K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Related pages

  • YMCA Camp Cheerio: Outdoor Adventure Educational experiences are available for students in elementary, middle, and high school at this camp located near the town of Sparta in the North Carolina mountains.
  • YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly: Learn about the wildlife of the mountains and practice using a compass at this conference center located outside of Asheville, NC.
  • Rendezvous Mountain Educational State Forest: North Carolina's system of Educational State Forests has been developed to "teach children and adults about the complex, interdependent ecosystems which make up a forest and which can be managed for a multitude of uses."

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Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • Learn the importance of trees in our environment.
  • Learn the important components of the outer parts of a tree.
  • Learn the difference between pine and deciduous forests.
  • Learn how to identify a variety of trees using leaves and bark as a guide.
  • Develop their narrative writing skills through creative thinking.
  • Develop their measurement skills.

Teacher planning

Time required for lesson

3 months


  • Access to a forest or heavily wooded area that students can easily navigate
  • Activity 1:
    • tape measures
    • meter sticks/yard sticks
    • yarn
    • note cards
  • Activity 3:
    • data recording sheets: attached
  • Activity 4:
    • tree identification books of any kind

Technology resources

  • computer with internet access


This unit of study covers nearly three months and needs introduction at many different intervals of learning. There are a variety of extension activities that you may do that are not listed here. These are a few basic ideas to get you started!

When introducing the initial study of trees to the students you can begin with a discussion about what the students know and understand about them. Brainstorm a list on the board of why trees are important in our lives and some practical purposes they serve, such as providing us thousands of products, providing homes for animals and plants, shade, oxygen, etc. The examples are numerous! It might help to ask questions such as, “Why would we study trees?” and “Why are trees significant in the lives of 4th graders?”

Once you have done this, explain to the children that they will be embarking on a learning experience that helps them learn about and appreciate trees. They will learn how to identify them through measurement, leaf and bark identification, and location. They will also learn the importance of protecting and planting trees and their environment.


Activity 1:

2 hours

  1. Explain to the students the major outer components of trees (canopy, trunk, leaves, branches, bark) and how to recognize them. Tell them that they will be working with a partner to choose a tree from the forest to name and call their own. They will take observations of this tree. Sketch it, and measure its approximate height and canopy width.
  2. Develop a sheet with the students before they leave to determine what types of things they should observe about their tree (i.e. shape, size, bark texture and color, leaf shape and color, nuts, fruits, berries or flowers, roots evident, etc.). Folding a plain sheet of paper into sixteen squares and labeling each will help them organize their data, even if they do not collect sixteen observations.
  3. Then explain to them how to take an approximate measurement of a tree’s height. They should hold a ruler in front of their face and close one eye. They stand in front of the tree and continually walk backwards until their ruler looks the same size as the tree. At that point they take the meter stick and measure the distance on the ground from the point where they stand to the base of the tree. This is the approximate height of the tree.
  4. Then explain to them how to approximate the canopy width. One partner should stand directly underneath the end of one side of the canopy. The other partner stands at the other end. Then one partner takes the meter stick and measures the distance on the ground from the point where they stand to their partner’s place. This is the approximate canopy width.
  5. Make sure each group has a ruler, meter stick, piece of yarn and note card to tie on the tree with its name, observation sheet and pencil. Remind them at this point of everything that they should be doing: taking observations, making a sketch, naming it, measuring its height and canopy width.
  6. Now take them outside and give them thirty minutes to complete their activity. It may take longer, however, this can be a starting point. This requires you to trust your students and send them out alone in the forest. Try to create boundaries so that they are within a close enough distance that you can get to them quickly.
  7. Once they have finished and you have returned inside, allow them to analyze their data by sharing with the class. Were any of the trees alike? What similarities and differences did they notice between their trees? This will easily lead into activity number three in which they will learn about the differences between pines and deciduous trees and how to identify them using bark and leaves.

Activity 2:

1–2 hours

  1. Begin this lesson by having them review the observations they took and the sketch they drew in the previous lesson.
  2. Tell them that they will be writing a short story that introduces their tree to the reader. Since their tree has a name it should also have a personality that goes along with its looks!
  3. As a class, brainstorm a list of adjectives that will help them be detailed in their story.
  4. Give them fifteen to twenty minutes to write the story.
  5. When they finish have them edit for errors and then copy to a clean sheet. You can display their clean copies and sketches on a bulletin board.
  6. As an extension you may send them on a scavenger hunt to look for another pair’s selected tree in the forest by using their observations or essay as a guide.
  7. Another extension would be to have them share their stories with the class and have peers give comments or suggestions to help them with their narrative writing.

