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Learn to Identify Trees in Fall and Winter With Your Child

Updated on March 9, 2016
Photo by Frédéric DUPONT
Photo by Frédéric DUPONT

Why Learn About Trees?

For those of us who live in a variable climate, the coming of fall can be exciting and fun for young children. Many will be starting or going back to school, the days are still nice for outdoor activities, and Halloween is just around the corner. Fall is also a wonderful season to explore nature with your child.

Today, few children seem to be well educated when it comes to their natural world. When I was a child, my mother found fun and ingenious ways to teach us children about nature. To this day I can name almost any flower, bird, or tree in New England. I can identify the constellations I see in the sky, nearly every shell I find on the beach, and even many insects that can be found in the area where I live. I find it alarming and sad that so few children are even very much aware, never mind educated about the plants and wildlife around them. For me, it is a ready fund of general information that has served me well, and I believe, an essential component in the knowledge base of the well educated person.

Fall is the perfect time to teach your child (and maybe yourself too!) about local species of trees. Because the leaves become so easily collected at this time, and are found in a beautiful array of bright colors, it may be the best time to spark your child's interest in this topic. Here is how my mother introduced me and my brothers to the beauty of the trees around us!

Finding a Good Field Guide to Trees

First, familiarize yourself with a few online tree identification guides on the web (links below). Bookmark them for easy access so you can quickly and easily find them when you and your child come across a new species of tree. You should also purchase a good field guide to the trees of your area, and keep it in the glove compartment of the car. This way, you will have it handy when you are out and about with your child, and any average trip out to do errands can become an educational experience! Look for a guide that identifies the tree both by its leaf shape and characteristics, and the general shape of the tree itself. Whether you have noticed or not, each tree species grows in a unique pattern, which is usually easily identifiable by comparing the tree you're looking at with a black and white silhouette of its shape in the trees field guide or website. (The field guides usually display both summer and winter representations of each tree.)

Clues to Identify Trees in Winter

There are other ways besides the general shape of the tree to identify a tree species during the winter. One thing to pay attention to is the bark. If you learn the different types of bark, you can usually at least place the tree in a family of trees, if not pinpoint the exact species.

As you will see in the video below, the way the tree branches off a main branch can also be a clue. Learn which families of trees have opposite branching twigs and which have alternating, etc. Once you get good at it, the bark and branches will probably be enough for you to identify a species of tree.

Taking a walk in a wooded area with a child in winter to identify trees is an excellent idea. It not only educates the child about trees, but fosters an appreciation of nature in general that will last a lifetime. Besides that, it's great exercise and they'll get sleepy earlier in the evening! Use your tree guides and watch the video below to get an idea of what you will be looking for.

Tips for Identifying Trees in Winter

Photo by Micha L. Rieser
Photo by Micha L. Rieser

A Fall Leaves Project

Next, take a stroll around your own yard and neighborhood, and collect the prettiest fall leaves you can find. Encourage your child to look for leaves in different shapes, and collect samples of as many different types as you can. Bring a camera along, and snap photos of the trees that the fallen leaves came from. Bring your leaves home, and go through them with your child, selecting two or three of the best examples of each type of leaf that you have found (for the young child, this is also an excellent exercise in sorting, differentiating and grouping, which are vital skills for the child to master). Set aside one leaf from each type for identification later.

Then, find a large hardcover book, such as a coffee table book or an atlas, and several more of the heaviest books you can gather from around your house. Now you want to cut sheets of waxed paper, about the size of the large book you'll be using. Place two or three samples of each type of leaf that you have sorted between 2 sheets of the waxed paper, and place these between the pages of the over-sized book. Once you have saved samples of each type of leaf between the book's pages, close the book and find a place where it can sit and not be disturbed. Pile four or five more heavy books on top of your leaf-pressing book, and leave it for at least 24 hours. The idea is to press the leaves so that they are flattened enough for the next step. This process is a good way to teach patience and delayed gratification to your child, more developmental skills that are important for her to master.

Photo by Symphony999
Photo by Symphony999

While your leaves are pressing, find some time to sit down with your child at the computer or with your trees field guide, and compare the leaves that you have set aside and the photos you took of the trees with those in the guide to identify the names of the different tree species that you have found. Place a sticky note with the name of the tree on each type of leaf, so you have this for reference.

Finally, you are going to preserve your pressed leaves. You will need a bath towel or a padded ironing board, a thin dish towel, and an iron to press and preserve your leaves. Have a three ring binder ready to put your leaves in. A three ring hole punch helps too. Take the leaves carefully out of the over-sized book, and check to see that they are fairly flattened and not curled or too bumpy. (If need be, you can put them back and give them another day or two in the press.)

** Attention!! An iron is very hot and can badly burn a child if you're not careful! Be sure your child knows not to touch the iron, and don't let him do the ironing unless he's older and able to do so safely! The younger child should simply observe this step in the process as you do it.

Arrange the leaves as you want them on the waxed paper. You may want to do just one good example of each species, or arrange two or three samples of the species in different sizes and colors together. Place the leaves between your two sheets of waxed paper (be sure the leaves are not touching, and there is space on the margins around the leaves) on the bath towel placed on a hard surface, or on your ironing board. Lay the thinner dish towel over it, and run a hot iron slowly back and forth over the dish towel, pausing for 2 or 3 seconds on each section. This melts the waxed surface of the paper and seals the leaves between the sheets. Some find it easier and more effective if your dish towel is slightly damp. You can sprinkle it with tap water to dampen, but it should not be wet. Stop and check underneath the dish towel to see if the leaves are sealed in the wax paper before setting it aside and ironing the next leaf or set of leaves.

When you are done, you'll want to trim the waxed paper around your sealed leaves with scissors to the size of your three ring binder, then use your three hole punch to prepare them to go into the binder. Before you put them in, have the child make tags out of cardstock or construction paper with the name of the tree, and attach to each pressed leaf sheet with a glue stick or scotch tape.

* tip = Your leaf pages will last longer if you adhere the waxed paper pages onto a sheet of card stock or construction paper to add a layer of stability, but then you can't see the back side of the leaves - so if your child can be gentle with the pages, you don't have to do this step.

Now your child has a book of beautiful fall leaves to show off, and she has learned to identify and name the trees around your home and neighborhood. Don't leave your study of trees just for autumn, however. Be sure to notice with your child how the different trees around you appear, once all the leaves have gone, and pay attention to when in spring the leaves first appear. In summer, it is the best time to continue your tree identification by shape, as they will be in full leaf and easy to match up with the diagrams in your field guide.

This fun and easy fall leaves project is one good way to educate your child about nature around him, and one day he is sure to impress someone with his ability to name the trees in your area at a glance. How many people do you know who can do that?

eNature Guide to Trees

Audubon Field Guides
(you have to register for this one, but it's free)

* there are also some nature field guides available as apps!


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