What You Need


  • Classroom copies of Treecology
  • Notebooks, pencils, erasers 
  • Field guides. Alternatively, use free mobile apps, such as iNaturalist, Leafsnap, Project BudBurst, Merlin Bird ID, Insect Orders 
  • Magnifying glasses
  • Gardening gloves (1 or 2 pairs, for picking up leaf litter)
  • Large Ziploc® bags
  • Measuring tape (1 is sufficient)
  • Sunscreen and bug spray


To explore trees as part of an ecosystem in which many animals and plants thrive.


This lesson is based on the book Treecology: 30 Activities and Observations for Exploring the World of Trees and Forests by Monica Russo. This book is one of the finalists of the 2017 AAAS/Subaru SB&F Prize for Excellence in Science Books. SB&F, Science Books & Films, is a project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

This lesson engages students in the exploration of trees and their interactions with wildlife through several hands-on, outdoor activities that promote observation and analysis, writing and discussion, and nature literacy skills.

The book gives an engaging, kid-friendly overview of trees, tree structures, families, and foods and explores the ecological value of dead and living trees. It includes many suggestions for exploring trees outside the forest—in your own backyards, at school, or on the playground.

Students in grades 3 through 5 may not fully understand the connections between all living things, such as between plants and animals, and that the animals and plants in a community (or ecosystem) interact and are dependent on each other for survival and reproduction.

Ideas in this lesson are also related to concepts found in these Common Core State Standards:

    Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers.
    Determine the main idea of a text; recount the key details and explain how they support the main idea. 
    Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g., where, when, why, and how key events occur).
    Refer to details and examples in a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
    Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details; summarize the text.
    Interpret information presented visually, orally, or quantitatively (e.g., in charts, graphs, diagrams, time lines, animations, or interactive elements on Web pages) and explain how the information contributes to an understanding of the text in which it appears.
    Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.
    Determine two or more main ideas of a text and explain how they are supported by key details; summarize the text.

Planning Ahead

Since this lesson uses the Treecology book, you should try to have classroom copies of the book on hand.

Students should be encouraged to work in groups. If you only have one copy of the book, perhaps you can project the pages onto a screen and make copies of the activities that students will do outdoors. This lesson covers these activity pages: 19, 23, 28, 54, 69, 70, 77

One of the activities takes place outdoors near trees. Please review your school district policy on insect repellent and sunscreen use.


To begin this lesson, have a brief class discussion about dead and living trees students have seen in forests or urban areas.

  • Where have you seen trees outside of forests?
  • What types of trees have you noticed in your area? Can you identify them?
  • What do you think you should look for to identify trees?

Turn to the three “Did You Know” questions on the back cover of the book. Ask students if they have seen, experienced, or heard about some of the things dead and living trees can do for us and for other animals, or if they know of any old trees in their neighborhood. For example:

  • Have you observed how trees provide for animals?
  • Have you ever taken a close look at a tree stump or a dead tree? What did you see?
  • Do you know of any old trees in your area? How can you tell a tree is old?

This brief discussion may also address some misconceptions about trees. For example, students may have noticed that in urban and suburban environments fallen branches and dead trees are immediately removed because they are in the way, ugly, or of no apparent use. Or they may think of trees as dangerous, damaging property or even killing people when branches break off or entire trees fall over during severe weather.

From Treecology, read page 37 to your students and let them follow along in their copies. Talk about the information covered in this short paragraph. You could use these questions in your discussion:

  • What is a forest community?
    • (A forest community is much more than just an assembly of trees. It's a complex community of animals and plants that interact with each other in numerous ways.)
  • What animals are part of a forest community? Can you think of more animals than the ones listed here?
    • (Forests house birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, spiders, and other invertebrates in all shapes and sizes. Consult a forest field guide for specific examples.)
  • What is leaf litter? And why do you think there are animals in it?
    • (Leaf litter is a cover on top of the soil that consists of decomposing but recognizable leaves and other debris.)


PART 1: Prepping for Your Field Exploration (indoors or outside)

Explain to your students that they will get to be ecologists who will look for evidence that trees are important players in woodland ecosystems, supporting a diverse community of plants and animals. 

1. Read & Discuss: Ecology
PAGE 29: What Do Ecologists Do?

Read page 29 with students and go to What is an Ecosystem? You can use a Smart Board to display the page or print a few copies of it and give to students (only the first two paragraphs and the pond illustration are needed).

