Home icon

Changes in the Trees around Us

Projects are the part of the curriculum that involves children in investigating objects and events around them that are worth knowing more about. Project work is a way of uncovering a subject rather than just covering it.

Most young children growing up in Illinois have opportunities to observe and study the dramatic seasonal changes that occur in the trees around them. Preschoolers are likely to be curious about many of those changes. Some may notice how nests of birds and squirrels are revealed as the trees lose leaves, and they may want to know more about the animals that built the nests. Others may be curious about acorns, or the colors and shapes of leaves, or the kinds of jobs that people have that involve trees. Children’s curiosity about and interest in “what’s going on” with the trees may even take the project in directions the teacher might not have expected!

Figure 1. A child examines pine needles from a tree on her school’s playground.

This guide outlines possible steps to take to engage preschool-age children in projects about trees. We have included a wide variety of investigation activities, but not all of them have to be included to make the work interesting and enriching. Much depends on the locale, the time available, as well as the children themselves. In addition, the guide indicates ways that a project investigating local trees can address a wide range of Illinois Early Learning Benchmarks (see Appendix A).

Keep in mind that this Project Guide offers a variety of ideas—not “recipes”—for doing a project on trees. Children’s ideas about what directions such a study might take are likely to emerge as the project progresses. The activities outlined in this guide are just suggestions; many other worthwhile experiences are possible—and often the children are the ones who suggest them. At the same time, it is not necessary for a project to include every activity suggested in this guide.

Note: It’s a good idea to ask families specifically about their children’s allergies before the project begins. Some children may be allergic to tree pollen, nuts, or woods such as cedar and walnut. Children with tree allergies can participate in the project, but a few activities may be off limits to them.

Launching the Investigation: The Teacher’s Role

Several steps may be involved for the teacher who would like to help the class engage in an investigation of the changes in trees:

  • Considering children’s possible interests
  • Locating resources for firsthand investigation
  • Going to look at the trees without the class
  • Making the teacher’s topic web
  • Collecting reference materials related to changes in trees

These steps are discussed in detail below.

Considering Children’s Possible Interest

The study of changes in trees can be introduced to the children in any of several ways, depending somewhat on their ages. Some teachers have started tree projects after noticing that children were already interested in nearby trees—for example, when several children make comments or raise questions after a classmate reports seeing flowers on a tree that had no flowers the week before. In that case, the teacher might consider ways to help them focus or support their potential interests.

Another teacher may have a sense that the class will want to investigate trees even though the children have not expressed interest yet. In that case, an introductory event may be a good way to launch the project. For example, the teacher might collect specimens—interesting items from the trees (twigs, flowers, seeds, etc.)—to show the class. Another option is to plan a walking tour to look at trees on the playground or in the neighborhood. The children’s comments and questions about the specimens or the trees can be the teacher’s clue about whether the group is ready to start an investigation of changes in trees.

Locating Resources for the Project

Before starting a project on any topic, it is helpful for the teachers to explore available local resources and potential sites where children could safely make direct observations of relevant phenomena, ideally on a regular basis. For a project on trees, these resources might include local parks and nature centers, nurseries, garden centers, orchards and tree farms, and horticulture organizations. It’s a good idea to check whether or not the staff of these places will be open to having young children visit.

Naturalists, arborists, foresters, orchard owners, and other people whose work involves trees can be invited to assist the children with the project in a number of ways. Print materials produced by local groups (such as guides to area trees) can also be useful during a tree project.

Looking at the Trees before the Project Begins

It helps if the teacher takes a walk without the children before launching the project, taking note of the trees near the school. A field guide to trees can help identify at least five or six different kinds. The teacher could take some photographs or collect a few twigs, leaves, or seedpods from the trees to take back and show the children. Such artifacts can enhance children’s initial interest in the topic.

Ideally the tree project should be launched just before either spring or fall is about to begin. At such a time, the teacher can point out to the children that the seasons are changing and the appearance of the trees will also begin to change.

Making the Teacher’s Web

Teachers usually find it helpful to make a topic web related to the project topic before launching into the first phase with the children. Below is an example of a teacher’s topic web about changes in trees.

Figure 2. This teacher’s initial topic web has been made on easel paper.

The teacher’s topic web is intended to be a reminder of the wide range of possible subtopics that can be investigated by the children rather than an outline of lessons or activities. It includes concepts, ideas, information, and vocabulary related to changes in trees that the teacher believes are worthy of the children learning more about. This web can include elements such as trunk, height, width, circumference, parts of trees, colors, and smells. The teacher’s web can also include resources such as possible sites to visit and experts to invite. Once the project is underway, some changes can be made to the initial web, based on what the teacher learns about the children’s interests, understandings, and knowledge of the topic.

Gathering Reference Materials

Teachers may find it helpful to look at articles by teachers who have implemented projects about trees or other plant life. For example, see “Looking at the Trees around Us”, “Investigating the Tallgrass Prairie”, and “The Tree Project”.

As the project begins, teachers can also collect some good-quality references and other sources of information to use themselves and to share with the class. A librarian can help with this process. Nonfiction picture books and field guides to trees are likely to be useful throughout Phase 1 and Phase 2. Slides or videos about trees can also enrich the class discussion during the first two phases.

