Our Tree and Forest Study

I want to share the outline and booklist I have created for our family study of trees and the forest.  My plans are very rough, and will likely evolve, expand (or contract!), and become more organized as we go (and I will most likely edit this post as that happens.)  I decided it best to go ahead and share what I have with you now, or else it may never happen!  At the very least my outline will give you some ideas, I hope.  Things to keep in mind:  there are so many ways you could go with a study of trees, and varying degrees of depth in each of those areas.  The varied topics we will talk about cover many areas of study including (but not limited to) botany, forest ecology, dendrology (taxonomy of trees), and tree physiology.  I am not an expert or a professional.  I am a mom who loves trees and spent a year in forestry school about a decade ago (I had lots of majors before I finally settled on one and graduated.)  I will be relearning much of this as we go.  I have tried to keep in mind the seasons as I have planned this, so the lessons correspond with a typical fall until summer school year.  I think these lessons are best given outdoors surrounded by living trees.  We are incorporating these lessons with our trips to visit the remarkable trees of Virginia.
I am including my four older children in this study, and they are ages four to almost ten.  If the material is presented through books and stories, and in conversation while outdoors studying trees, even young children are going to retain some of this information.  We are having a lot of fun with this.
I am using two books as our main texts, and supplementing with many others.
My favorite book for our study is Trees and their world.  Unfortunately this chapter book is rather old and now out of print, but inexpensive used copies are available.  I found mine at a thrift store.
From the inside front page,
“Here are some of the highlights of the story of trees.  They are the largest plants in the world and this book shows how the seeds start, what the leaves do, the various kinds of trees known to boys and girls in North America, how they live in many climates, and the many purposes they serve-from pleasant shade to the paper on which this book was printed.”
 The Tree Book for Kids and Their Grown Ups
This book is incredible and could easily be used as the backbone of a study of trees.  The illustrations are beautiful and the text is thorough while remaining at a level easily understood by a child.
I will refer to both of these books throughout my outline.
Tree and Forest Study Outline:
If using Trees and their World, read Chapter 1, Trees and their families, for an introduction to classification.  Read The Tree Book, “Getting to Know Trees.”
This would be a good time to introduce the way life is ranked and classified:  kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species
-Tree identification:  A good place to practice your identification skills is a botanical garden, park, or other place at which trees are labeled with both their common and scientific names.
bud types
leaf types/shapes:  ex.  simple vs. compound, also characteristics of leaf edges and shape of
leaf, read “Better Beleaf it” in The Tree Book
consider starting a pressed leaf collection
branching patterns-do the tree’s limbs branch in an opposite or alternating pattern, or are they
whorled ?
talk about bark appearance as it relates to tree identification,
read “Don’t forget the Bark!” in The Tree Book
read “Trees Differ, or Vary” in Trees and their World
Once all these different aspects of tree identification are covered, we will continue to revisit them as we identify trees throughout the year.  The dendrology portion of this study will be ongoing and discussing the different characteristics of trees that are used to identify them is an important first topic to cover.
Now we will move into some tree physiology-I am planning for this to occur as the leaves change this Fall.
Read “How Leaves Change Color,” in The Tree Book
some topics touched on:
Leaves:  what makes them green?  What causes color change in fall?
Discuss photosynthesis and read “Why we need trees” in The Tree Book.
Also read “Leaves and What They Do” in Trees and their World
Fall is also a good time to discuss the fruit of trees.
Read “Food from Trees” in Trees and their World
Go apple picking
discuss the difference between evergreen and deciduous trees during the fall.
Since most conifers are evergreens, cones can be discussed at this point.  This could also be saved for further into winter.
Read “What goes on inside a cone” in The Tree Book
As Fall progresses into winter we will move into some forest ecology.
topics to discuss include:
-what is an ecosystem?
-what is an old growth forest?  What are the characteristics of old growth?
-how do forests develop-discussion of pioneer species to mature growth
what species of trees are pioneers? what species are the inhabitants of a mature forest?
if possible visit a mature forest in your area.  In our area Caledon is a great example of a mature forest populated by American Beech trees.
In Trees and Their World, read:
“Where Trees Live”
“Trees in Forests”
Discuss the layers of the forest, read:
“Trees in Forests” in Trees and their World
As the leaves drop from the deciduous trees, discuss winter tree identification and the characteristics that must be relied on to identify them.  This might also be a good time to focus on identifying various evergreen trees, maybe choosing a couple of common evergreen ornamentals, or a few of the most common pines in your area-cedars as well.
Read “Trees in the Winter” in Trees and their World.
and “Winter Clues” in The Tree Book
In March we plan to attend a maple syrup festival in the western part of Virginia and at this time we will discuss the layers of bark, cambium, sapwood, and heartwood.
read “Sap and what it becomes” in Trees and their world
“How does a tree eat and drink?” in The Tree Book
Also, talk about the way to determine the age of a tree, and if you want you could discuss the ways in which tree rings can be helpful historically (more on that in Remarkable Trees of Virginia)
if possible, cut down a small tree and count it’s rings
discuss the way you can tell drought years from rainy years
Read “The inside story” in The Tree Book
As winter moves into spring, we will begin to discuss the soil and how trees utilize the soil for nutrition
Discuss mycorrhiza and the relationship between fungi and trees
Discuss roots and what they do (this will tie in to the discussion of sap from March)
Read “roots, cells, and growth” in Trees and their world.
As trees begin to flower, read “Which comes first: flowers or fruit?” in The Tree Book
and discuss the parts of the flower, using real flowers as example.
Read “From pollen and eggs to fruit,”  “Seeds and their travels,” and “How trees start to grow” in in Trees and their World
That is the end of my notes.  Now for a booklist.  I will also create one for my sidebar.  These are books that can be used in a tree and forest study book basket, and also to supplement some of the above topics of study.  I will also include the field guides that we own.
(a favorite, although out of print.  used copies available)
(neat ideas for making pictures using dried leaves)
(one of many many books about apples!)
Field guides and tree identification:  Obviously there are many of these.  I am only including titles that we own.  It is helpful to purchase a guide specific to your region or state.
( We don’t own this book, but I am including it because it might be helpful)
We purchased this book at a gift shop in Shendandoah National Park, and I really like it.
And again, the three books that are forming the backbone of our tree study are:
Visiting the trees featured in this book is the field trip portion of our tree study.  There is also lots to be learned in this book’s pages.
I hope that these notes are helpful to some of you!


  1. I love this idea! I have always loved trees, though I have a ways to go on identifying trees. It is simplistic in content, but I recently found a book “Sky Tree” by Thomas Locker that artistically and scientifically discusses seasons. Each page has a question for the child. I cannot wait to use it. (I talk about it more in this post http://www.theengagedhome.com/childrenslibrary/) I will be checking out some more of your suggested books as well.

  2. Has no one really commented on this yet?

    I love the tree study idea. But am wondering how you know which trees to go visit on your remarkable trees adventures…

    • Hi Bobby Jo! This post is one that was moved over from my old blog–the post came, but the comments were left behind!
      As far as visiting trees, we just visit the trees that are close to us, or in parts of the state that we are traveling to. There’s no real rhyme or reason!

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