Parents can look to leaves for learning opportunities

October 17, 2003|by LISA TEDRICK PREJEAN

Raking leaves with my older brother is one of my fondest childhood memories of autumn.

Not that we welcomed the work, we just enjoyed the fun afterwards - running and jumping in the piles, tossing the leaves in the air and watching them float back down to the ground, covering each other from chin to toe and then jumping up as fast as we could so the leaves would scatter.

This week I was reminded of the fun we had while watching my son and daughter play in the backyard.

No wonder they've been spending so much time outside.

Leaves are a fascination for children. As parents, we can tap into that interest for countless learning opportunities.

The science of fall foliage starts with the sun.

The cells in leaves contain chlorophyll, which makes them green and helps them absorb energy from sunlight. This energy is used to mix carbon dioxide from the air and water from the soil to make food for the tree. This process is called photosynthesis.


As the days begin to shorten in the fall, leaves have less exposure to sunlight. As photosynthesis slows down and chlorophyll slowly disappears, other colors that were masked by green start to appear.

The base of the stem attached to the tree grows brittle and floats to the ground when the wind blows.

The tree becomes dormant for the winter, relying on food stored in its trunk and root system, said Eric LeMasters, horticulture consultant for Maryland Cooperative Extension in Washington County.

LeMasters said he likes to compare the process to hibernation. Just like squirrels store nuts for the long winter, and bears curl up in caves, trees store food for the cold weather months.

While he's hesitant to predict how long colors will remain on the trees this year, LeMasters said he's noticed that leaves have been coming down quickly because it has been quite windy and rainy.

If you don't have a lot of trees near your home, area parks are a great place to check out fall foliage close up.

We were at Hagerstown's City Park last week and collected a variety of fallen leaves. My 4-year-old delighted in matching the different types of leaves in a same-different game that we played.

She also enjoyed reading about the shapes of various leaves. Her favorite was sassafras, which can resemble the shape of a mitten.

Once the leaves are dry, children may enjoy making crayon or pencil rubbings with them. You probably remember doing this as a child: Place a piece of paper over a leaf and color over top of it. The ridges of the leaves make interesting designs.

Here are two other ideas from "Usborne Book of the Seasons: Things to Do All Year Round" by Angela Wilkes.

  • Leaf prints - Using a paint brush, cover the underside of a leaf with poster paint. Start at the middle and paint outward. Gently lay the leaf paint-side down on the paper. Put scrap paper over the top and press it down firmly. Lift off the scrap paper, then carefully peel off the leaf. Use the tip of a plastic knife to do this if it is difficult. To make more delicate prints, print the leaf again three or four times without adding any more paint. Make prints of different leaves in red, orange and yellow to create a striking fall leaf picture.

  • Make a leaf scrapbook - Lay the leaves between sheets of tissue paper, so they don't touch. Put a book and weight on top. After a few weeks, the leaves will be flat and dry. Tape them into a scrapbook and label them.

For more leafy ideas, check out these books, all of which are available at Washington County Free Library:

  • "Why Do Leaves Change Color?" by Marian B. Jacobs.

  • "Autumn Leaves" by Ken Robbins.

  • "When Autumn Comes" by Robert Maass.

  • "Autumn" by Phyllis S. Busch.

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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