Not only is leaf litter an important resource for forest function, fallen leaves can also spark environmental learning experiences. One day, a kindergarten-aged boy was walking through Washington Square Park and saw a large leaf on the ground. He collected the leaf to bring to his kindergarten teacher. His class was studying trees. The teacher and the students identified the leaf as an oak but did not know if the lead belonged to a pin oak or a red oak. (Note: a pin oak is in the red oak group.) The teacher reached out to me because of my connection to the park. We agreed on a tree walk with a classroom tree lesson and an outdoor identification session. I visited with the class twice; I worked with one half of the class, about 10 students, on each visit.
I started off each visit asking the children to describe a tree. Their answers reminded me of the story of the blind men and the elephant. No child offered a complete definition, but the list of features they generated was comprehensive. On one of the days, the teacher had a debrief session and noted additional student observations on the board. All of the student responses where interesting but I particularly appreciated the following description: “big piece of wood standing up where animals can live.”
Our tree walk occurred on the south side of the block on which the school sits. I had walked both sides of the block before meeting with the students so was familiar with the species and the seasonal changes each tree was undergoing. I paired trees and compared and contrasted the species along the block to teach and illustrate basic tree identification. We talked about leaf arrangement (opposite versus alternate), flowers (showy versus inconspicuous), fruit, bark patterns, and new twig growth. The most appealing trees had showy flowers (the Callery pears on the street and the Kwanzan cherries in the small front yards). The students were also fascinated by the herbaceous plants in the tree beds, most of which were growing spontaneously, as well as the trash on the soil.
I would like to replicate this workshop for other early childhood education programs. The students were engaged indoors and outside, and the head teacher provided positive feedback. The tree walk was a valuable experience for me as I grow my outdoor educator skills.
Photos courtesy of the classroom teacher.