A librarian can also help the teacher locate reliable Web resources on topics related to seasonal changes in trees: flowers, seeds, leaves, animals, etc. Keep in mind that although Wikipedia may be a source of basic information, it is notoriously inaccurate. (It is not a secure site, and users are sometimes able to insert misinformation.)

Teachers can also arrange to borrow the educator resource known as a “Tree Trunk” from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Each “Tree Trunk” contains items such as field guides, colorful posters in English and Spanish, activity books, cross-sections of trees, and other resources that can promote the children’s observations as well as their thinking about trees.

Planning for Documentation throughout the Project

It’s a good idea for the teacher to decide before the investigation begins how to document the project work during each phase. Many aspects of documentation during a project on changes in trees will be similar to documentation for any other project.

However, documentation during a study of trees may present challenges that some other projects do not. Specifically, the specimens and artifacts that the children collect to document their experiences during a tree project may require more storage room than may be needed for some other types of projects. The teacher may want to decide ahead of time where large or fragile specimens can be kept.

Phase 1: Getting Started

During Phase 1, the teacher can help the children begin their study in several ways:

  • Invite them to share their recollections of prior experiences related to trees.
  • Take a tour of nearby trees with the class or with small groups.
  • Create a topic web with the children.
  • Help the children form subtopic groups.
  • Involve families in the initial phase of the project.

Recalling Prior Experience Related to Changes in Trees

During the group’s first conversations about trees, the teacher might recount a personal experience with a tree or trees. Sometimes reading a story related to trees can spark a discussion among the group about their own experiences. Perhaps a child in the class has tried to climb a tree, or decorated a memorable Christmas tree, or seen a bird’s nest in a tree, or watched a neighbor cut down a tree. The teacher can invite the children to talk about these memories. The teacher can continue to invite children to share their stories for several days. Continuing to encourage memory sharing may help those who are slow to recall encounters with trees, as well as those who may be reluctant to speak.

Letting children draw or paint something that they recall about changes in trees is another way that they can share their experiences. The teacher can write the children’s dictated words on their work. Memory stories and drawings can give teachers a sense of what sorts of experiences children have had, as well as what misconceptions they may hold and what subtopics may interest them.

Making Preliminary Observations of Trees

The next step could be for the children to take a walk where they can closely observe some trees—the school playground, a nearby park, or a tree-lined street. Each child can take a clipboard, some drawing paper, and a pencil. The group can stop occasionally to talk about the trees that they observe. They should have time to sketch parts of the trees, take pictures, measure the circumference (girth) of the trees’ trunks, and so forth. If enough adults are available, the class can take their tree walks in small groups in different directions. If the availability of adults is a problem, it often helps to take only three or four of the children at a time. While on their walks, the children will be responsible for drawing the trees that they observe and, later, describing what they observed to classmates who were not with them.

It’s a good idea for the teacher to keep a record of what children talk about, pay attention to, and wonder about during the visit to the trees. This information can help the teacher foster discussions among the children later. It can also be useful during the children’s webbing process and when they are working with the question chart.

Upon their return to the class, the small groups can report to the class about what they saw and what they included in their photos and drawings. The teacher can encourage children in different groups to compare what they have observed and to ask each other questions about what they encountered on their walks.

The teacher can suggest to the class that groups of three or four children can “adopt” one of the nearby trees that they saw. The groups can “visit” their trees to make sketches, photographs, and bark rubbings, perhaps once a week for a month or more. This way, five or six groups can be responsible for regular observations of the changes that occur in the trees over the next few weeks.

Creating a Topic Web with the Children

It’s a good idea for the teacher to start a discussion with the children focusing on a number of tree-related areas:

  • Things they already know about changes that occur in trees
  • What they would like to find out about the changes in trees
  • Who they think they could talk to about the changes that occur in trees
  • Some places they might visit to help them find out more about how trees grow and change with the seasons

What the children say during this conversation can become part of their topic web. As the children say what they know, what they think, or what they wonder about, the teacher can write the words directly on the topic web paper or on a sticky note.

Figure 3. The teacher and the class work together to create topic web such as this one.

The teacher can also use the notes taken when the class first observed the nearby trees to remind children of what they noticed or wondered about.

Many teachers find that making a web is likely to take more than one group meeting session, depending on the children’s ages and their level of experience with the process. Children can also help the teacher organize their initial questions, comments, and ideas into categories. For example, if several sticky notes with comments related to falling leaves were generated during the conversation, those could be grouped separately from the sticky notes with children’s questions about animals that live in trees.

Helping Children Ask Questions and Make Predictions

In addition to the children’s topic web related to the changes in trees, the teacher may want to generate a question table as shown in the examples below, based on the questions that the children ask:

Figure 4. Some teachers post a large hand-printed question table on a classroom wall.
What would you like to find out? (Question)What do you think the answer might be? (Prediction)What did you find out? (Answer)
Why do people cut down trees?Because they want to have logs for a campfire. 
Do trees have flowers?No. Flowers grow in the ground.

