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Teaching Children About Trees

by Contributor May 31, 2016


Many parents seek to educate their children about the natural world and our place in it. While one could argue that virtually any aspect of the natural world – from beetles to mushrooms to plankton – can serve as a good starting point, we are tree people, so you can probably guess what we recommend you start with. 

Teaching your children to understand and identify some of the most common trees in your area is a great way to immerse your child in the natural world. Instead of viewing trees as an undifferentiated mass, they can start seeing them as discrete entities. Soon enough, your youngster will be narrating your walks through the park: This tree is a redwood (Sequoia spp.), that one is a birch (Betula spp.), and so on.

Unfortunately, few adults know where to start. How do you go about teaching children to distinguish willows (Salix spp.) from willow oaks (Quercus phellos)? Which trees do you teach them first? How many trees do you teach them at a time? 

The answers to all of these questions depend on the age of your child, your familiarity with trees and your ultimate goals. Start simply, do not overwhelm them (or yourself) and slowly build their tree knowledge day by day, week by week. 

Take if from us, learning about trees is a lifelong endeavor. 

Basic Identification Tips

Begin by teaching your children to identify one or two easy species. Then quiz them over the next several days to ensure the knowledge has taken hold. You may pull into a parking lot and ask the kids to point to a birch tree, or take a nature hike looking for redwoods. Once they can identify the first species or two with regularity, teach them a few more trees. 

Tree identification is not an easy subject to master, even for the experts. Even those living in areas with relatively few native trees continually see scads of exotic ornamentals planted in yards and shopping centers. Accordingly, it is wise to begin slowly with a few easily identifiable species. 

Crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia spp.) are easy to identify by their muscular-looking trunks and branches, while pine trees (Pinus spp.) are the only trees with bundled needles. 

The patchy white-and-gray bark of sycamores (Platanus spp.) make them easy to spot, while the spike-covered fruit of sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) makes them exceedingly easy to recognize. 

Consider trees with obvious bark or trunks, such as the smooth bark of beech trees (Fagus grandifolia) or the exfoliating bark of river birches (Betula niger), as well. 

You can also teach them about iconic trees that appear in the culture, such as sugar maples (Acer saccharum), whose leaves adorn the Canadian flag, or coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), which are standard fare in movies, television shows and comic strips. 

Use the Season to Your Advantage

It can be advantageous to start your tree identification lessons during the spring, when many trees exhibit beautiful and distinctive flowers. The purple spring flowers adorning redbuds (Cercis spp.), for instance, are often quite obvious. The fall can also be a good time to begin, as trees often display leaves of a characteristic color. Hickories (Carya spp.) produce bright gold leaves, while flowering dogwoods (Cornus floridana) often turn magenta. 

Winter tree identification, at least for deciduous species, is considerably more difficult, as the leaves are not available for examination. While you should not hesitate to point out distinctive winter species as you encounter them, avoid stifling your youngster’s progress with extensive winter work, until he or she is ready to embrace the challenge. 

Advanced Techniques

It is important to keep challenging your kids as they accumulate more and more knowledge. 

If your children are in middle or high school, they are probably old enough to begin using a field guide or a dichotomous key. Field guides are dry reading for youngsters, but the many photos and charts help make tree identification relatively easy. While most adults reading this probably think of field guides as small books, youngsters may be more comfortable using an electronic field guide or application on their phone. 

Dichotomous keys are similar to flowcharts. They work by presenting you with a series of questions; by making your way through the process, the guide can determine which tree species you are looking at. Dichotomous keys are very useful, provided that one understands the language used in the key. For example, one must understand terms like opposite, alternate and whorled, when considering a tree’s leaf arrangement. 

Alternatively, you could begin examining some of the subtle characteristics that are useful for tree identification, such as the fruit or twigs. 

Continuing Education

Be sure that you continue to learn more about trees as you go – you would be amazed how much more quickly your child will pick things up than you will. If you are not careful, they will begin teaching you before long (not that there is anything wrong with that!) 

So, keep exploring the world of trees. Learn everything you can, and, most importantly, keep reading the Arborist Now blog. If you live in San Francisco or the Bay Area, consider having one of our ISA-certified arborists walk your property with you and develop a comprehensive tree inventory, so that you know exactly what species surround your home (we’ll also help you manage your trees to keep them healthy).

We offer a full line of tree-care services for the entire Bay Area. Whether you need emergency tree removal in San Francisco or tree service for your commercial property in Millbrae, Arborist Now is here to help.  Call (415-310-7781) today! 


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