Provide students with the Prepping for Your Field Exploration student sheet and go over the questions below. You can find answers to these questions on the Field Exploration teacher sheet

  • What is ecology? And what do ecologists do?
  • What is an ecosystem? (Students may be confused about the difference between a community and an ecosystem. SKIP THIS QUESTION and the link above, if this is too advanced for your students.)
  • Ecologists are scientists who make observations from evidence. How do you think ecologists collect evidence? (Students can turn to page 70 for help.)

Tell students they will now prepare to be good forest ecologists before starting their exploration outdoors. 

2. Read & Discuss: Tree Structures and Types
First, students will learn how to distinguish trees from shrubs, what parts there are in a tree, and the difference between conifers and deciduous trees.

PAGES 2-3: Tree or Shrub?
Read the first two paragraphs on page 2 to your students and let them follow along in the book. Go over the pictures on pages 2 and 3 and ask students to write down key characteristics of trees versus shrubs in the "Trees" and "Shrubs" boxes on their student sheet based on what they read or saw in the images.

PAGES 4-5: Tree Parts and Leaf Shapes
Go over the images on both pages and ask students to draw and label a tree on their student sheet.

PAGES 12, 13, 18: Conifers versus Deciduous Trees
Discuss these questions:

  • What other types of trees or leaves are there?
    • (You can show them the images of the hemlock and pine needles on pages 12 and 13 or on the book cover.)
  • Why are pines, spruces, and hemlocks called evergreens?
    • (Ask students to read the information box on page 18 “Conifers and Deciduous Trees” or explain the difference in their own words.)
  • Why are cones popular among many animals?

3. Read & Discuss: Forest Levels
Next, students will learn that, like high-rise buildings, woodlands or areas with trees and shrubs can be divided into different levels, and that each level is home to different animals.

PAGES 29, 25-27, 31-32, 42: Different Levels, Different Homes
Go over the illustration on page 29 and read page 25 to your students.

The following questions and pages elaborate on the different forest layers. YOU CAN SKIP THIS PART or only touch on it briefly, if class time is short. The student sheet has a table where students can enter information on the different layers as you discuss the questions below.

Before you proceed with a detailed discussion of the forest layers, as students:

  • What creatures (animals or other organisms) do you think you could find in the canopy, understory, leaf litter, and soil?

Soil and Leaf Litter: Show your students the two images on page 27 and have them read “Dirt First!” (pages 26 and 27). Discuss these questions:

  • Why is soil good for trees?
  • What’s in dirt? (Students can add to their list of creatures they started in their discussion above.)
  • How do the tiny creatures benefit trees?
  • Why is leaf litter important?

Understory: Discuss the images on pages 30 and 31 as examples of plants that grow in the understory. Ask students if they know of any other plant examples. Mention that small, young trees, like seedlings and saplings, also are part of the understory.

  • Write down the types of plants you can find in the understory of a forest. You can name plant categories like “fern” instead of specific plant names.

Canopy: Have your students read “The Canopy” (pages 31 and 32) and “Look! Up in the Trees!” (page 42).

  • How does the canopy protect the soil?
  • What animals are in the canopy? (Students can add to their list of creatures they started in their discussion above.)

Mention to your students that the leaves in the canopy (and on smaller shrubs) are also home to many small insects and their larvae (see “Larvae on the Leaves” on page 42).

4. Planning the Field Exploration
Now that students have learned some information about trees and their ecosystems, they will engage in field exploration activities to further their understanding.

Ask your students to summarize what they will try to look for when they go outside. Discuss how they will best accomplish this. For example, you could ask them if they should randomly look for wildlife or if they should have a strategy, what the best strategy would be, and how they will record what they find. 

Give each student a printed copy of the Your Woodland Community student sheet. They will use it for each activity to enter their observations.

If you decide to have students work in groups and divide the tasks among them, you could ask them to sign up for different activities now.

PART 2: Field Exploration (outside)

Do Not Touch! Before you go out, show your students which plants they should not touch. There are images of poison sumac and poison ivy on pages 7 and 82 and on the Your Woodland Community student sheet.

You don’t need to go to a forest or woodland to observe a tree ecosystem. Find an area with trees on or near the school grounds or go to a city park. 