Yes, because my tree has flowers on it.
Why do leaves start out green and then turn brown?Because someone didn’t water them. 
Table 1. The teacher may want to create a question table on the computer.

(For more information about making and using a question table, see Lilian Katz’s blog entry titled “The Question Table” on the Project in Practice Web site.)

The question table is likely to be useful during all phases of the project. New questions usually arise while children are involved in fieldwork that addresses their initial questions related to changes in trees. Teachers can encourage continued questioning during any phase of the project in a variety of ways:

  • Ask the children what they want visiting experts to show them and talk with them about. For example, the teacher might ask, “When the tree-trimmer comes, what would you like for her to show us?” “What are some things that you want the tree doctor to talk about?”
  • Help children restate “wonderings” as questions. For example, if a child says, “I want to know if flowers on a tree ever turn into leaves,” the teacher might say, “So do you want to ask the botanist, ‘Do the flowers on a tree turn into leaves?’”
  • Encourage children to ask questions or make comments when their classmates report findings from fieldwork.
  • Write new questions on the question table as the children dictate them.
  • Suggest other ways that the children might express their questions (for example, drawing a picture of something that they are curious about).

(See “The Project Approach: Helping Children Ask Questions” for more suggestions.)

Predicting possible answers and sources of information is another important aspect of project work that can begin during Phase 1 and continue throughout the project. When a child asks a question, the teacher might ask that child, or the class generally, “What do you think the answer might be?” or “What do you think the guest expert will answer when you ask him that?”

The teacher can also encourage children to make predictions about other things:

  • Which books or other resources might have answers to a specific question?
  • What changes might occur in the trees that they are studying in the coming days or weeks? (For example, “Do you think the locust tree will have flowers?”)
  • What might happen during specific “experiments” they design? (For example, “Will this twig grow roots if we put one end in a glass of water?” “How many seeds do you think you will you find when you break open this locust pod?”)

Forming Subtopic Groups

Several of the children may show interest in the same question related to changes in trees. They can become part of a subtopic group that will try to find answers to the question. The teacher can work with each group to help them decide what they might try to get answers to their questions. For example, the subtopic group that is interested in the question “What animals live in the trees around the school?” will benefit from particular references, experts, and site visits, while those who want to find out what makes the leaves change color will probably need to use different resources.

Involving Families during Phase 1

As the project begins, the teacher can send a note to families letting them know that the class will be investigating local trees. The note can also mention what the children have said and done about trees so far and request help from family members. Do any of them have interesting experiences with trees to share with the class? Do their jobs or hobbies involve trees? The teacher might invite family members to help children remember their own experiences with trees. As mentioned previously, it is a good idea to ask parents if their children have allergies to tree pollen or to nuts.

Another way to involve families is to suggest that children take their clipboards, paper, and pencils home to sketch the trees and bushes near where they live. Children can also invite family members to make tree drawings, which they can bring back to class to share. It’s also a good idea to suggest that from time to time parents informally ask their children to talk about what they have found out about trees recently.

Phase 2: Fieldwork

The children’s fieldwork can begin after their topic web has been completed and they have selected subtopic groups. Depending on their subtopic groups and the questions that they want to answer, their fieldwork may include a range of activities:

  • Gathering data on particular trees near the school
  • Making other site visits
  • Collecting tree-related items
  • Talking with guest experts about trees
  • Conducting tree-related experiments such as planting or propagating trees
  • Reporting to classmates about what they have learned

These activities are discussed in detail below.

Gathering Data on the Trees

One of the teacher’s key roles during Phase 2 of a project on changes in trees is to facilitate children’s close observations of the trees. Here are some things that the teacher can do:

  • Arrange for children to return to their trees in small groups two or three times a week, in different types of weather, including calm sunny days, windy days, and foggy days.
  • Provide children with clipboards, paper and pencils, and a camera if available.
  • Offer collection bags, magnifiers, and binoculars.
  • Give each group time to sketch and photograph trees or parts of trees. For example, they might want to take pictures of the same twig and branch of the tree every few days and photograph the whole tree to record changes that take place.
  • Encourage the children to…
    • notice scents and odors on or near their trees;
    • notice colors and textures of the bark, twigs, leaves, seeds, and other parts of the tree;
    • collect things that may have fallen from the trees;
    • look for and sketch or photograph insects, birds, or other animals in or near the trees;
    • measure their tree’s girth, the length of twigs, etc., with a tape measure, Unifix cubes, or other nonstandard measuring tool;
    • record their data on paper.

Talking with Guest Experts about Trees

The teacher can help the children generate a list of potential guest experts to provide information about trees and the seasonal changes they undergo. Such a list might include the following people:

Figure 5. A child examines a leaf during fieldwork.
  • Park Planners
  • Nature Photographers
  • Tree Technicians
  • Wildland Restoration Specialists
  • Wood Carvers
  • Recreational Tree Climbers
  • Master Gardeners
  • Botanists
  • Horticulturists
  • Forest Pathologists (“tree doctors”)
  • Tree Farm Owners
  • Orchard Owners
  • Landscape Architects and Designers
  • Lumber Harvesters
  • Lumber Mill Workers

Some specialists might be willing to write back and forth to the children via email.

