It's autumn and the leaves are starting to turn vibrant colors. Soon the New England landscape will be ablaze with hues of red, gold, and green and the leaves will begin to fall from the trees, carpeting the land with easily attainable specimens for a curious child to examine.
What a great time for you and your family to learn about the trees in your area, to enjoy the beauty while learning to identify and categorize the leaves that are now so accessible! For a child, this is what science should be: a chance to look closely and with fascination at the world of nature so close by.
A good way to start your family's leaf exploration is to check out some leaf identification books from your local library. With these as your reference materials you're all set to go out and explore and start your own leaf collection together. You can keep it in a loose leaf notebook, and your child will be proud of having compiled a real reference book of his or her own.
Don't hurry through your project; give yourselves at least a week to learn new leaf names together and study the growing process of the leaf. The more you read about trees and leaf formation, the more you'll enjoy compiling your book together. This is a great family project, and I'm sure that if your children are of school age they will be proud to bring this book into their new classroom and share their new discoveries with their class. Who knows, this might inspire the entire class to work on their own leaf identification books as well!
One of my favorite books to get started with tree exploration is "Trees of North America: A Guide To Field Identification" by C. Frank Brockman, and illustrated by Rebecca Merrilees. Look for it, but almost any tree book will get you on the right track. These books contain maps detailing the geographic range of each tree as well as colored pictures with great detail that allow the reader to compare real leaves to figure out what species of tree it's from. There is also a short synopsis to inform you of the details and characteristics of that particular tree family.
Tree berries, flowers, seed pods, and prickles are also of interest when you and your family are out collecting. I would suggest strongly, however, that the very first leaves you should look up when you get a guidebook are poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac! If you have an idea of what these itch-causing plants look like, you're much less likely to run into any problems as you collect.
Collecting leaves is so easy and fun that it's hard to believe that this is serious science. In academic terms, this is "fieldwork," and is similar to what expeditions do when they go to exotic places like New Guinea or Madagascar: seek out specimens to bring home for study. And that's exactly what your child is engaged in with you.
Carry a bag or large envelope with you and go for a walk around your neighborhood, a nearby park or conservation land. Any leaves that catch your child's attention should be gathered; after a few minutes you'll notice that differing shapes as well as differing colors will catch the eyes of both of you. Once your collection is completed you should have about 30 or more samples to bring home. Don't worry about duplication.
There are three different ways to preserve the leaves for your family book. First, your can use clear contact paper. Lay a sheet of the contact paper over the front and back of the leaf, with overlap all around. This will not only hold it firmly in place, but will also preserve the leaf's natural veins and colors. Make sure to leave enough contact paper on the left side of the leaf so that you can punch in three holes to place into a three-ring binder.
A second way to save your leaves is to do a leaf rubbing. To do this you'll need a white piece of paper the correct size for your notebook and a few crayons. Choose a leaf and place it on the table with the paper on top of it. Now gently rub the crayon over the paper that is covering the bumpy leaf surface. You will start to see the leaf impression right away. This is a great opportunity for children of all ages to do a smooth and successful job of a leaf imprint, and oh, won't they feel proud to show off their leaf rubbing pages!
A third way to safely preserve leaves is to use wax paper, and sandwich your leaf or leaves inside. Then set your iron on low, and laying a piece of material or a bandanna over it, slowly move the iron over the wax paper until it melts closed and is sealed. Children can do this under your close supervision for safety. This method also saves the colors of the leaves; however, it is more difficult to do this technique and I don't recommend it when using berries, since they will pop and run as they melt. Contact paper is the way to go with berries or other rough surface leaf families.
Now that your leaves and other specimens are mounted into page form, with holes punched on each and set in a binder notebook, you're all set to "research" each specimen and make a reference sheet for each page. Match each leaf with the illustrations in the field book, and label it once you've found it together.
From all your reading and exploring you'll be amazed at how much you and your family have learned. Your child will be able to walk down the street and point out a maple, a beech, and oak-a skill fewer and fewer children possess in this day and age! She or he will have absorbed knowledge about the natural world around us, and have started a collection that can grow for years. An interest sparked in this way is a benefit throughout the school years and beyond!
And best of all, your child and you will have worked together as a team, deriving mutual pleasure from this project. Enjoy your autumn together!
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