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Teaching Kids to Identify Trees

Easy Species to Spot

Teaching kids to identify trees is a worthwhile, but challenging task – especially at the outset.

Adults rarely know where to start.

Most online resources are too difficult for children to follow. They’re full of obscure terminology, and they primarily focus on minutiae that’s barely of interest to dendrologists. Field guides are often valuable for those who are already familiar with trees, but they’re rarely user-friendly for novices.

Fortunately, you don’t need these things to teach your kid how to identify trees.


Teaching Kids to Identify Trees: Three Simple Steps for Success

Whether you are trying to teach a scout group, classroom or your own kids, you only have to worry about doing three things when teaching children to identify trees:

  1. Start slow. Start with one species and don’t move on to the second until your little one can spot it every time. This includes four-year-olds, who may need to practice for a week before they master the lesson, as well as teens who can pick up a species in 5 minutes.
  2. Pick species that are common in your area. Practice and repetition are key when learning to identify trees, so it just makes sense to pick ones you can see on the way to the grocery store or school. They needn’t necessarily be native species, although that’s preferable.
  3. Emphasize species that have one easy-to-spot characteristic. You don’t want your child to have to count anything or investigate subtle details to identify trees. Pick trees with a conspicuous characteristic, like bold flowers, unusual leaf colors, distinct bark or a unique growth habit.

Follow these steps and your kids will be tree-identifying machines in no time.  

Five of the Best Trees to Teach Your Kids

The following five species are common in the Piedmont region, and to a lesser extent, the rest of the eastern U.S. They all possess pretty distinctive characteristics and remain relatively easy to identify throughout the year.

Photo from Wikipedia.

1. Beech Trees (Fagus grandifolia)

The beech is a large and majestic species that typically stands out in the forest. But they are not only beautiful they are important too, as rodents, deer, pigs and birds all consume the edible nuts the trees produce.

The massive root systems of beech trees often produce a number of secondary stems, so you’ll often see dozens of small beech trees spring up around a larger, central tree. Technically, these trees are all part of the same organism, and each one is actually a stem, rather than an individual tree.

This type of clonal growth pattern means that beech trees often dominate the forests in which they live. And because they’re a long-lived species – several specimens have been documented living for 350 years or more — they play a huge role in the forest’s development.

Easy Identification Characteristic: Smooth Grey Bark 

The smooth grey bark of beech trees makes them a breeze for kids to learn. And while they’re easy to identify in any season, they’re especially easy to recognize in the winter, as they typically retain their dead leaves until the following spring.

Unfortunately, the smooth bark of beech trees makes them the targets of vandals who have nothing better to do than carve messages into the bark. A fact you’ll no doubt notice as you start paying more attention to them. I encourage you to discuss this problem with your kids and try to convey the importance of respecting the natural world.

Photo from Wikipedia.

2. Pine Trees (Pinus sp.)

Pine trees are exceedingly common throughout the eastern U.S. Most pines are early succession species, who quickly colonize fields and other wide-open habitats. But as forests age, many of the pines are pushed out by the oaks, hickories and other late-succession species who move in after the pines.

But while they grow naturally in the eastern U.S., they’re also a favorite of land managers and developers, who plant them by the truckload. Given the fact that pines are cheap, hardy and grow quickly, it is easy to see why they provide value in these contexts.

Pines are highly valuable to wildlife, as they not only produce edible pine nuts, but they provide excellent nest sites for many birds. Also, because some pines are vulnerable to wood-softening rots as they age, they are very important for woodpeckers and other cavity-nesting species.

Easy Identification Characteristic: Clustered Green Needles

The biggest challenge most kids will have while learning to identify pine trees is learning to distinguish them from red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) and other conifers.

Just take some time and concentrate on the fact that pines have bundled needles. None of the other conifers, including hemlocks, arborvitaes and every species between, bear clustered needles.

With practice, they’ll learn to associate the growth habit and bark of pines with the clustered needles, which will allow them to identify pines from a distance.

Photo from Wikipedia.

3. River Birch Trees (Betula nigra)

River birches are iconic trees that most commonly grow in the floodplains and forests bordering lakes and rivers. In fact, they’re ideally suited for such low-lying habitats. They not only cope well with flooded conditions but their seeds float, which helps them to colonize distant shores.

But while river birch trees naturally grow in riparian areas, they are also common far from water, as they’re popular with many homeowners, developers and landscapers. As long as the region receives adequate rain or the landowner provides supplemental irrigation, river birches will often thrive in these types of upland locations.

Easy Identification Characteristic: Peeling Bark

You can identify river birch trees by noting their thin, papery bark.

It is helpful to emphasize that the bark is peeling away from the trunk. Using the world “peeling,” as opposed to “rough” or “shaggy” paints a more vivid picture for young tree lovers to wrap their heads around.

Additionally, river birches frequently grow as multi-trunk clusters, rather than as single-stemmed trees. This can make them easy to recognize before you even get close enough to note the peeling bark.

Photo from Wikipedia.

4. Southern Magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora)

Southern magnolias are stately trees, who reach moderately large sizes on good sites.

They can be seen growing naturally in various types of forests, but they’re also commonly planted as shade or ornamental trees in the southern and eastern United States. This means you probably won’t have to walk through the woods to find magnolias — just keep your eyes peeled while driving through the suburbs.

Magnolias are important food sources for animals ranging from squirrels to opossums to deer, and many insects relish the pollen found in their flowers. Magnolias provide some of the densest shade of any native tree, although their tendency to retain lower branches means that this shade is hard to access.

Easy Identification Characteristic: Smooth, Big Evergreen Leaves

You can teach youngsters to identify southern magnolias by noting their thick, dark green leaves, which cling to the tree all year long. Once your kids develop a strong mental image of the basic magnolia tree aesthetic, they’ll have no trouble spotting them at a glance.

And although children are unlikely to need to consider additional characteristics when identifying magnolia trees, the trees’ summer-blooming flowers are gigantic and easy to recognize from a distance.  

Photo from Wikipedia.

5. American Holly (Ilex opaca)

The American holly is another common evergreen that is native to eastern forests. Although individuals of this species can and do grow as trees, many amount to little more than shrubs. Hollies are critically important for several songbirds, who feed on their berries and make nests amid the dense foliage.

Easy Identification Characteristic: Prickly Evergreen Leaves

Armed with prickly evergreen leaves, the holly would be easy to recognize even if it didn’t produce bright red berries. The trunk is typically pale and moderately distinctive, but it is not the best criteria for youngsters to consider when trying to identify the tree.

It is important to note that dozens of horticultural varieties (called cultivars) are planted on residential and commercial properties. Many of these lack the wild holly’s pointy leaves, so you’ll want to introduce them to your kids in a forest setting to avoid confusion.

Photo from Unsplash.

If you teach your youngsters to look for the characteristics mentioned above, they should be able to learn all five of these species without much trouble. Just remember to start slow and wait for them to master one species before moving on to another one.

There are plenty of other species that youngster could learn to recognize. Palm trees and sycamores are common in some areas, and both exhibit pretty distinctive characteristics. You could also select a locally abundant ornamental species, like crepe myrtles or pear trees.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which species you select, as long as you focus on a distinctive characteristic and give them plenty of time to practice spotting it.

Header image from Unsplash.

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