Children can draw or dictate their questions for the experts prior to visits. It’s a good idea to have them practice asking their questions to be sure to make the best use of the expert’s time with the class. Many guest experts like to know ahead of time what the children want to ask them; the teacher can share those questions with them before the visit.

Going on Site Visits

Occasionally, a whole-class visit to a field site (a nature center or park, for example) will be useful, particularly if each child or small group of children has specific things to find out. When possible, however, site visits should be made by subtopic groups. When children in a subtopic group have decided what their questions are, the teacher can work with them to decide where they might go to find the answers: A tree farm? An arborist’s office? A nearby nursery? A neighbor’s backyard?

During the site visit, children can use the same data-gathering techniques described in the section “Gathering Data on the Trees” above, such as making observational sketches, taking notes, and collecting artifacts (with permission). They may also have opportunities to ask for information from people who work or live there. (See “Talking with Guest Experts about Trees” above.)

On visits to outdoor locations, the teacher may want to remind the class to follow the usual safety procedures for outdoor activities (for example, wear sunscreen, avoid poison ivy, etc.). The teacher should remind children to ask permission to collect artifacts or to touch things that they see during the visit. People are not allowed to take objects (including flowers or twigs) from state parks and similar places.

Creating Collections of Artifacts and Specimens

Helping the class build and maintain a collection of tree-related specimens and artifacts can be another important role for the teacher during Phase 2 of a tree project. Here are some ways that the teacher might help.

The teacher may suggest that children gather and share things that they find related to trees at home, en route to and from home and school, while observing their trees, or during conversations with guest experts. Some teachers invite families to add to the classroom collection. The class may be interested in collections of various materials:

  • Seeds and seedpods
  • Buds
  • Fruits
  • Leaves
  • Other tree parts
  • Tools and other items used for tree care (without sharp points and edges)
  • Other items from field visits and visits with guest experts

It’s a good idea to remind children not to collect anything from private property without getting permission first.

As the children bring items in for the collection, the teacher can help them label each one with the name of the item, the date it was collected, where it was collected, and the name of the person who provided it. Children may be interested to know that the term for such documentation of artifacts is “provenance.”

Teachers can provide containers for the things that the children collect and keep them in a specific part of the room. Some teachers put smaller items (with their provenance) into boxes with dividers.

Teachers may occasionally bring in items to add to the collection.

Incorporating Explorations and Experiments Related to Changes in Trees

As children learn more about trees during Phase 2, they may have questions that can best be answered through planned explorations or experiments. Such activities may include closely examining items in the collection, preserving leaves and flowers, and growing new trees.

Looking Inside the Collection: Children can learn a great deal by examining objects in the class collection. Teachers might encourage this activity in several ways:

  • Offer magnifiers so children can examine these items closely.
  • Ask them to describe what they notice: textures, smells, colors, sounds, etc.
  • Ask provocative questions: “What do you think is inside this locust pod?”
  • Offer opportunities to take apart pinecones, seeds, leaves, fruits, and other parts of the trees, assisting with any cutting that is needed.
  • Suggest that children sketch and photograph these items to add to the story of the project.

Preserving Leaves and Flowers: Preserving specimens is an important task for people who study living things. Some children may want to try pressing and drying flowers and leaves that they collect.

Planting Trees: Growing new trees can be an important experience for preschoolers. Native Illinois trees such as dogwood or redbud may be good choices. A few Illinois trees will grow well from seeds, and some will grow from cuttings rooted in water. A horticulturist or nursery owner may be able to guide the teacher and the class as they decide what to plant.

Debriefing after Fieldwork

It’s a good idea to make time for the topic groups to report to the class regularly about what they have found during fieldwork. The teacher might facilitate these discussions in several ways:

  • Help the children “tune in” to differences among their trees (such as size, silhouette, bark texture, whether the tree has leaves or needles) and changes in the trees over time (for example, differences in size of leaves, colors, growth of seeds or buds or flowers).
  • Refer children to the question table: Does a group’s report include some answers to earlier questions?
  • Give shy or reluctant children a chance to talk about what they have observed.
  • Encourage children to talk to each other about their ideas, findings, and questions.

Incorporating Language Arts and Literacy Activities

Introducing New Vocabulary: Learning the right words to describe trees and their important parts is valuable to children’s growing knowledge during a project on trees. The ages of the children involved may influence what words and concepts they learn and use. Subtopic groups may also learn some specialized vocabulary. For example, a group studying tree care tools is likely to be exposed to terms such as saw, crane, and pruning. The teacher can help the class find definitions of basic “tree” words: Forest, Wood, Specimen, Artifact, Cone, Bough, Leaf, Needle, Blossom, Bud, Pollen, Sapling, Shoot, Root, Trunk, Crown, Bark, Branch, Burl, Twig

Older preschoolers may want to use terms such as compound leaves, pinnate, deciduous, coniferous, and so forth. Words such as margin, midrib, and lobe will help children describe leaves. Children studying the flowers on trees will find vocabulary such as petal, sepal, and stamen useful.

