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Tree Identification With Grade School Students in North Toronto: A Forestry in the Classroom Adventure

Posted: January 2, 2020

Students from Ancaster Public School in Toronto pose with Peter Kuitenbrouwer of Forests Ontario (at far right) in front of a Norway Maple tree in Ancaster Park across from their school, November, 2019.

By Peter Kuitenbrouwer

A surprise early November snowfall overnight swaddled North York in white. This caused some concern for Elisa Bisgould-Menendian, the grade 4-5 teacher. Did all her students have boots? Could she responsibly take them out for the tree identification workshop in the park across from Ancaster Public School?

Luckily, all but one student came in winter boots. Many donned colourful snowpants. The teacher made the judgement call: let’s go look at some trees. The boy in running shoes can just stick to the path. And so a procession of excited children exited the school’s front door and walked across the street to put their prints in the blanket of fresh snow in Ancaster Park. I followed them, joined by Natalie Heyblom, a Master of Forest Conservation candidate at the University of Toronto who came as a volunteer for Forests Ontario.

Each student clutched an empty paper towel roll: these were their spy glasses, designed to help students look more carefully at just one part of a tree.

As any budding forester will tell you, winter tree identification, once all the leaves have fallen, is a challenge. Luckily for us, leaves clung to the trees still. We stopped at a tree, and invited the students to each pluck a leaf. I asked, “Does anyone know what tree this is?”

The teacher knew.

“The leaf looks a bit like a flower that comes up in spring,” she said. “It blooms from a bulb you plant in the earth. The flower looks like a cup. The word for this tree sound the same as those two red things on your face. That surround your mouth.” She hopped about, pointing to her face, waving her arms, trying to get students to guess.

“It’s a tulip tree,” I said finally. Each student looked closely at their leaf. The tulip tree leaves, ready to fall off, had turned shades of yellow and orange, with brown spots. One child asked about the spots. Another asked about the veins. How often, in this busy world full of video games and smart phones, do children stop to just stare carefully at little objects in the natural world? Certainly we learned that morning that when you invite children to do so, they become very quiet and still and fascinated, and really enjoy the opportunity.

Students from Ancaster Public School draw sketches of tree leaves in their scrapbooks, November, 2019. Peter Kuitenbrouwer photo

We looked at the next tree, a Basswood. Then Michael, an excit able young fellow, asked me in a loud voice, “What are you going to do about pollution?” I suggested that he repeat the question to the group. We discussed the benefits of trees: trees drink in the carbon dioxide that we exhale, and thrive on the exhaust that our cars spew from their tailpipes. Trees turn that carbon into fibre, and emit oxygen. We need trees to survive.

We handed each student a little pocket Tree Bee tree identification guide. We stopped at a pine. I showed them a page in their booklet, labelled White Pine. “Needles are arranged in bundles of five,” it reads. “Think of the number of letters in the word ‘WHITE.’ Fun fact: Ontario’s provincial tree.”

We passed another tree. The teacher thought it was a maple. I gently corrected her: the leaves resemble maple leaves, but the camouflage pattern of mottled greys and greens and browns on the trunk identified it as a London Plane tree.

Then we walked back into the school and each child got out a big scrap book. Using the leaves from the Tulip Tree, the Basswood and the White Pine, they made sketches. They carefully labeled their drawings, identifying trees as “coniferous” or “deciduous.” And then, too soon, the bell rang and it was time to go.

Thank you very much, students and teachers of Ancaster Public School. It was a true pleasure to take some time with you, to admire the beauty of your neighbourhood trees.