Island Survival


In this activity, students will participate in a simulation of life on a deserted island. They will be challenged to use their critical thinking skills and knowledge of oceans and islands to “survive” and ultimately return to safety.


At the conclusion of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • understand options for meeting basic human needs and develop a plan for meeting such needs
  • work cooperatively with classmates to solve real-world problems relating to survival

Time: 3–5 periods


This activity consists of a simulation of survival on a deserted island. Students will have some time before their trip to prepare and plan, but will have to rely on their wits and what they have learned previously about oceans and islands to survive various hardships and ultimately to escape from the island.

It is important that you teach some basic survival facts, such as the role of water, shelter, warmth, and food in increasing a person’s chances for survival. For example, there is no substitute for fresh water; people can survive only days or even less without it. It is also important to note that drinking ocean water will only hasten illness because the salt in ocean water increases dehydration.

Shelter and warmth are also key for survival. Prolonged exposure to sun, rain, or cold can lead to a person developing either hypothermia (a condition that stems from the body becoming too cold) or hyperthermia (a condition that stems from the body becoming too hot), both of which can cause severe illness or even death. Note that the risk of hypothermia is present even in tropical climates as it can occur any time a person’s body temperature is less than 98.6 degrees (its normal temperature) for an extended period of time.

Food is another key element in survival, as it directly relates to a person’s state of health and energy. Without health or energy, it is near impossible for a person to survive in an extreme situation and, ultimately, to escape.

Teacher's Notes

This activity requires some advance preparation. To begin with, you will need to acquire a map of a small island, then draw in divisions, making five sectors (north, south, east, west, center). You can use a map of Eleuthera or another actual or imaginary island, absent any towns or other manmade objects.

It is also necessary to create a set of "challenge" cards in advance. Some content suggestions are provided, but feel free to add to or subtract from the list. In the actual simulation, have each student group select challenge cards from a box, then replace the cards after reading them, so that there need be only one set of challenge cards for the entire class.

In planning for the simulation, you may want to incorporate this lesson into a thematic unit on survival using popular children’s literature, such as Swiss Family Robinson, The Cay, Island of the Blue Dolphins, or Robinson Crusoe (see Activity 10 in this guide). Also consider showing clips from the movie Cast Away, in which the character played by Tom Hanks is marooned on a deserted island and uses a variety of common items in clever ways in order to survive.

You may wish to end the game after the first student group has escaped from the island. Alternately, consider setting a specific time limit (e.g., 2 class periods) for the simulation. If you wish to allow all student groups to escape, have those groups that escape early either split up and join the remaining groups or complete a writing assignment related to the activity, such as the one described in the Extend the Experience section.

Elementary: To simplify the game for younger students, or if time is tight: (1) have the entire class work as one group, encouraging all suggestions, voting on a strategy each turn, and keeping score on an overhead transparency; (2) allow students to keep any escape challenge cards that they receive to use them on later turns; (3) add more beneficial challenge cards and remove some of the negative ones; (4) do not require students to choose a site for their shelter and remove any shelter location related cards; and/or (5) combine some resource categories, such as food and water or shelter and warmth.

Middle School and High School: Students should be able to complete the activity without major difficulty. If one of the emphases of the class is history, consider having students select items and develop survival strategies that would apply to a specific time period.


Dehydration, hyperthermia, hypothermia


Island map divided into 5 sectors, Island Survival Worksheet (provided), "challenge" cards (suggestions provided), box for challenge cards, box for names of items to bring to the island, small slips of paper, journal writing materials, pens or pencils


Part I: Preparation

  1. Begin by asking students to consider what they would need to survive if marooned on a deserted island. They should consider items in each of the basic categories of survival: water, food, shelter, warmth, and good health. Ask students how they might ultimately be able to safely return to “civilization.” Some possible answers might include waiting to be rescued, making a raft, or signaling a passing plane or ship.
  2. Inform students that they will be participating in a simulation of island survival. Have students work in groups to develop a list of five things that they would bring to an uninhabited subtropical island to help them survive for up to one year. All items must fit in a single, zipped-up, medium-sized backpack. Students are not permitted to bring any type of firearm or telecommunications device that would allow them to communicate with the outside world. However, each student will be allowed to bring a journal and a pen or pencil as well as the clothes that they are wearing that day (these are not counted among the five items).
  3. Have each student group write each item from their final list on an individual slip of paper, then place the paper slips in the class “item” box. If possible, add a few extra slips of paper to the box, listing common items whose use on an island may be unclear (e.g., umbrella, hand mirror, soccer ball, rubber bands, paper clips, string, cassette tape, etc.).
  4. At the end of class or as homework, assign each student to write a journal entry describing the items that their group selected and explaining why they chose them.

Part II: Planning

  1. Have each student group select two items from their original list, then pick three items from the item box without looking. These are the items that they will bring with them to the island.
  2. Provide each student group with a copy of the island map (see Teacher’s Notes for map details). With the map and their list of items, have students work with their group to develop an island survival plan. What will they do first? What will they eat and drink? Where will they sleep? How will they protect themselves? How could they eventually escape from the island? Have each student summarize their group’s plan in a journal entry.