Helping Children Write: Teachers can involve children in a variety of writing activities during Phase 2:

  • Encourage them to label the parts of their field sketches and drawings.
  • Invite them to make lists of what they observe during site visits.
  • Ask them to dictate or write the “story” of what occurred during a site visit.
  • Let them dictate or write thank-you notes to guest experts, the librarian, parent helpers, and others who assist with the project.

Using Books and Other Reference Materials: Good informational picture books and other resources can help children with many aspects of their study of changes in trees. Finding and sharing such resources are key tasks for the teacher. Teachers can look for a variety of books and other resources:

  • Books that label parts of trees
  • Books that help identify trees (for example, field guides)
  • Books that explain what trees need in order to survive
  • Books that cover changes in trees across the seasons
  • Books with information about jobs related to trees
  • Reliable Web resources that address children’s questions about trees and how they change

Incorporating Math Activities

A study of trees can be enhanced with math-related activities that help children answer questions and express new understandings. The teacher can encourage such activities as children’s fieldwork progresses:

  • Measure the girth (circumference) of the tree trunk and other features of their trees with standard and nonstandard tools.
  • Make charts or graphs of findings to show comparisons among the trees.
  • Sort and categorize buds, seeds, and fruits that they have collected.
  • Use the collection items for graphing.
  • Select a series of photos or sketches that show the sequence of changes in the trees.
  • Talk about changes in trees related to seasons and other units of time (months, weeks, days).
  • Show the dates of observations on a calendar.
  • Conduct surveys of classmates and family members that ask tree-related questions.
  • Represent survey results using graphs or charts.

Incorporating Fine Arts Activities: Visual Arts, Music, Creative Movement, and Drama

During Phase 2, the visual arts, creative movement, drama, and music can offer a variety of ways for children to represent what they observe and learn about their trees. The fine arts may also provide sources of information. The teacher might try several approaches to engaging the children with the fine arts:

Figure 6. To make this representation of a leaf, a child painted over a photocopy of an observational sketch.
  • Share art prints and children’s book illustrations depicting trees.
  • Encourage the class to discuss the different ways that artists and illustrators represent trees in their work: the different uses of color, line, and other artistic elements to convey information or feelings.
  • Share classical, folk, or popular music related to trees with the children (for example, “Der Lindenbaum” by Schubert, “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin, or various instrumental versions of Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees”).
  • Talk with the children about sounds that remind them of their trees.
  • Offer a variety of instruments and other sound-makers and invite the class to find ways to re-create sounds of their trees and to compose or improvise their own tree-related music.
  • Suggest that children use their bodies to portray what trees, branches, or flowers look like, how they move in the wind, and so forth.
  • Provide clay, paint, wire, and a variety of other media for children to represent what they are finding out about trees.

Involving Families during Phase 2

Multiple opportunities for family involvement are likely to arise during Phase 2 of a project on changes in trees. Teachers can use their newsletters or special invitations to engage families in a variety of activities:

  • Invite family members to read the project documentation that is displayed in the classroom.
  • Request that parents or grandparents help out with site visits.
  • Ask family members who work with trees to serve as guest experts.
  • Suggest that families be “on the lookout” for times when children might watch workers caring for a tree, trimming branches, or cutting down a tree.
  • Invite family members to help with tree planting.
  • Have children take home survey questions about trees to ask their family members (for example, “Do you have a rake for raking leaves?” or “Did you climb trees when you were little?”) For more ideas about surveys in project work, see “The Project Approach: Children Taking Surveys” and “Helping Children Take Surveys”.
  • Create some homework with a “trees near home” theme, to encourage families to find out together about trees away from school. Teachers may need to take into account that some neighborhoods have no trees.
  • Send paper and pencils home so that siblings and parents can sketch nearby trees if they want.
  • Ask families to send in re-usable items (“boxes and junk”) for children to use in their constructions related to the project.

Phase 3: Bringing the Project to a Close

A project on seasonal changes in trees might last from 3 weeks to 3 months, depending on what resources are available and the extent of the children’s interest. The teacher can help the children bring the project to a close by revisiting the question chart with the class, facilitating children’s use of their new knowledge in their play, assisting with plans for displaying their documentation, working with them on plans for a culminating event, and inviting families to participate.

Revisiting the Question Table

As the study of changes in trees begins to wind down, the teacher can look at the question chart with the class or with individual children:

  • Which questions have they answered?
  • How did their predictions compare to their findings?
  • Which questions are still unaddressed, and what might be done to find answers?
  • Do some of the children seem to misunderstand anything about the topic?
  • What might be done to address their misconceptions?

The children may want to contact some of their guest experts or consult books and other references to answer remaining questions or to clarify what they have misunderstood.

