Fall leaves, props for learning

Poison Ivy By Famartin (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

If you live in an area of the world where leaves change color during Autumn you and the children might be looking for “The Most Beautiful Leaf” among the many fallen leaves. You can draw children’s attention to leaves at any time of the year by using them as play materials—a large leaf makes a plate and the small ones become pretend “food.”  Knowing which leaves are safe for children to handle is the first consideration! Poison ivy leaves turn a beautiful red color in the fall in many areas but they are still able to irritate our skin and make it blister.   

Looking at leaves and noticing their structure begins young children’s understanding of their function. Cutting leaves with scissors as a way to practice this fine motor skill also teaches children that leaves have different parts. It is easy to imagine the veins as small pipes carrying water to the body of the leaf–especially when you cut one open and see the “juice.” Making a rubbing on paper with crayons shows off the pattern of veining which is particular to each species. Dropping water onto the upper and undersides of leaves may reveal the tiny hairs that some species of plants have on their underside as children note how water drops either slide off or pool up. Understanding the function of this form, how the hairy underside and smooth upper side help the plant survive, will come later. Magnolia leaves are particularly useful for showing differences between upper and undersides. They make wonderful boats too, floating in puddles or small tubs of water. 

Changes in leaves can be a sign of changing seasons that young children can observe along with changing air temperature and the position of the sun in the sky. Understanding the chemistry involved in those beautiful words “chlorophyll” and “photosynthesis” can wait until middle school when students begin learning that living things are made of cells (MS-LS1-1 From Molecules to Organisms: Structures and Processes). See Appendix E – Progressions Within the Next Generation Science Standards to see how student thinking progresses with grade level. 

Teachers who want to learn more about the processes that cause deciduous leaves to change color in the fall can read these resources:

Robertson, Bill. 2012. Q: Why Do Leaves Fall off Trees in the Fall?  Science and Children. 49(7): 68-69 

USDA Forest Service, Northeastern Area. Why Leaves Change Color.

The United States National Arboretum. The Science of Color in Autumn Leaves.

The changing leaf color in Autumn occurs at a cellular level due to a process that young children are not yet ready to understand. But they do understand beauty and how to make a collection of the “best” leaves! 

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  1. Abby Connors
    Posted October 15, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    These are excellent ideas, very clearly explained. And young children love leaves. I do too!

  2. Caroline Madsen
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    A lesson I observed before on leaf rubbing allowed students to collect and bring in their own leaves. The teacher was careful to highlight the looks of the poisonous leaves before students went out. When the students collected their own leaves they had the opportunity to compare more leaves then a teacher could collect on their own. It also allowed the students to feel they had ownership in the rubbing they were doing. Maybe something to consider.

  3. Peggy Ashbrook
    Posted November 1, 2017 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    I agree, Caroline, an important consideration. Having children collect their own leaves is better than being presented with an educator-collected selection! If children are unlikely to be able to distinguish poison ivy or other unsafe leaves from those that are safe to handle, knowledgeable educators can choose the locations where children collect leaves.

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