Children and Nature Get Involved! Personal Sustainability: How-To

Maple Syruping with Kids

tapped-treeIf you live in an area with Sugar Maple trees and are a parent, teacher, or neighbor of kids, I strongly encourage you to consider “Sugaring” with them.  Maple sap runs during the school year, making a Maple Project the perfect seasonal activity to bring into the classroom.  The learning opportunities are endless.  In the process of sugaring, we encounter:

  • all three states of water (solid ice, liquid water, and water vapor)
  • diameter and circumference measurements
  • seasonal changes in trees and discussion of tree health
  • ratios
  • parts of a tree and functions of the layers of a tree trunk
  • local history and lore
  • many opportunities to use all five senses
  • tools of all kinds: drills, taps, hammers, buckets, measuring tapes, evaporators, thermometers, and more

I’ve included activities most suited to active groups containing a wide age-range of elementary students.  Shelburne Farms’ Project Seasons and your state’s Maple Syrup Producers Association have additional resources if you’re looking for more ideas for your group of students.  I like to start with students in a circle around objects representing key vocabulary like tap, bucket, trunk, roots, measuring tape, and thermometer.  Once we all understand these concepts, we get outside and get moving!

sapSappy Sappy Flow Up My Tree (adaptation of Fishy Fishy Cross my Sea): Learn the function of sap for the tree and consider the impact of tapping on tree health

– Leading Questions: How does food stored in the roots and trunk get back to the buds of the tree so new leaves can grow?  How does a tree know when spring is coming?  At what temperature can frozen water turn to liquids?

  • Have students line up at one end of a gym or basket ball court/open running area
  • One adult stands in the middle, and is the “tap and bucket” – the hole in the tree that we drilled to collect sap. Explain that as sap droplets (students) flow up the tree, from the roots (one end of the court) to the branches (the other end) they bringing food to the buds.  Some sap, however, is “caught” by the tapped hole, and flows out into the bucket
  • The “it” adult, yells “sappy sappy flow up my tree!”
  • Tagged students must stay in the middle of the court, and become “holes” for the next round. All folks that are “it” chant “sappy sappy flow up my tree”, and the remaining group of sap droplets run across the space, trying to avoid the holes

-Group Questions: What happens when there is only one hole? What happens when there are a lot of holes? Does very much sap get to the buds so that they can grow into leaves?  Are there a lot of wounds, making trees more likely to get a disease?  As we will learn next, bark provides protection for the tree.  What number of holes is best for the tree?

HeartwoodSapwoodHeartwood, Sapwood (adaptation of Red Light, Green Light): Learn the parts of a tree trunk and their functions

  • Explain the parts of a trunk using a diagram or tree cookie
  • Give all students a name tag sticker (or masking tape) naming one part of the trunk to stick to their coat.  Review each part’s function, and have each student group think of a motion to depict their new identity (show right arm muscle, then left for strong heartwood, cross and re-cross hands in front of chest for protective bark)
  • Review what temperatures are above and below freezing.  Review that sap runs when it goes above freezing during the day, and freezes solid at night when temperatures goes below freezing
  • Start on one end of your running space
  • Teacher goes to other end.  Explain that instead of playing “red light, green light,” you’ll “Flow” and “freeze” according to the temperatures shouted by the teacher.  If she shouts a number below freezing, students may not move.  If she shouts a number above freezing, students may advance, making their motion, toward the teacher and opposite end of the court

MeasuringMeasuring “Trees” Activity (adapted from Project Seasons’ “Measuring Monsters and Midgets”)

  • Ask: How do we get sap from a tree? (we drill into sapwood (a.k.a. xylem – about 2 inches in), sap “leaks” out hole as it rises from roots to branches)
  • Think about our first running game.  Can we tap any size of tree?  Trees have to be certain size “wide” (not tall): their circumference is measured. Show Circumference Chart.  Have students use measuring tapes to measure their teacher, you, each other, and a bunch of students together. How many taps could we safely have if we were maple trees?

tap-and-hammerTasting Sap and Syrup

  • Yes, these running games make maple education fun.  Tasting maple syrup, however, can’t be beat.   Ask: What is the difference between sap and syrup? 40 gallons of sap must be evaporated to get one gallon of sap! In other words, 39 gallons of water must be turned into steam and go into the air!  What remains is maple syrup.
  • So sap is A LOT of water and some sugar, vitamins, and minerals the tree needs for food to make leaves.  Maple syrup is concentrated sugar, vitamins, and minerals.
  • Taste samples!
  • Extension: have the group generate a list of description words (adjectives) that they might use to describe sap and/or syrup.  Each student can then use words off of the list to write a poem.
Children and Nature

Foliage Games and Activities

Why do leaves change color?  Why do leaves fall from the trees in the fall?

These questions are common for those working or playing outside with inquisitive young people.  Every fall, I make sure to address these questions in a fun way.  Before jumping into games and crafts, however, remember to cover the basics.

I always introduce my students to a few basic words used to describe leaves and branching.  I make a poster with the following terms illustrated: needle/broadleaf, opposite/alternate, palmate/pinnate/parallel, toothed/lobed/smooth, simple/compound.  This is a great way to practice sorting, identify differences between two similar items, learn tree identification, and begin to start to think like an ecologist.  This website has some nice and basic information that might be helpful to read before leading leaf themed games with students.