Facilitating Play

Children’s new understandings of trees may be reflected in a variety of ways in their spontaneous play throughout the project but especially during Phase 3, when they can apply their knowledge about the people who work with trees and the animals that rely on trees to survive. Teachers can take several approaches to fostering such play:

  • Share songs and fingerplays about trees.
  • Teach games that involve trees (for example, the board game Hi Ho Cherry-O).
  • Encourage children (especially older preschoolers) to create their own guessing games or board games based on what they have learned about the changes in trees.
  • Provide materials for children to make models of tree-care tools to use in dramatic play.
  • Put props such as puppets of animals and birds that live in trees in the dramatic play area.
  • Add “tree cookies” (well-sanded cross-sections of tree branches) to the regular unit blocks (Note: Some educational supply companies sell these blocks. The local library may carry a set of these that the teacher can check out for classroom use.)

Planning for Final Displays of Documentation

After the full realization of spring or fall, the teacher can suggest that it is time for the class to plan how they will document their findings from their study of changes in trees. The teacher can help with this process in a variety of ways:

  • Ask the study groups, “What are some ways that you could share with other people the things that you found out during the project?” Help them record and refer back to their ideas.
  • Encourage children to plan displays that tell the story of their work, their questions, the data they collected, and what they were able to find out about changes in trees.
  • Help the various study groups select drawings and photographs. Help the children organize them by date.
  • Let the children write or dictate captions for their work.
  • Suggest that they include specimens and artifacts that they collected, such as seeds, pressed flowers, and leaves, twigs, and tools.

Planning a Culminating Activity

The tree study groups and subtopic groups should meet to decide what they want to do to share their new knowledge and skills with others. A key decision is how best to express and represent what they have found out about the changes in their trees. Do they want to create a mural or scale models of the trees, tell a story about the changes in the trees, write poetry, make music, create a dance, put together a play about animals that live in trees? The children can also decide if they want to host an event when others can view their work or, instead, plan a less-complex final activity such as making a book that can be passed around among families.

The teacher can meet with the small groups to discuss the children’s decisions:

  • Ask the children questions such as, “What do you especialy want others (for example, parents or another class) to know about your study of changes in trees?” “What do you think might be especially interesting to (your father, your little sister, the principal, etc.)?”
  • Inform the children of limitations such as time, space, and money that may affect what they can do for culminating activities.
  • Serve as an advisor when the groups run into challenges.
  • Provide the materials requested by the groups.
  • Let the children do the work.
  • Help the children set and stick to deadlines for completing their representations.

As the investigation ends, children may feel inspired to imaginatively express what they have been learning about the changes in trees as part of the culminating activity. The teacher can foster their creative work during Phase 3:

  • Encourage individual children to represent something of particular interest to them.
  • Take children to the local library to look for art prints or art books that feature tree-related paintings, photographs, and sculptures by a variety of artists. (For example, many children are intrigued and inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s use of live trees and tree parts in his work.)
  • Introduce children to the work of local or well-known artists to inspire them to express ideas and feelings about trees using fine arts materials such as paints, clay, wire, and other media.
  • Share picture books with the children that include poetry and fantasy stories about trees or especially interesting illustrations of trees.
  • Allow children to make up their own poetry or original tales related to trees.

Involving Families during Phase 3

Family members often enjoy seeing what children have done and learned during a project. As the investigation of trees comes to a close, the class may think of a variety of ways to share their work with their families. Here are some ways that teachers can help:

  • Let children create invitations to family members to view the displays.
  • Provide volunteer opportunities for family members during the culminating activities (for example, helping escort small groups of guests to visit the trees that were studied).
  • Invite parents to reflect on their children’s participation in the project (for example, by asking them to use “comment cards” next to different parts of the children’s display).

A Final Word

This Project Guide is meant to suggest possibilities, to support the teacher who wants some ideas for ways to get started with a project related to changes in trees, or to help maintain momentum once an investigation is underway.

It is important to remember that the children themselves are likely to find many worthwhile ways to investigate the changes in trees. In fact, as children pursue what interests them, any project may end up with a main focus very different from what was originally expected. “Changes in trees” could become just a small part of some other topic that engages the minds of many children in a class.


Thanks to Barb Gallick and Lisa Lee for document review.

Appendix A: Benchmarks

The following list suggests some of the benchmarks from the 2013 Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards that are likely to be addressed during a project on changes in trees.

Language Arts
1.A.ECc: Provide comments relevant to the context.

  • children participate in web-making.
  • small groups and individuals report their findings.
  • children comment on classmates’ findings.
  • children discuss what to do for a culminating activity.

Language Arts
1.B.ECa: Use language for a variety of purposes.

  • children make comments or ask questions during discussions about trees throughout the project.
  • children dictate labels or captions for their drawings and other representations.
  • children dictate questions that they want to ask guest experts.
  • children explain their findings to others.
  • children write/dictate invitations or thank-you notes to guest experts and other adults.
  • children negotiate roles during dramatic play that is related to what they are learning about trees.

Language Arts
1.D.ECc: Understand and use question words in speaking.

  • children develop a list of their questions about the topic.
  • children plan questions they will ask guest experts.
  • children question each other about their findings.

Language Arts
1.E.ECb: Exhibit curiosity and interest in learning new words heard in conversations and books.

  • children hear and learn specialized vocabulary related to trees during field work.

