City Kids and City Trees — Natural Allies
When I was a kid, I climbed up into the great branches of the enormous Silver Maple in our yard.
I spent hours in that temple of green. But my downtown backyard has no such tree, so how can I share this experience with my kids? Luckily, our city is full of trees. The view from the CN Tower is a sea of green.
Here are some tips on how to get kids loving trees — and learn about them too.
1. Surround Yourself With Inspiring Naturalists
The Toronto Field Naturalists run regular walks to educate folks about all aspects of Toronto’s natural world. So I took my two boys on a hike through Crothers Woods led by arborist and friend Steve Smith.
Our focus was identifying trees by their twigs and bark, pretty heady stuff for a three-year-old and a six-year-old. But I had another motivation. I wanted them to feel the energy of being part of a group completely enthralled by trees. And in the process I got to meet two of my naturalist heroes: Ken Sproule, who takes many of the photographs featured in this column and Margaret Bream, who writes the inspiring (and similarly named) series Wild in the City for the Toronto Star.
“I have munchkins on my walk,” Steve commented when he saw us arrive, with just a hint of worry in his voice. Kids are welcome on the walks, but my kids were definitely the youngest participants.
“I’m hungry,” whined my youngest before we even left the parking lot.
2. Bring Snacks
Healthy snacks keep spirits up and provide energy for the walk; they also keep little mouths from whining while the grown-ups learn the intricacies of tree buds. Oh, and keep sugar content low to avoid the inevitable crash.
Bringing food with you also provides motivation to find the perfect enchanted picnic spot. We picnicked amid pine trees on a fragrant carpet of fallen pine needles.
3. Be prepared for questions
“How do plants grow?” came the first question as Steve pointed out the Fragrant Sumac buds in the parking lot.
“They grow from seeds, sweetie. Remember? We learned that last year.”
“No, but how do they grow bigger?”
In a nutshell, plants grow from the top up – or from the bottom down, as in the case of roots. Right at the tip, more cells form by division. Just behind the tip is an area where cells get bigger.
Steve however, had already moved on to lichen. “In cities, you see only two or three species per tree,” he explained.
“What is lichen?” came another query, as Steve explained that in the Algonquin Park area where the air is cleaner, there are about thirty different species. Lichens are truly amazing: they’re a partnership between fungi and algae.
And like birds and bees lichens are bioindicators of environmental health. Some lichen colonies have been around for 9,000 years.
There were lots of questions as the hike continued – a good sign. Kids and adults were definitely interested.
4. Notice the details
The secret to identifying trees – or any organism – is noticing details. In winter and early spring, look closely at the bark and the twigs. Later on in the year, the leaves and fruit provide important clues. For example, American Beech has distinctively smooth bark and long, cigar-like buds.
During winter, the leaves on younger trees and on the lower branches of older trees wither but do not fall. You’ve probably seen this in your own neighbourhood: these are called marcescent leaves.
European White Birch branches also ‘weep’ (droop) and their leaves are much bigger than White Birch leaves.
5. Have Fun
Remember – it’s a walk in the woods. Indulge yourselves; take time to stray off topic and play.
During our walk, the boys became fascinated by loam, after Steve explained what it was: a mixture of moist clay and sand, silt and organic matter. The soil in Crothers Woods is loam.
Recklessly disregarding laundry repercussions, I let the boys pick up great globs of the stuff – which had quite a lot of clay content — and shape it into whatever they chose. The boys learned first-hand about the consistency of good loam — and I got to listen to Steve.
6. Keep learning
You’re not going to learn everything there is to know about trees in a day– but you’ll be amazed at how much information you retain when you learn by doing.
The links below are great resources for Toronto and Ontario. Have a quick peek before you set out for an adventure in our urban forest – and then have a look again when you return.
It’s a great feeling to be able to answer your little ones’ questions about the natural world. You won’t master tree identification in a single walk, but a single walk will help you to see the world in a new way.
And the next time you plan a trip, whether it’s to another city or an hour north, take a moment to think about the trees. Guides like the ones above exist for regions all over the world – and coming across a tree you’ve read about with your kids is like finding a familiar face in unfamiliar place.
Finally, remember that your kids will notice things that you don’t. So get out there and learn together.