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Project Tree

contributor: Ms. Vasundhara

Children living in big towns and cities are removed from nature. Their daily routines do not include an exposure to trees, grasses, birds, insects… and they are deprived of a lot of fun and joy in learning about these. School routines of course make things even more difficult. Where do we find the time for it is the most common refrain of many of my teacher colleagues.

I got a chance to read about trees and became fascinated by them. Not being a student of Biology, I was not introduced to them earlier. This in a way was good. Instead of concentrating on their names and classification, I could start looking at the features of trees. Looking around I found to my surprise, that there were a large variety of trees in our neighbourhood.

I learnt that trees have been on the earth for hundreds of millions of years and the first cities were built about 8000 B.C., but only during the last 200 or so years have trees been deliberately brought into cities. Most of them adorn the roads and the few parks. Thanks to the initiatives of the forest department and activists in our area, a variety of trees have made their appearance here. Some of them are not native to our place either, I am told.

We all know that trees help modify climate, give shade from summer heat, serve as windbreaks, and add to the beauty of the neighbourhood. Some of them flower profusely at particular times of the year. Some of them bear fruits too. Many of them follow an annual cycle, flowering at particular times, bearing fruit soon after. They are home to a number of birds and insects. Observing these was indeed a great experience.

I kept thinking about how I could expose my students to this wonderful resource. Finding class time for taking them out to look at a tree was almost impossible. There was no tree close enough for a 40 minute round trip. I am convinced that if we make such a trip, we should let children stand and stare for as long as they want to. And I was also afraid of all the questions the students would ask. I decided to convert this into a project. All children in my III standard class would participate in it (I had about 37 of them). It would run as a continuous homework for as long as their interest lasted. As it was not a part of the syllabus, I could invent activities as we went along. Looking back at the project, I think some of the activities we did were very interesting. At least, every child enjoyed the exploration. They may not have gathered too much “knowledge” – we did not bother about names, but they surely have been initiated. I still have children coming back to me with some new observation. After all to them, it is a new discovery.

I thought I should share this project with my fellow teachers. This is how we organised it:

We called it Project Tree. I created a large tree cut-out. The trunk was made of crumpled brown paper. We used chart paper to make branches and the tree had 6 branches. This was because I divided my class into 6 groups of 6 children each (except the last one which had 7) and assigned one branch to each group. Children drew leaves on their branches. All the children had a go. Funnily, the tree had varieties of leaves in it, each child’s imagination dictating its shape and size. The tree was huge - about four feet tall and about five feet wide, and the paper tree was stuck on to some old chart paper making it stiff. We could rest it against the wall in the class room. This became our notice board for the project.

Most children, especially those with a low attention span are very casual observers. I had to train them to make keen, sustained and systematic observations. It took some time for this message to reach them. Even then, I cannot be sure how many became adept at observing. The groups reported many observations, but one does not know who observed what. As training children to observe was also one of my objectives, I kept encouraging them with a “what else did you observe?” routine.

Each group picked up a convenient tree, one per group, and noted down whatever they could. This was done at various times – during lunch break, after school (one group even came to school on a holiday to look up some birds). The best part was, once initiated I had almost no role to play. The activity was entirely driven by the children.

Back in class, they would write down their observations on small pieces of light green paper cut like leaves and stick them on their branch. They also stuck leaf and bark samples. Some of them made sketches or tables of their observations.

Gradually, the children lost interest in their tree – some quickly, some relatively slowly. When they ran out of steam – no more observations being reported – I intervened. I asked each group to make an oral presentation about their tree. It was great fun to watch the animated discussions – arguments and counter arguments flowing freely. I listed their observations on the board in columns, so that all the groups’ observations were visible. Incidentally, we have the system of a block period – two periods at a stretch, for mathematics and environmental studies, once a week. This is very convenient for such discussions.

One thing that came out loud and clear was that the children had on their own learnt lot more than what I could have put into a lesson on trees. I did not have any pressure of directing the lesson in any direction. There was an intense competition among the groups to be better, propelling the activity. I am not sure, if it is possible to convert all lessons to this form. But I try this approach whenever I can. It does not take much class time and children enjoy it.

What did the children report?

They had made general observations about the size of the tree (in comparison to other trees), collected leaves and made notings about their shape and size. One group had observed two different kinds of leaves on the tree. It turned out they had found a parasitic plant, growing on the host plant. The group observing the Gulmohur tree had noted the presence of the cicada (a very noisy insect) and some ant homes near the tree. Another group had heard the koel on the mango tree, but had failed to spot it. Crows were spotted by all groups (after all, lunch break is a favourite time for crows in any school) on their trees.

Some pointers I got for further activities:

They have to be introduced to the bark. Making bark rubbings and using it as a means to distinguish between trees can be interesting. The peeling off of the eucalyptus bark for example is a point of difference. The branching pattern could also be interesting to observe. If we repeat this activity in different seasons, the leaf shedding, flowering, fruiting, observations regarding the shape, colour and size of the flowers and fruits, the animals feeding on them, etc. can also be observed. Probably, the kinds and numbers of birds seen there could be studied at various times of the day and reasons worked out why some birds are more common in one place than another. After all, they had observed crows only during lunch breaks. Of course, some of these may work better with older children.

There are other observations, which I don’t know how to introduce or organise. I know that all kinds of animals live in or visit a tree. Many insects and birds come to sip at nectar, take pollen, or eat leaves or fruit. Keeping a regular watch during the flowering season should be rewarding. If possible a visit should be made at night, since nocturnal mammals such as bats may come to feed on the blossoms. I also know that some visitors come to a tree to roost for the night, or for the day - parakeets and mynas by night, owls by day. Insects may shelter on the trunk, under the bark, or in the branches. Some animals spend their whole lives in a tree. This is particularly true of insects, spiders, and small reptiles such as garden lizards.

Will children be able to put together observations made at different times? Will they see the relationships? How long can I sustain this activity. Will I need to support it with books (I have avoided them till now – books add alien information about trees unknown to children). Will they be able to compare trees? Only time will tell. But it would be interesting to try it out. Many of the stuff I have read about piagetian stages will at least be tested. It will also tell me how much an interested group of children can achieve with a little help.

I welcome your comments and suggestions.

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