Young Sprouts: All About Trees
3/7/2022 | Emily Jaeger
Trees are as important as the air we breathe, or more precisely, they make the air we breathe. In early childhood, trees can teach us about the seasons and the cycle of life. Fostering an awareness of these natural wonders in children’s surroundings is one of the first steps towards developing their sense of environmental stewardship.
Your childcare facility may or may not have access to trees on your property. Even so, it’s still possible to explore trees indoors through a plethora of fun sensory activities and organization-wide celebrations.
Whether or not individual class curricula include a tree unit, celebrate Arbor Day (or the Jewish Tu B'shevat) as a community. National Arbor Day falls on the last Friday of April, but individual states may have a different date based on the best time to plant trees. Of course, planting a tree is a classic way to celebrate this holiday. If you choose to do tree-planting this year, consider giving your learners an extra sense of ownership over the project with a tree vote.
If there’s one thing that toddlers and young children love, it’s making choices. Select a couple of potential varieties of trees to plant--ideally ones with distinct leaves (such as pine versus maple). Provide classes with sample leaves so that learners can explore the textures, shapes, and colors of the different leaves. Older children may even learn how to identify each variety by name. Have each class vote for the leaves (i.e. trees) they like the best. If logistically possible, plant the tree together as a school. Make sure that vote tallies and learner comments are distributed to families, via newsletter or bulletin.
Parts of the Tree
Talk about the parts of the trees and how trees grow together as a class. For storytime, check out this great list of picture books about trees for preschoolers. Trees are delightfully sensory, from bright colored leaves to creaky branches, and rough bark. Collect, examine, and sort different parts of trees. You can compare maple helicopter seeds to oak acorns or birch bark to loblolly pine. Make sure to watch out for choking hazards for the youngest classes.
Tree bulletins, fake trees (purchased or made from dry branches) can be a year-round learning tool in the classroom. Together as a class, identify the different parts of the trees and bring in real-life examples. Teachers and learners can change up the display to reflect what trees are doing each season. This is also a great way to display some of your learner’s artwork. You can also repurpose your classroom tree as a kindness tree.
Trees and STEM
There are many parallels between trees and child development. However, on a basic level, trees and humans go about eating and drinking very differently. Discover how trees suck up water and nutrients from the soil all the way up through their leaves with this simple experiment. By soaking leaf stems in a cup of dyed water for a couple of days, learners can observe how the tiny veins in the leaves draw up colored water.
Two other easy STEM activities are engineering a fall tree and showing how plants breathe. The first challenge: how to make a free-standing tree with only three materials. Provide cut out leaves, clay or playdough, and popsicle sticks and ask open ended questions to guide your learners through the project. Explore what shapes will best hold up the weight of the branches and leaves at the top.
The second experiment addresses a particular pedagogical challenge: how to explain to young children that trees 1)are living beings and 2)produce air. Submerge a freshly picked leaf in a glass mason jar of water (weighing it down with a small rock). While the setup is quick, you will need to leave the leaf only for a few hours. When you check the experiment towards the end of the day, your learners will be able to observe small bubbles of air trapped against the leaf!
Thank You Trees
While we may be a little more critical these days about The Giving Tree’s self-sacrifice, acknowledging what trees provide us is the first step towards protecting them. Trees provide humans with food, lumber for buildings and furniture, paper, air, and when they shed leaves or rot, they help replenish the soil. Instead of reading the Giving Tree, consider a scavenger hunt or sensory table with representative items to start the conversation or check for knowledge of what you’ve been learning so far.
Emily Jaeger is a professional writer with a background in education (she's taught every age group from preschool to retirement). Her writing has been featured on Parents Magazine, Kveller, Motherfigure and more. You can connect with Emily via her website emilyjaeger.com or on instagram @soulinparaphrase.
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