Watching the seasons change can be an exciting time for students, especially if they live in a community with obvious seasonal changes! In regions with a variety of trees, teaching children about what they see around them as trees lose their leaves—or keep their needles—is a great way to broaden their understanding and appreciation of the environment around them.
Use these lessons to foster curiosity in students wondering how some trees stay green all winter long and as a basis to learn about trees throughout the year.
Learning About Conifers
Set students up with a good base of information about conifers and how they differ from evergreen trees.
As a quick primer, a conifer is a cone-bearing tree. The word describes how these kinds of trees reproduce. An evergreen describes a tree’s leaves, or in this case its needles.
Fun fact for kids: Needles count as leaves!
While most conifers are also evergreens, that’s not always the case. You’ll know an evergreen when you see one because they keep their leaves throughout the year.
Help students learn more about trees through identifying features with the Tree ID activity found in PLT’s Explore Your Environment: K-8 Activity Guide.
Types of Evergreen Trees
These lessons investigate the different types of evergreen trees students may encounter. Introduce the idea of evergreens as trees that maintain their look, shape, and leaves throughout the year. Point out differences in evergreens with activities that investigate the nuances found in their needles.
This easy sorting activity helps students understand and visualize the difference between evergreen and deciduous trees. Here’s a quick tip for teachers and students: Deciduous trees lose their leaves in the fall. Evergreen trees keep their leaves or needles year-round. This is a good sorting activity to include in pod- or center-based learning, especially within small groups of diverse learners.
Pine Tree Investigation
Younger students will love this lesson on the life cycle of a pine tree, starting with something most have encountered: the pinecone. The top activity is very hands-on as students learn about different textures on a pine tree, including those sharp needles! Remind children to be careful and gentle around tree needles and other harsh surfaces they may encounter in their exploration activities.
As they get more comfortable, broaden their understanding with lessons on the power of the pinecone as a safe harbor for seeds and where to find the seeds in a pinecone.
Nature-based learning always works best with hands-on activities. These sensory-based lessons give students the opportunity to touch, play, and even smell pine needles, pinecones, and other bits and pieces from evergreen trees. Foster discovery for curious learners with these sensory activities.
Trees & Art
Nature is the perfect muse and art is a great way to teach simple concepts in a fun, more creative way. The activities below are all about using what nature provides to create art that teaches concepts like texture, color, and patterns. These can also be used as student-made classroom decor as the seasons change.
Create simple impressions as a form of students’ artistic expression with play dough and items collected from their own natural environments. This is a great sensory activity for younger learners and an easy way to introduce patterns, textures, and the simple pleasures of finding art all around us.
Pine Cone Art
Pine cones look like a piece of modern art all on their own, but they’re also an accessible art tool for fun fall and winter projects. Create colorful landscapes by painting with different sizes and shapes of pine cones or use the pine cones as the base for vibrant weaving projects. Younger learners will love expressing themselves with these hands-on projects.
Fun With Pine Needles
Get out of the winter doldrums with these activities that use materials found on the forest floor. All of a sudden, pine needles become paintbrushes and pinecones turn into whimsical birds. Older students will love the detail involved with using pine needles to weave baskets that they can use to hold other things they’ve foraged in their surrounding communities.
Science & Math Activities
Science connections are easy to make when we talk about trees. Math concepts can be just as easy, especially if you use items found in nature as visuals to bring those concepts to life. Lead students through sorting activities, take a deep dive into the humble pinecone, and create beautiful snow-dipped evergreen branches that could double as an art activity.
Pinecone Sorting & Graphing
Pinecones come in enough shapes and sizes that they lend themselves well to sorting activities. This one includes a graphing element to show students a visual representation of the most common types of pinecones in their own community.
The pinecone is an accessible tool for a number of STEM activities. With a little effort, it can turn into a hygrometer — that’s a gauge for measuring humidity — and give students an idea of the amount of moisture in the air. These activities use a pinecone’s natural properties to give students insights into both weather and how a pinecone reacts to changes in weather.
Pine Branch Hardiness
This simple activity investigates how real pine branches behave in different environments and when exposed to different elements. The idea is to show off the resilience and hardiness of pine trees and show why they may be so suitable for harsh winters.
This winter-themed activity uses a simple “crystal growing” solution to mimic the effects of a snowfall on evergreen branches. Once you have your “frost,” students can take a look at the crystals up close through a magnifying glass and make observations about the man-made snow vs. what they know about naturally-occurring snowflakes.
It can be quite a bit of fun to introduce students to edible plants, especially if you’re looking for a culminating activity for a unit on conifers and evergreen trees.
Before you attempt any recipe-style activities, though, it’s very important to do your research on edible conifers. Some aren’t suitable for consumption, and some are even poisonous. Here are a few trees you should avoid if you’d like to start working with conifers in recipes both in and outside of the classroom:
- Yew (Taxus)
- Yew Plum Pine or Fern Pine (Podocarpus macrophyllus)
- Norfolk Pine or Norfolk Island Pine (Araucaria heterophylla)
- Cypress (Cupressus)
When in doubt, leave a tree be and tackle any one of the other immersive activities we’ve already shared to give students a primer on conifers and evergreens. Keep any pesticide use, especially in public parks, and any dietary restrictions in mind as you plan your activities. If you’re sure a tree is safe for consumption, grab only a few needles from one tree so it stays healthy. Remind your students of this if foraging is part of your lesson plan.
If you’ve taken the necessary precautions, here are a few fun recipes to introduce children to edible plants.
Conifer Needle Tea
Using foraged conifer needles as the base for an herbal tea is not a new concept. Pine leaf teas have been used in Korea in a medical way for generations. The idea here is to use pine, fir, or spruce needles to create a subtle warm-up drink that’s perfect on a chilly day. This is a good connection activity if you’re already teaching students about the history of tea as an important cultural marker.
Cookies & Holiday Sweet Treats
Turn conifer needles that may not look so appetizing into delicious treats with these sweet and savory recipes. Two of these are perfect for the winter holidays as you and your students can have some fun creating designs out of the needles.
Spruce Tip Recipes
The versatile spruce tree is perfect for pickling, pesto, and hot preparations like tea. These recipes keep things healthy and simple, but if you’d like to make things even easier, introduce students to spruce tips. Many can be eaten right off a tree! Just make sure you’re 100 percent positive about tree identification before snacking.
Spruce tips are foraged in the spring, making learning about evergreen trees a great year-round activity!
Finding Natural Ingredients
Part of the fun of some of these recipes is foraging for these natural ingredients. Blow your students’ minds with a lesson on wild chewing gum. You likely won’t find anything close to the pink bubblegum flavors they may be used to, but just imagine introducing your students to natural gum made from tree resin.
Pine pollen is another edible but potentially messy ingredient used in baked goods. Timing is everything when it comes to pine pollen, and this is a late spring activity.
Any of these activities can be adapted based on the natural elements found in and around your school environment. The point is getting students excited about the changing seasons and fostering a sense of wonder about different types of trees.