Boston Educators Explore Conifers

by Ana Maria Caballero McGuire, Children’s Education Fellow

February 10, 2017

opening hemlock cones

Boston Educators Explore Conifers

On Saturday, February 4, Boston area educators gathered in the Hunnewell Building Lecture Hall for this month’s Arboretum for Educators event highlighting conifer adaptations. Hands-on exploratory activities and a walk in the Conifer Collection introduced many teachers to the complexities of gymnosperms.

Close look at spruce

Teachers look closely at spruce needles.

What are the observable differences between fir and spruce? Can you recognize a hemlock by its cone? Did you know that pine needles come in bundles of 2, 3, or 5? These first questions soon gave way to more interesting ones, such as “Where are the veins on a needle?” “Did monoecious or dioecious plants evolve first?” and “Do the seeds in cones always come in pairs?” Such is the power of careful observation that leads to noticing details and sparks wonder.

This is the kind of learning and questioning that teachers, and their students by extension, should be engaged in at any age. Presenting a variety of conifer plant material in the classroom, and challenging students to notice similarities and differences, sparks curiosity in how the natural world works. Once this curiosity is aroused, teachers can take their students outside to apply new learning and discover even more questions.

looking at spruce

Boston teachers examine spruce needles.

The breadth of the Arboretum’s Conifer Collection lends itself to comparative exploration. It is through touching, smelling, and observing that children learn to make sense of their world, and apply new classroom learning in the context of the outdoors. There are many tactile differences between varieties of spikey, square spruces and flat, friendly firs. Crushing pine needles releases smells that encourage children to continue crushing, smelling, and comparing scents among different pine species. Searching for cones, both on the ground and in the trees, helps children create and visualize a complete timeline of the reproductive process: from the small male pollen cones and first year closed female cones, to larger open cones still on the tree releasing their seeds, and chewed up cones on the ground. Experiences such as these deepen a child’s understanding and appreciation for the natural world.

paper tree models

Deciduous and evergreen tree models explain snow shedding adaptations.

Back in the lecture hall, teachers experimented with wet and dry cones, and conducted a simple investigation using models of leaf shapes to explore moisture retention. Another experiment created models of deciduous- and conifer-shaped trees to investigate how those shapes shed or retained snow. By teaching and learning both outside and inside, teachers can create lasting experiences that help children reach the new Massachusetts Science, Technology, and Engineering standards in more meaningful and authentic ways.

Our Arboretum for Educators events aim to introduce seasonal, natural phenomena to teachers and model ways in which students can engage in outdoor learning; teachers also learn how to bring these experiences back to the classroom for further investigations. Please join us in March for the next event, Searching For Signs of Spring.

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