What can we learn from the trees?

This post was written by educator Megan Hoekstra.

As a teacher who specializes in outdoor learning, I often draw connections between learning and place. I believe there is significant value in letting nature be our educator. Whenever I would take my students outside, new questions, observations and connections would arise. This led me to be flexible in my lessons and let the students’ inquiries shape our learning. Trees have always been a subject of interest for me, so when I noticed my class sharing the same passion, I knew that I had to act on it. It was time to center ourselves around the significance of the trees and the stories they have to tell. My class and I journeyed outside most days with the sole purpose to learn and develop a deeper meaning of the natural world. Thus, we became tree detectives, seeking to answer an essential question: What can I learn from the trees?

A huge part of learning is through grounding yourself and connecting with your senses. We discovered the forest through different perspectives (through the lens of animals, birds, bugs and even the trees themselves) and began to think outside the box. How do trees breathe? Can you hear the trees talking? What kind of stories do they share? How do we identify trees? Do they feel and smell different? What do you notice? I find from an educator’s point of view, this urges students to learn through exploring, letting their natural curiosities guide them. These connections engrain passion and empowerment into their learning and fosters a positive relationship with the environment. Having such a relationship helps students extend their thinking, cultivating a mindset and attitude where they feel responsible for the well-being of not only the trees, but the natural world.

Within our role as tree detectives, we discovered a variety of things through activities. We started our exploration with the wonder, if trees could talk, what would you ask them? This unleashed the students’ curiosity as they were eager to find out what kind of stories they have to tell. We instantly went outside and discovered the forest through listening.  

My class took the initiative to connect with their environment with such passion it was incredible. They went beyond my expectations and showed me how comfortable they were with exploring their sense of hearing and using their imagination. This activity is important because it gives students the chance to think holistically, understanding that there is more than meets the eye…or should I say ear when it comes to trees. 

Investigating trees.

Another activity we ventured outside to do was finding a special tree on our school grounds to be our “wish tree.” Inspired by the class novel we were reading at the time Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, we pondered our own wishes and tied them to the tree. This was a great outlet for the students to form connections from the novel to the trees in their environment. Providing hands-on-experiences is some of the best ways to support engaged learning.

Finding “wish trees.”

The support literature provided for my class was exceptional and truly enhanced their understanding of our centering question, what can I learn from trees? On the documentation wall, there are pictures of most of the books we used to help expand our knowledge. Some favorites were Peter Wohlleben books, “Stand Like a Cedar” by Nicola I. Campbell and “If Instead of a Person” by Courtney Defriend.

The next lesson was inspired by educator Kelly Shuto. The students furthered their connections to the trees through exploring the meaning of their rings and what they communicate to us. Reflecting on the stories that live in trees, with each year of the tree’s life being shown through one tree ring, the students made their own tree rings. This activity had the students think about their life and something significant that happened throughout each year. This gave the students time to think about their identities and represent it as rings of a tree. 

Another way of connecting our story and identity with the trees around us, was our Special Helper sharing. The Special Helper of the day would bring in their special tree and share the kind of tree, where the tree is located and why it is important to them. We each got to know ourselves and each other better through the power of storytelling. 

Choosing special trees.

The next activity was one where we really had to sink into our roles as tree detectives. I gave my students three different types of trees (that I knew we could locate on school grounds) in the form of a card. They had to work together in groups to identify these trees, observe and draw them, notice similarities and differences, and locate each tree’s leaves, bark and roots (if possible). Magnifying glasses encouraged! To make the cards, I used the Pacific Northwest Plant Knowledge cards which you can find/buy through Strong Nations.

Pacific Northwest Plant Knowledge cards which you can find/buy through Strong Nations.

The observations were insightful, I often prompted my students with the guiding questions: what do you wonder? and what do you notice? Looking for clues to help us identify trees gave the students the opportunity to explore their natural curiosities and be able to apply the knowledge they learned to places beyond their school community.

A fun art lesson we did throughout the unit was bark rubbings. This allowed students to focus on one element of the tree in which they previously explored. During our ‘get outside’ challenge, we also did a “Feeling Rooted Walk” (“The Walking Curriculum” – Gillian Judson) highlighting the function of the roots to the tree. We also thought out the questions: what does it mean to feel rooted? and what can you find that has roots? Many of us agreed that we often feel rooted by nature, relationships and our memories and experiences.

During the ‘get outside’ challenge, we also went on a “Perspective Walk”. Choosing a tree to connect with and observing it from a different viewpoint. How does your tree look from a bird’s eye view or the eyes of a mouse? What about up close or far away? This walk was a way to truly channel the students’ imaginations and understanding of perspective. How can we explore and interpret our environment through the eyes of something else? 

Continuing “The Walking Curriculum,” we furthered our exploration of the elements of trees through the leaves. We pondered the role and function leaves have, as well as, repurposing them into art. We read “Leaf Man” by Lois Ehlert and thought about the question: what can you create with natural items in your environment? The class also took this time to observe the difference of the trees and their leaves between the seasons of Fall and Spring, as we did this activity earlier in the school year.

Fun with trees.

We decided to further our leaf exploration with a science experiment. Do trees breathe like humans do? What happens when the leaves are put in water? What predictions will you make? We collected leaves in groups and placed them in cups of water out in the sun. We then observed if there were bubbles forming on the leaves (this portion can take time). The bubbles indicate that the leaf is breathing because it is oxygen that would normally be sent out into the air. This is a simple but valuable way to show your students a visualization of photosynthesis. As well as, it helps them understand how plants are living things in our environment. This experiment gave students the opportunity to make deeper meaning towards the value trees in the environment, with the centering question, what would happen if trees did not help produce oxygen for living things? 

Thinking about stories and reflecting on our responsibility as stewards of our environment, I asked my class, how can we help our trees? The conversation I received from my students and the stories that they built with loose parts made my heart full. They made me feel like our Earth will be carried through the generations with dedication, empathy and helping hands.

I believe in the importance of outdoor learning because it creates opportunities for curiosities to grow. It also fosters an explorer mindset, helping us navigate our understanding through the natural world. A big question that my students often reflected on is what does the environment mean to us? The environment shapes who we are, so why not learn from it? My teaching perspective constantly encourages students to make connections within our environment. We would often hold student-led inquiry discussions throughout our learning to heighten our understanding. As well as, incorporating more opportunities for hands-on learning, this way the students can truly engage their senses. The impact through teaching this way compares to no other. A feeling of interconnectedness and a way of stewardship comes from learning through exploring our curiosities and allows us to bond with our environment/the natural world.

Megan Hoekstra just completed her Bachelor of Education at the University of British Columbia and is currently entering her first year as an educator on Vancouver Island. She specializes in Outdoor Learning and is excited to begin her journey as an educator. She looks forward to learning and growing with her students and fellow educators she encounters along the way.

Want to develop young tree detectives in your classroom like Megan? Begin your journey with a one hour virtual course for educators, Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset with Your Learners.

Lead photo provided by Megan, which is her class’ completed documentation wall, full of questions, reflections, stories, growth and inspiration.

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