguin eggs is called a clutch. Clutches usually contain two eggs. Emperor and king penguins lay only one egg. After the female penguin lays her eggs, she will return to the ocean to feed and gain back her body weight. Both the male and female penguins take turns sitting on the eggs (incubating) until the eggs hatch. When penguin chicks hatch most are covered in a fine down. The down feathers of different species may be white, gray, black, or brown.

Emperor Penguin Lifecycle

Emperor and king penguins build no nest. The Emperor and king male penguin Emperor Penguin Chickstay with the egg while the female goes to sea to hunt. They stand upright with a single egg on the tops of their feet under a loose fold of skin. He will live off reserves of body fat until the female penguin returns. A female emperor penguin will return usually just before the egg is ready to hatch. Then the male emperor penguin goes off to feed. Emperor penguins are born with a fine layer of down. A king penguin is born naked and grows down within a few weeks. The newly hatched chicks are dependent on their parents for food and warmth. Penguin chicks have big appetites and grow quickly.

Emperor Penguin Chick
Emperor Penguin Chick


Most predators to a grown penguin are in the water and not on land. The four main penguin predators are sharks, killer whales (Orca), leopard seals, and fur seals.

Recommended Book

Tacky the Penguin by by Helen Lester

Tacky's friends find him annoying until his eccentric behavior saves the day.


Things to Do


Have children work in pairs. Set a timer for 5 minutes. Using the word Penguin, how many other words can you make from it?

How many words-Penguins

Penguin Crossword

Penguin Word Search

Penguin Word Scramble

Skip Count Maze-Count by 2's

Skip Count Maze-Count by 5's

Skip Count Maze-Count by 10's

Black & White Day

To celebrate and culminate a penguin unit, have a Black and White Day.

Emperor Penguin Dad
Need: A plastic egg

With penguins, it is the male's job to keep the unhatched egg warm for up to three months. He carries the egg balanced on top of his feet. See if you can balance the egg on top of your feet as you walk around the room!

Emperor Penguin Race
Need: A beanbag for each child racing.

Each child needs a beanbag to represent an egg. Contestants stand side by side with their "eggs" on top of their feet. When the race begins, players try to shuffle across the room without dropping their eggs. The first one to succeed wins.

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