Take your students outside with their student sheet, pencils, erasers, and at least one copy of Treecology. If needed, bring along copies of the listed activities for your students. Remember to take the other materials as well. Remind them that many animals are shy and may run or fly away when they see or hear them.

Ask how they can observe animal activity if they don’t see the actual animals. Have them listen to sounds and look for traces (like nests, eaten fruits or nuts, tracks, etc.) as they walk to the woodland.

1. The Plant and Animal Community
All students (in groups of two or more) should try to identify the trees and shrubs in a selected plot or area using one of the suggested apps or a field guide. Students should also write down if they see any wildflowers, ferns, or mosses.

Ask probing questions as you move from group to group and help with identification:

  • How is this tree A different from tree B? Do you see different sizes of the same tree? Saplings? Are there any shrubs, wildflowers, or ferns? How many different types of each do you see?

Have student groups do at least two of the activities below. They should use their senses to discover evidence of animals and record their findings. Remind them to add everything to the chart on the Your Woodland Community student sheet. If they cannot identify an animal or plant, they can describe or draw it.

  1. Try This: Measure the Circumference of a Tree (page 19; two or more students) 
    Students measure a few of the largest and smallest trees and some intermediate ones and enter the data into their chart. This will help them describe the habitat and possibly compare it to another habitat later. For example, an area with primarily tall, mature trees likely is less diverse than an area with many mixed sizes.
  2. Look For: Bark and Lichens (page 23)
    Students look for bugs, mosses, and lichens. Have them explore barks of at least two different trees and record what they find on their chart. In addition, they should look for life on leaves!
  3. Look For: Animal Life among Woods Floor Litter (page 28)
    Students learn how to look for tiny creatures on the forest floor. They can record what they find on the chart.
In the remaining activities, students use their observational skills to find signs of animal activity, which they record on the chart.
  1. Look For: Evidence of Hole Makers and Hole Users (page 54)
  2. Look For: Forest Food for Animals (page 69), Evidence of Forest Munchers (page 70)
    These two activities can be combined into one.
  3. Listen For: Sounds from the Treetops (page 77)

While looking for plants and animals, students can make comparisons of the organisms found. Are similar organisms exactly the same? How are they different? Students should begin to understand why certain animals or plants are found in a particular spot.

2. Dead Trees?
Once they have finished looking at living trees and their communities, take your students to a dead tree, log, or stump, if you can find one. (Otherwise show them the images on pages 50-53.) Have a brief discussion with your students:

  • Is this tree really dead, or are there any signs of life? Should it be removed? Why or why not?

Read page 49 to your students or explain in your own words and show them the images on pages 50-53.

Students should look for fallen trees, tree stumps, and dead, still standing trees. They should record all evidence of life on their chart. If they haven’t done so yet, they could follow the activity on page 54 ("Evidence of Hole Makers and Hole Users"). Skip this part if there are no dead trees. You could ask your students to look for some where they live.

Discuss this question:

  • What would happen to a woodland or forest community if dead trees, logs, and tree stumps were removed?

3. Noticing Biodiversity (This can be also completed in the classroom or as homework)
Read “Noticing Diversity” on page 69. Discuss these questions:

  • Is your community diverse? Use your collected data to support your argument.
  • What diversity did you observe?
  • Do you think you have missed anything? If so, give examples and why you may have missed these


Read More


Formative Assessment: Use the student sheets and the additional discussion items suggested in the lesson under the Motivation and Development sections to assess student understanding.

Summative Assessment: Ask students to write a brief report about their outdoor experience. The report should include these items:

  • What did we want to find out? What was our research question? (Purpose and Question)
  • What did we do? (Methods)
  • What did we find? (Results)
  • What can we say about the importance of dead and living trees? (Conclusions)


You can use these Science NetLinks lessons to extend on the ideas covered in this lesson: 

If available, locate another habitat for students to repeat the activity. Or if a colleague duplicates the lesson, compare and contrast the data with your students and discuss biodiversity.

Students can research heritage trees in their community, state, or in the U.S. and around the world. Or they each could research a particular plant or animal they found. You can use Studentreasures Publishing to turn the work of your students into a free class book.

Funder Info
Science NetLinks is proud to have Subaru as a funder of this project.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards