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Learning about Trees: Roots, Trunks, Branches & Leaves

Arbor Day was established on April 10, 1872, by J. Sterling Morton, Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland. He was also at one time the governor of Nebraska, and it was there that he created Arbor Day to encourage the planting of and care for trees. On that first Arbor Day, around one million trees were planted. Morton loved trees and wanted others to feel the same way. Through his roles in government, he taught others about good forestry techniques and helped establish national forest reservations.

Today, Arbor Day is a global holiday, and its date of celebration varies in countries throughout the world. In the U.S., Arbor Day falls on the last Friday in April, not long after Earth Day. In Nebraska, Arbor Day is a civic holiday. No matter where you are, the custom is to plant a tree on this day. Why not take it further? Use Arbor Day as a starting point for creating a fun unit on trees. You can incorporate science, math, history, art, literature, and more into lessons revolving around our planet’s largest plants.

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All About Trees

No matter what age your children are, any good unit on trees should begin with a lesson on the subject itself. Take the information and make it appropriate for any age level. With older or gifted students, you can encourage them to expand this information, to ask probing questions, and to research even more about trees.

Trees are classified as woody, perennial plants. This means that it produces wood as its structural tissue, or its support, and that it lives year after year, even if it goes dormant in the winter. To be truly a tree, a woody, perennial plant must reach a certain size, which is debatable. Generally, woody plants like shrubberies that do not grow three to six meters tall and have a trunk that is about six inches in diameter are not trees. Another characteristic of trees is that they have a central trunk from which branches emerge.

Most trees are classified into two types: flowering and conifer. Flowering trees, also known as angiosperms, reproduce by making flowers that turn into fruits. The fruits contain the seeds for the next generation of trees. Conifers, which we often think of as pine trees and other evergreens, are a type of plant called gymnosperm. Gymnosperms produce seeds that are not enclosed in a fruit. They are exposed and often develop on cones.

Tree parts include the roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and twigs. The roots take in water and nutrients from the soil. Leaves take in carbon dioxide and light for the process of photosynthesis, which produces the tree’s food. The trunks, branches, and twigs are for support and transport. Fluids are pulled up the trunk by a specialized tissue in the wood called xylem. Xylem is made up of cells that are no longer living. Living cells make up another type of tissue called phloem, which is responsible for transporting sap, a fluid with nutrients, to parts of the tree in which photosynthesis does not occur. In other words, it helps feed the tree.

Trees are important for several reasons. They play a critical role in their ecosystems by anchoring soil and preventing erosion with their roots. They also provide shelter for many other members of the ecosystem. Insects, birds, and small mammals live in trees and take shelter in the foliage. Other animals often feed from trees as well. Trees even provide shelter for other plants. Many grow on their branches, especially air plants or bromeliads. By undergoing photosynthesis to make their own food, trees are a major source of oxygen in our atmosphere. They also take in and absorb excess carbon dioxide. Besides providing food and shelter, the wood of trees has long been an important energy source for us humans.

Armed with some basic information about trees, you can come up with some fun lessons for your kids. Take inspiration and ideas from below.

Elementary

  • Science. For your youngsters, start with the most basic facts about trees, like the different parts. Take the discussion outdoors so they can see, touch, here, and smell the trees as they learn about them.
  • Math. Use trees when counting and learning about numbers. It helps to have objects to turn the abstract concept of numbers into something concrete. When you get into bigger numbers, use leaves, acorns, or other small tree parts.
  • Art. Make bark and leaf rubbings. Take large pieces of paper outside, preferably inexpensive newsprint. Tape the paper to a tree and rub it with the side of a crayon. You will create the bark pattern on the paper. Make a rubbing for every type of tree you have nearby. Collect leaves from each of the trees as well. Stick the leaves to a flat surface, like a table top, with a piece of tape curled to the back of the leaf. Don’t put the tape over the top of your leaf or it will show up on the rubbing. Rub the paper with crayon to make impressions of all the leaves you have collected. Display the rubbings throughout the house so your kids can learn to identify the different tree types.
  •  Literature. Read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Read it aloud for the youngest ones, or better yet, have an older child read it aloud. Discuss the theme of the book and how it makes you feel.

Middle School

  • Science. Delve a little deeper into the information about trees with your middle school-aged kids. You can talk about the types of trees and their internal workings. Send them off to research more details about xylem and phloem and how they transport fluids and nutrients through the tree.
  • Writing and history. Create a frontier journal. Have your kids pretend to be a frontier explorer, like Lewis and Clark. They should imagine what it was like to explore the west and discover new species of trees. They will need to use their knowledge about trees and species as well as some creativity and writing skills to create this fictional account.
  • Art and culture. Get a bonsai tree (they are not very expensive). Research and learn about the Japanese tradition and art of cultivating these miniature trees. Then have your kids try their hands at it. It takes patience, skill, and knowledge.

High School

  • Science. With your teenagers, you can really get into the details about how trees work. Include the chemistry of trees, like the process of photosynthesis, details about the cells and their components, and even the physics of how fluids move in trees. This is a great topic for individual study. There are plenty of books that your teens can find to learn more about trees.
  • Art and taxonomy. Challenge your older kids to go outdoors and draw detailed pictures of different types of trees. They should draw the tree itself, as well as the leaf and flower, cone, or seed that it produces. They can then look up the taxonomic name for the trees they draw and label the pictures creating scientific works of art.
  • Environment and society. Trees are a big part of many environmental issues in the news today. Get your teens involved in current affairs by researching environmental problems and concerns and how trees are related. For instance, deforestation in rain forests or logging in the U.S. are two subjects they could research.
  • Genealogy. Creating a family tree is a great project for a high school-aged child. Have your teen learn about what genealogy is and then create a history for your family. He or she can find information by interviewing you and your spouse and their grandparents. They can also use the local library for more resources.

For the Whole Family

Together as a family, contribute to the tradition of Arbor Day by planting trees. Plant one tree for each member of the family. Before you do so, discuss together what kind of trees you will plant and why. Maybe you will add fruit trees to your garden or pine trees for creating a natural barrier. Talk about the importance of each type of tree and which ones suit your local environment the best and are most useful to your family and your lifestyle.

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