Language Arts
1.E.ECc: With teacher assistance, use new words acquired through conversations and book‐sharing experiences.

  • children accurately use new vocabulary related to trees in their conversations, questioning, labeling, dictations, dramatic play, and representations of what they have learned.

Language Arts
2.A.ECa: Engage in book-sharing experiences with purpose and understanding.

  • children use books to find information about trees.
  • children create books to report what they have learned about trees and share the books with classmates and others.
  • children create books that include their original stories or poems related to trees and share the books with classmates and others.

Language Arts
2.D.ECa: With teacher assistance, discuss illustrations in books and make personal connections to the pictures and story.

  • children discuss the various ways that artists depict trees in books, paintings, drawings, sculpture, etc.

Language Arts
3.A.ECa: With teacher assistance, ask and answer questions about details in a nonfiction book.

  • children use nonfiction books as sources of information about trees.

Language Arts
5.B.ECb: With teacher assistance, use a combination of drawing, dictating, or writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.

  • children make and label field drawings.
  • children write or dictate what they have found out during field work.
  • small groups report to the class about what they have observed or found out—using their drawings as visual aids.

Language Arts
5.B.ECc: With teacher assistance, use a combination of drawing, dictating, or writing to narrate a single event and provide a reaction to what happened.

  • children tell what happened during a site visit or an experiment by drawing, writing, and/or dictating to an adult.

Language Arts
5.C.ECa: Participate in group projects or units of study designed to learn about a topic of interest.

  • in large or small groups, children discuss what they want to find out about trees.
  • children follow up on their own questions.
  • children actively investigate many aspects of trees.

Language Arts
5.C.ECb: With teacher assistance, recall factual information and share that information through drawing, dictation, or writing.

  • children illustrate, dictate, or write their findings and ideas related to trees throughout the project.

6.A.ECd: Connect numbers to quantities they represent using physical models and informal representations.

  • children create graphs that indicate quantities of objects they are studying.
  • children create models that include correct numbers of parts (e.g., 5 points on a sweetgum leaf, two handles on pruning shears).

7.A.ECc: Use vocabulary that describes and compares length, height, weight, capacity, and size.

  • children describe or discuss differences and similarities in height or girth of various trees.

7.A.ECd: Begin to construct a sense of time through participation in daily activities.

  • children observe and discuss changes in the trees over the days and weeks of the project.
  • children select a series of drawings or photos that show the sequence of changes in the trees.
  • children keep to a schedule for completing their representations of what they have found.
  • children help to plan, prepare, and host a culminating activity.

8.A.ECa: Sort, order, compare, and describe objects according to characteristics or attribute(s).

  • children discuss or make drawings that show how their trees and their various parts are similar to/different from each other.
  • children sort tree parts they have collected (seeds, leaves, etc.) by common characteristics, such as when making Venn diagrams.
  • children use drawings to illustrate differences among trees or other objects they have observed.
  • children use words such as largest, darker, driest, or heavier when discussing findings.

10.A.ECa: With teacher assistance, come up with meaningful questions that can be answered through gathering information.

  • children say what they would like to find out about trees.
  • children talk about potential ways to find the information they need.

10.A.ECb: Gather data about themselves and their surroundings to answer meaningful questions

  • children closely study trees, noticing aspects such as textures, odors, sounds, and visible properties (size, shape, colors, etc.).
  • children use a variety of methods to collect information about the trees, including observation, counting, and measurement.
  • children collect and investigate artifacts and specimens related to trees.
  • children interview guest experts about trees.
  • children take surveys of peers and family members on topics related to trees.

10.B.ECa: Organize, represent, and analyze information using concrete objects, pictures, and graphs, with teacher support.

  • children use objects they have collected as examples when they report findings.
  • children collaborate to make graphs, charts, or Venn diagrams using information related to their trees.
  • children make accurate and detailed pictures or models of their trees and related objects.
  • children organize drawings, photos, and other documentation to tell the story of their investigation of changes in trees.

10.B.ECb: Make predictions about the outcome prior to collecting information, with teacher support and multiple experiences over time.

  • children speculate about possible outcomes of an exploration, experiment, or survey.
  • children discuss possible future changes in the trees they are studying.

11.A.ECa: Express wonder and curiosity about their world by asking questions, solving problems, and designing things.

  • children ask “what,” “how,” or “why” questions or state what they want to find out.
  • children find solutions to challenges, individually or with others.
  • children design experiments to answer specific questions related to trees.

11.A.ECb: Develop and use models to represent their ideas, observations, and explanations through approaches such as drawing, building, or modeling with clay.

  • children use a variety of media to create representations of what they have seen or learned during the project.
  • children create items related to trees for their dramatic play.

11.A.ECc: Plan and carry out simple investigations.

  • children plan explorations or experiments that address specific questions, such as “What is inside an acorn?” or “What happens when we put leaves into a pan of water?”

11.A.ECd: Collect, describe, compare, and record information from observations and investigations.

  • children take notes and make sketches during field work that they use to report findings to classmates.
  • children notice and discuss differences in their findings (e.g., “Your tree has leaves. Our tree has needles.”).
  • children help to create displays showing what they have found out about trees.

