The Tree Project: A Center Room Collaboration
By Nancy Howe, Head Teacher
Center Room has its mulberry trees and a shady redwood grove. East and West have arbors of wisteria. And every fall, outside the Two’s classroom, the spreading zelkova seems to burst into flame.
Trees are everywhere at Bing, a living legacy left nearly 40 years ago by Edith Dowley, the school’s founding director. Dowley understood the importance of bringing children into contact with the natural world. She thoughtfully designed the expansive play yards to include rolling hills, spacious sand pools and a mix of evergreens and deciduous trees. Determined to plant “one tree for each child,” she chose specimens that would brighten or blossom at different times of year so that children could witness the subtle changes of California seasons.
Last autumn, to honor our trees, the children, parents and teachers of Center AM and PM collaborated on an investigation of trees called The Tree Project. Weaving the study of trees into all areas of the fall-quarter curriculum, teachers followed the children’s interests, offering support and inspiration along the way.
Autumn naturally brings with it a dramatic awareness of trees. The children noticed the first leaves falling from the mulberry trees standing sentry along the patio in Center Room. They collected the yellow mulberry leaves, as well as pinecones from the redwoods and seedpods from the liquid-amber trees. In the redwood grove, they raked pine needles into piles and climbed ladders to look carefully under bark for bugs.
As their interest grew, children proposed theories about trees. Teachers recorded their theories (“Roots help so trees won’t fall down,” “Trees don’t sleep because they don’t have eyes”) and brought in books to answer questions and expand their knowledge. Jana Dilley of Canopy Trees for Palo Alto and Stanford grounds supervisor Steve Kaupas came to share their knowledge of trees. Children, too, began to share what they learned—identifying, for instance, the trees in their yards at home.
Teachers developed tree-related activities in every area of the curriculum from math to music. Mathematical awareness was enhanced, for instance, with the counting and mapping of trees. Children also played games matching leaves with trees and sorted leaves, pine cones and twigs by shape and size. They weighed pinecones, measured tree circumferences and guessed at tree height. They visited other classrooms to observe different trees and to identify and collect leaves.
Incorporating trees into dramatic play in the sand area, children baked fallen ornamental apples into their sand cakes and created pretend apple trees by planting gathered sticks. They built a life-size tree with the help of Bing resident carpenter Wilhelm Grotheer, stuffing its frame with dried leaves and pine needles and covering it with paper which they painted brown. Beth Wise, Bing’s music teacher, introduced songs about trees, then led the children on musical parades all around the school to sing to their favorite trees. The children became aware that wooden musical instruments were made from trees. Some even made their own guitars at the woodworking table using scrap wood and rubber bands.
For snack time, the children prepared treats from tree products—fruits, spices, bark and sap—including cinnamon and maple syrup! Parents participated by bringing in homegrown persimmons from their persimmon trees to make persimmon cookies, as well as a baby olive tree to accompany bread dipped in olive oil.
Story time featured books, songs, finger plays and action rhymes with trees as their focus. In the art area, children painted pinecones, made leaf rubbings and constructed their own paintbrushes out of dried pine needles. They took clipboards, paper and pencils outdoors to draw trees they observed, and painted fantasy trees from their imagination.
By winter quarter, the trees had lost most of their leaves. The children commented on the transformation. “The leaves grow back on branches, but not today,” one child wistfully observed.
But spring comes early to California! In mid-February, the children noticed the first buds appearing on the mulberry trees. Teachers ordered silkworm eggs to be hatched and raised in the classroom. Before long, children were feeding fresh mulberry leaves to tiny silkworms and watching them grow, spin their cocoons and emerge as white moths.
Now, as the mulberry leaves in Center Room are yellowing once again, Edith Dowley’s vision for the children of Bing Nursery Schol is evident and deeply appreciated.