After explaining the basics, my groups are ready to run around.  My favorite leaf running game is a Leaf Relay Race.  At one end of our running area, I place three paper bags labeled with large bold text: Maple, Birch, Oak.  I picked these species because they are common trees in our community. At the other end of the running area, I bring a bag filled with previously collected birch, maple, and oak leaves.  After making two lines, each student gets to “draw” a leaf from the bag.  Teammates can help each other identify their leaves.

I explain: “When I say go, the first person in each line will run across the field, put their leaf in the correct bag, and then run back and tag the next person in their team’s line.  That person will then run to deliver their leaf.  The first team back, sitting, and silent wins.”  With younger or urban students, I ask everyone with a toothed leaf to wave it in the air – that, I tell them, is a birch leaf.  We do the same for those with palmate leaves (maple) and lobed leaves (oak).  On your mark, get set, go!

Rather than focusing on who won, I bring the groups attention to the bags of leaves.  The group puts their thumbs up if the leaves I remove from the bag are correct.  We can try again if there are several mistakes (or if we still have a lot of energy).  Otherwise, I congratulate the whole group on their success.  One way to celebrate is to each grab a handful of leaves and throw it into the air on the count of three.  Leaf confetti!

Tree Identification:  With older groups, this is a great time to learn how to use Tree Identification Guides.  I strongly encourage adults to guide the group to a tree they know.  Use a book arranged using a dichotomous key like Tree Finder.  It will offer you choices like, “Are the branches of your tree opposite or alternate.”  Once the group decides the answer, you are directed to the next question.  It’s like Choose Your Own Adventure books!

Leaf hunting comes next.  Our mission: to find the best five leaves we can.  Maybe they’re the coolest leaves, the most colorful leaves, the smallest leaves, or the leaves from our favorite tree.  Collected leaves can be used inside to do a leaf rubbing and leaf stained glass.

Leaf Rubbing: Place one of your collected leaves under a paper taped to a table or on a clipboard, vein side up (to make more bumps).  Scribble on top of paper with a crayon to allow the bumps of the leaf come through.  Encourage students to rub multiple leaves and use many colors to fill their entire paper.

Leaf Stained Glass: “Laminate” leaves between shipping tape and trim with scissors to make art that can be hung in windows like stained glass.  Contact paper allows for bigger pieces of stained glass.  I start by placing a piece of tape sticky side up in front of the student, folding the corners down so that it is gently affixed to the table.  After the student places their leaves, I put a second piece of tape on top.

So, why do leaves change colors?  My favorite way to answer this question is verbally when all students have started their leaf rubbings.  Rubbing doesn’t take much brain power, but it keeps hands busy and allows the group to stay seated.  When I began as a teacher, I read the book: “Fall Leaves Change Color.”  There are other great books that can explain the process at the right level for your group.  Now that I’m more familiar with the facts, I prefer to tell the story without a book, which allows more questioning of students who can often help me tell the story.

Have students who are still interested?  I created a set of cards made up of six pairs of leaves.  They can be used to play Memory or Old Maid.

Recipes School Gardens

Rainy Days

Ok, so imagine your title is “Garden Educator.”  Your classroom is a school garden.  It’s lush and chock full of natural learning experiences every week as the seasons pass.  You work after school with students in the garden, so are not constrained by test scores and standards, though you could easily demonstrate that you meet numerous standards every day.  I think this job description sounds pretty good!  …its gets a lot more challenging on weeks with forecasts like this one: 70-100% rain every afternoon.

I often use rain days as opportunities to focus more on nutrition.  Two great themes are “Parts of a Plant” or  “Eating the Rainbow.” Both can culminate in a salad, coleslaw, or stir fry using a vegetable representing each part of a plant or each color in the rainbow.  You’d be surprised how well all three of these snacks are received by students from Kindergarden on up.  If you run multiple sessions and buy all the ingredients at once, each of these recipes is full of veggies and quite affordable.  Check out our coleslaw and stir fry recipes listed at the end of the post!

Both themes are also happily supplemented by “Veggie Twister,” pictured here.  While working at Groundwork Somerville, Maura Schorr Beaufait created this amazingly colorful, engaging, and educational Twister board and accompanying spinner.  The horizontal rows are arranged by parts of a plant and the vertical rows are arranged by color, so the board can be used for each theme.  Maura duct-taped laminated color photos of various produce to a tarp.  Commands such as “right foot leaf” or “left hand seed” will twist your students into knots and test their flexibility.

With cooking and games sprinkled into your session, it’s easy to facilitate your students in learning the functions of the parts of plants or how each color helps promote healthy gardeners.   Do you have successful rain day garden activities?  I’d love to hear about them.  Enjoy your next rain day!

Rainbow Stir Fry: Choose a veggie to represent each color or each part of plant.   Fry in olive oil with salt or soy sauce.  Serve and enjoy!  Here’s an example of what we used this year:

  • kale, ripped by kids (green)
  • red pepper, diced (red)
  • garlic, diced (white)
  • blue potatoes, diced (blue/purple)
  • sweet potato, diced (yellow/orange)

Parts of Plant Coleslaw: Choose a veggie to represent each color or each part of plant.  Some categories could be contested below, but we aim for simplicity especially when working with young students.
Stir veggies together with enough mayonnaise, cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper to make a creamy sauce with balanced sweet, salty, creamy, and sour flavors. Serve and enjoy!  Here’s an example of what we used this year:

  • cabbage, chopped finely (leaf)
  • raisins (fruit)
  • carrots, shredded (root)
  • celery, chopped (stem)
  • broccoli, chopped (flower)
  • sunflower seeds for sprinkling on top  (seed)