Part III: Island Survival Simulation

  1. Begin the simulation. In this final phase of the activity, students will implement their plans. Start by handing out a copy of the Island Survival Worksheet to each student. Then, read the worksheet’s Survival Scenario aloud, making sure that students understand the rules and ultimate goal of the exercise.
  2. Next, have students record their initial resource points in the first blank horizontal row of their worksheet Resource Tracking Charts. These points are based on the five items that each group “brought” to the island with them. All groups begin with at least five health points (five points plus any additional health points for medicine, a first aid kit, etc.). In addition, here are recommended point values for some of the most likely initial items:
Initial Items Resource Points
Each food item +1 food
Fishing rod or other device to catch/find food +3 food
Packet of crop seeds +3 food in Round 3
Each water/drink container +1 water
Each tool useful in constructing a shelter +2 shelter
Each blanket or piece of extra clothing +1 warmth
Matches or sleeping bag +2 warmth
Tent +2 warmth, +2 shelter
Bottle of vitamins or medicine +1 health
First aid kit +3 health
Binoculars +1 escape
Mirror +1 escape (daytime only)
Survival manual +1 for each resource

Note: Allow students to attempt to justify additional resource points for their initial resources. Be judicious in awarding extra points, but accept reasonable arguments.

  1. In the third step of the simulation, have each group choose between two initial exploration strategies: (1) quick search or (2) thorough search. If a group initially chooses to do a quick search, it may do a thorough search on a later turn. However, once it has done a thorough search, a group cannot do a quick search later on. Have each group commit to a strategy before reading them the point results of their chosen strategy (see the provided strategy table for point allocations).
  2. Have students record their strategy choice in their journal, then place their resource additions or losses in the upper left corner of the appropriate square in the second row of their Resource Tracking Charts. When done, have students record their cumulative scores for each category in the center of the square by adding their exploration results to their initial resources. For example, if their initial resources were +1 water and they chose to do a thorough search, they would now have +6 for water resources.
  3. Have each group select one of the five sectors on the island to set up a camp. They should mark this location on their map with an X. They should also specify whether they are camping on the beach or inland. When they eventually build a shelter, they also need to specify its location. Once built, the shelter will remain at this location unless they adopt a strategy to move it elsewhere.
  4. From here on, the simulation proceeds for each group in a series of rounds. Each round represents one month of “island time.” In each round, a group should first choose a “challenge” card from the challenge box without looking. The card may result in the loss or gain of resources, or in an opportunity to escape. Each student group should then adopt a single strategy, which may also result in the loss or gain of resources or in an actual escape. As the teacher, you will have to decide how many resource points to reward or remove for a particular strategy. Some common strategies and recommended point gains/losses are as follows:
Strategy Resource Points (gains and losses)
Explore island quickly +1 water, +1 shelter, +1 food (first turn only)
Explore island thoroughly +5 water (spring found), +3 food, +3 shelter, -1 health (can do only once, on first or second turn)
Build a reed or stick shelter +2 shelter (must specify where shelter is located)
Build a log or stone shelter +3 shelter (must specify where shelter is located)
Build a water barrel +2 water (if rains in future round)
Search for wild vegetables or fruit +2 food (one time only for each)
Search for water +3 water (one time only)
Search for lumber/coconut trees +2 food, +1 water, +2 shelter (one time only)
Maintain a fire at night -1 shelter, +2 escape (night only), +1 warmth
Make a rod or net to catch fish +3 food
Make a spear to catch fish +2 food
Move a shelter to another area of the island no change in points
Build a raft or boat -3 shelter, + 3 escape (water only)
Float on a log +1 escape
Use a mirror to reflect sunlight +1 escape (day only)
Make a message on the beach with rocks +1 escape (day only)
Signal using a flashlight +1 escape (night only)
Send up a flare +2 escape
Use binoculars +1 escape
Maintain a lookout +2 escape
Toss a bottle with a note in it into the ocean +2 escape, two rounds later

Have students record each point change in the upper left of the appropriate square on their Resource Tracking Charts before adding up their cumulative points in the center of the square. Also, be sure to have each group subtract one point for food and one point for water in each round.

  1. Groups should proceed independently, and use the time in between rounds to discuss potential future strategies and record the results of their previous strategies in their Resource Tracking Charts and journals. This cycle of rounds repeats until the groups escape, lose, or class time runs out. Note: If students participate in more than five rounds, have them continue their Resource Tracking Charts on the back of their worksheets.
  2. Have students write a final journal entry summarizing their experiences and what they have learned.

Extend the Experience

Pose the following question: You are able to bring one small item from the island back home with you as a reminder of your time there. It may be something that you brought in your backpack, something that you made on the island, or an object that you just picked up on the island. Explain which item you will bring home and why.