11.A.ECf: Make meaning from experience and information by describing, talking, and thinking about what happened during an investigation.

  • children revisit their initial questions and predictions about trees to discuss how their understandings have changed.
  • children discuss and think about what they especially want others, such as parents or another class, to know about the trees project.
  • children bring ideas and information about trees into their dramatic play.

11.A.ECg: Generate explanations and communicate ideas and/or conclusions about their investigations.

  • children decide on formats (murals, booklets, videos, open houses) to use for sharing what they have found out with others.
  • children summarize their knowledge and understandings about trees in ways that are accessible to others (e.g., a list, a display of models with explanatory notes).

12.A.ECa: Observe, investigate, describe, and categorize living things.

  • children learn what makes trees different from and similar to other familiar living things.
  • children investigate parts of trees (leaves, flowers, twigs, bark) that aid in identifying tree species.
  • children learn ways to identify tree species using field guides and similar resources.

12.A.ECb: Show an awareness of changes that occur in oneself and the environment.

  • children discuss the ways that nearby trees change over a period of several weeks.
  • children organize selected drawings and photographs chronologically to show the changes in the trees during the study.
  • children create their own representations (murals, models) of the changes in the tree.

12.B.ECa: Describe and compare basic needs of living things.

  • children find out and discuss what trees need to survive.
  • children help to plant and care for trees.
  • children find out about and discuss the roles trees may play in the lives of other living things, including humans.

12.C.ECa: Identify, describe, and compare the physical properties of objects.

  • children talk with each other about the structure of the trees they observe and the related objects they collect.
  • children comment about the differences among the particular trees they are studying.
  • children compare characteristics of tree parts or the tree-related tools and other artifacts that they have collected.
  • children organize photographs and drawings to show the order in which physical changes occurred in the trees they studied.

12.D.ECa: Describe the effects of forces in nature.

  • children observe and discuss ways that trees and parts of trees are affected by wind, rain, snow, etc.
  • children observe that some parts of the tree fall to earth, while others do not.

13.B.ECa: Use nonstandard and standard scientific tools for investigation.

  • children use magnifiers, binoculars, and other tools to examine trees.
  • children use nonstandard and standard measurement tools to collect data about trees (e.g., girth of trunk, length of branches).
  • children weigh seeds and other tree parts using balance scales, spring scales, etc.

13.B.ECb: Become familiar with technological tools that can aid in scientific inquiry.

  • children use digital cameras to record data about nearby trees.
  • with adult help or independently, children use the Internet to find information about trees.

Social Studies
15.A.ECa: Describe some common jobs and what is needed to perform those jobs.

  • children interview people in the community whose work involves trees, such as arborists, botanists, or orchard owners.
  • children examine the tools used by people who work with trees.
  • children report what they have learned from the people whose work involves trees.
  • children take roles of workers who are involved with trees during dramatic play.

Social Studies
16.A.ECa: Recall information about the immediate past.

  • children report to others about what they have learned during fieldwork.
  • children bring ideas from their field work into their dramatic play.

Social Studies
17.A.ECa: Locate objects and places in familiar environments.

  • children can find the particular trees they are studying.
  • children use terms such as beside, across, around, and at the top to describe the location of a tree or the placement of parts of the tree.

Social Studies
17.A.ECb: Express beginning geographic thinking.

  • children describe some aspects of where their trees are located, such as “the big tree on the playground” or “the trees beside the creek.”

Social Studies
18.A.ECa: Recognize similarities and differences in people.

  • children discuss and compare the ideas and opinions expressed when they take surveys of classmates and others.
  • children take a variety of roles in dramatic play related to trees.

Physical Development and Health
19.A.ECe: Use writing and drawing tools with some control.

  • children use pencils, markers, or crayons to make observational sketches and drawings.
  • children make signs, etc., for dramatic play related to trees.

The Arts
25.B.ECa: Describe or respond to their creative work or the creative work of others.

  • children discuss the creative processes involved in representing what they have learned, such as drawing, making models, and painting.
  • children talk about the ways that various artists depict trees in their work.

The Arts
26.B.ECa: Use creative arts as an avenue for self-expression.

  • children use a variety of visual materials to express their ideas, feelings, and new understandings about trees.
  • children use creative movement, drama, and music to express ideas, feelings, and understandings about trees.

Social/emotional Development
30.C.ECa: Exhibit eagerness and curiosity as a learner.

  • children participate willingly in a variety of activities related to the project.
  • children involve their families in some tree-related activities.

Social/emotional Development
30.C.ECb: Demonstrate persistence and creativity in seeking solutions to problems.

  • children persevere when faced with challenges when creating models and other representations.
  • as needed, children try multiple approaches to a task, such as explaining an idea, making a graph, or carrying out an experiment.

Social/emotional Development
31.B.ECa: Interact verbally and nonverbally with other children.

  • children ask classmates questions or respond to questions from classmates during group discussion.
  • in small groups, children plan ways to investigate trees.
  • children collaborate with peers to make models, create displays, write books, etc.
  • with peers, children play games or engage in dramatic play related to trees.