Activity 3:

11/2–2 days

  1. Begin with a review of the discussion you had in lesson one about why their tree observations were similar and different. Suggest to them that there are two main groups of trees that every species fits into, deciduous and evergreen (including pines, which are the focus of this lesson). Explain the differences between evergreen and deciduous trees and then ask them to determine which family their tree fits into.
  2. Then tell them that they will be learning more about specific pine and deciduous forest characteristics today on the computer.
  3. Take them to the area where the computers are located and have them log on to the first site listed below. They will have to complete the pine trees activity first and then move onto the deciduous forest activity.
  4. They will need instruction as to what to do at each site. This activity works like a webquest in that they have to gather particular information from various sites and then record it on their teacher prepared data sheets.
  5. Once they have finished discuss with them as a class what they have learned from the webquest. Make a list as a class of the important information and then develop a quiz together to ensure they learn the information. Tell them that they will need to know this information for later tree identification.

Activity 4:

  1. Begin by explaining to the students that they will be learning how to specifically identify a tree by using its bark and leaves. You will need to have several tree identification guides available for them to use.
  2. Tell them to take out their observations from activity 1. By looking at the observations they have recorded about bark texture and look and leaf shape and color they can determine the species of their tree.
  3. Give them about fifteen minutes with their partner to flip through the book and decide what species their tree is. You may need to take them to the forest again and allow them to match their actual tree to the pictures in the book. Some of the information they learned in the computer lab with the webquest will help them to determine this.
  4. Once they have determined their species have them share it with the class. Be sure to ask them why they think it is that particular species and what clues they used to determine it.
  5. As an extension to this activity you may go into the forest ahead of time and identify as many different species of trees as you can. Then give the students a list of those trees and see if they can work with a partner to identify them. You can do it as a scavenger hunt and give them points for each species they find. The winner will be the group who earns the most points. (If you think they will not be honest tell them that you will ask them specific traits of the different species when they return. They must know the answers to receive the points!)
  6. Another extension that is possible would be to involve another class or grade level and allow your students to be the teachers. The first activity would be the most beneficial for them to do. You could have your students identify the tree they choose for them just so they would know.
  7. Another extension would be to plant trees with your class around your school or somewhere in the community. (There are many associations that will donate trees to schools if you simply ask. One is the Arbor Society.) Then discuss with them what these trees will do for that environment. They can also take care of them and watch and observe as they grow.


Activity 1:

  • Formal assessment can be completed by collecting their data sheets and grading.
  • Informal assessment must be completed as they are working on the activity in the woods. Watch them to determine how well they are working and cooperating with each other.

Activity 2:

  • Formal assessment can be done by the teacher grading the stories.
  • Student peer assessment may also be completed if you use the extension activity when the students read their stories out loud to the class. The students’ feedback can be given orally or written.

Activity 3:

  • Formal assessment can be done by printing the students’ data sheets and grading them.
  • Formal assessment will also be done when the students take the quiz they have developed with you.

Activity 4:

  • Teacher informal assessment can be completed as the students are trying to identify their trees. Walk around to ensure that they are on task and are working together. Teacher questioning can also be used.

Supplemental information



These lessons are only an introduction to a much larger study of trees that we completed with our students. Some of the background information can be found in various books from your library or in the encyclopedia. I did not use any one particular source as I had many. We also were lucky to have the availability of the Iredell County Outdoor Education Center where we were able to complete many of the activities. We visit once each month and do a number of environmental activities, including the ones listed above. We also have a large forest directly behind our school that was helpful with these lessons.

  • Common Core State Standards
    • English Language Arts (2010)
      • Speaking & Listening

        • Grade 4
          • 4.SL.1 Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 4 topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. 4.SL.1.1 Come to discussions prepared,...

    • Mathematics (2010)
      • Grade 4

        • Measurement & Data
          • 4.MD.2Use the four operations to solve word problems involving distances, intervals of time, liquid volumes, masses of objects, and money, including problems involving simple fractions or decimals, and problems that require expressing measurements given in...

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Science (2010)
      • Grade 3

        • 3.L.2 Understand how plants survive in their environments. 3.L.2.1 Remember the function of the following structures as it relates to the survival of plants in their environments: Roots – absorb nutrients Stems – provide support Leaves – synthesize food...
      • Grade 4

        • 4.L.1 Understand the effects of environmental changes, adaptations and behaviors that enable animals (including humans) to survive in changing habitats. 4.L.1.1 Give examples of changes in an organism’s environment that are beneficial to it and some that...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

English Language Arts (2004)

Grade 4

  • Goal 4: The learner will apply strategies and skills to create oral, written, and visual texts.
    • Objective 4.07: Compose fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama using self-selected and assigned topics and forms (e.g., personal and imaginative narratives, research reports, diaries, journals, logs, rules, instructions).
    • Objective 4.08: Focus revision on a specific element such as:
      • word choice.
      • sequence of events and ideas.
      • transitional words.
      • sentence patterns.

Science (2005)

Grade 4

  • Goal 1: The learner will make observations and conduct investigations to build an understanding of animal behavior and adaptation.
    • Objective 1.01: Observe and describe how all living and nonliving things affect the life of a particular animal including:
      • Other animals.
      • Plants.
      • Weather.
      • Climate.