Sugar Maples – Activities

FOCUS:  The combination of warm days and cold nights in early spring reawakens maple trees and starts the sap flowing. This yearly event in the life cycle of a maple tree provides sugar makers with the sap needed to produce maple syrup. Even without leaves, sugar maples can be recognized by their bark, twigs, and buds, so we know we are tapping the right trees.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about maple sugaring.

Pass out a sugar maple twig to each child, and ask children to observe and describe their twigs.

Materials: sugar maple twigs, one for each child; magnifying lenses.

Objective: To observe patterns of similarities and differences among a variety of winter twigs, and learn the special characteristics of sugar maple twigs.

Ahead of time, cut fresh twigs from sugar maple and three or four other opposite-branching trees (e.g. ash, red maple, silver maple, Norway maple, ash-leaf maple/box elder), enough so that there is one for each child. In addition, cut a fresh twig from an alternate-branching tree (e.g. elm, beech, poplar).

Explain that the arrangement of branches is important in tree identification. Hold up the alternate twig so children can see that the twigs alternate from side to side on the branch. Demonstrate the opposite pattern of branching by standing with both arms outstretched. This is how the twigs and branches are arranged on maples and other opposite-branched trees. Explain that we must be able to distinguish sugar maple from other opposite-branched trees at sugaring time, so we will be looking at a selection of common local trees. Pass out opposite twigs (one each) and ask children to examine them carefully and compare to their neighbors’ twigs. Ask them to put themselves in groups by finding the other children holding the same type of twig. Use the Maple and Ash Twig Guide (or the set of labeled twigs, or both) and have each group select the twig from this set that matches their twigs. How does the ash twig differ from the maples? Do the maple twigs have any similar feature(s)? How do the maple twigs differ from each other? What features of the tree and the twig could be used to distinguish the sugar maple from all of the others? (Thin, opposite twigs; brown, pointy buds.)

Materials: collection of opposite-branching twigs, with one of each type labeled with its name: sugar maple, any ash, and at least two or three of the other maple species, which include: red, silver, Norway, ash-leaf (also called box elder), mountain, and striped maple; an example of an alternate twig such as elm, beech, or aspen; Maple and Ash Twig Guide.

PUPPET SHOW “Sweetest Sap”
Objective: To learn how to tell a sugar maple tree in winter from other trees in the forest.

Perform the puppet show, or have the children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. What are the characteristics of sugar maples that help identify them in the winter before the leaves come out? (Not evergreen; rough bark; thin, opposite twigs; brown pointy buds.)

Materials: puppets, script, props: pine needles or dead leaf, tape.

Objective: To model how the internal parts of the trunk work to transport sap through the tree.

Beforehand, make cards representing the various layers of the tree to hang around children’s necks, including heartwood, sapwood, bark, and cambium.

Explain to the children that they will be helping you recreate the trunk of a maple tree. Show them the Tree Slice diagram and give them hints to help them remember and name the parts of the trunk, starting from the center. Now hand out Trunk Action Role cards as you create a model of how a tree trunk functions. Select one child to represent the wood at the very center, or heart, of the tree (heartwood). To represent this part of the tree the child flexes arm muscles and chants, “I’m big and strong,” over and over. Next, select a few children to be the layer of wood surrounding the heartwood, which is full of sap (sapwood). Explain that the sapwood transports sap both up and down inside the tree. Have these children hold hands, then together raise and lower their hands while chanting, “Sap going up, sap going down.” On a warm spring day following a cold night, sap will run downward in the sapwood and out through any spouts in the trunk. Now add the outer layer surrounding and protecting the tree (bark). Select several children to join hands in a circle around the sapwood. Explain that they have two roles: their outer bark protects the tree and their inner bark helps transport food from the leaves throughout the tree. To represent their protector role, have them bark and growl while raising their arms above their heads, then while lowering their hands chant, “Food going down.” Finally, add the microscopic layer that helps the tree get wider each year (cambium). Have one child walk between the bark and sapwood, circling the trunk and chanting, “I make new wood, I make new bark.” Have all the layers practice chanting and making their accompanying motions.

Next, halt the action and explain that, during sugaring season, cold nights with temperatures below 32º F followed by warm days with temperatures above 32º F are needed to get the sap flowing down in maple trees. Explain that you will call out temperatures and the sapwood will freeze when it’s below 32º F and move (and say “sap going down”) when you call out a temperature above freezing. Call out some temperatures and enjoy the action. At some point, when the sap is running, pretend to tap the tree and pull some of the sap out!

Materials: Tree Slice diagram or large slice of a tree trunk showing the rings; Trunk Action Role cards (with strings for hanging around neck) representing the various layers of the tree: heartwood (1), sapwood (3-6), bark (6-12), cambium (1).

Objective: To observe the texture of the bark of different tree species and learn how to use bark patterns in tree identification.

Ahead of time, make bark rubbings from a few different types of trees in your schoolyard. Mark these trees with numbers and surveyor’s tape. In small groups, pass around the bark rubbings and have the children carefully observe them, noting the differences in patterns. Have the groups visit the marked trees and try to match the rubbings to the trees. At each tree, make (or have children make) a rubbing so the group can compare it with the originals and confirm their guesses. (At least one of the trees should be a maple.)

Alternatively, if there are no maples and little tree diversity in the school yard, make rubbings from a variety of firewood logs and bring them along to do the activity with these instead of trees.

Materials: sets of rubbings from three to five trees in the schoolyard (or from firewood logs you bring along), flagging tape, paper, crayons (with wrappers peeled off).

Objective: To measure tree circumference and use this value to determine the number of taps allowed per maple tree.

Explain that a maple tree’s trunk must be of a certain size/width before it can be tapped. Use a measuring tape and demonstrate how to measure the distance around the trunk, its circumference. Provide the following chart as a guide:

Sugar Maple Circumference

Tree must have a circumference equal to or greater than:

31 inches for 1 tap

56 inches or more for 2 taps

As a group, measure trees around the school yard. Pass out measuring tapes and have the children work in pairs to determine a tree’s circumference. Using the circumference chart, children can determine the number of taps their tree could have.

For younger children, cut different colors of string into thirty-one-inch and fifty-six-inch lengths. Explain that a tree would have to be equal to or bigger than the thirty-one-inch string to have one tap, and equal to or bigger than the fifty-six-inch string to have two taps. Demonstrate and then have children each try wrapping one of the strings around a tree. Is their tree big enough for a tap or two?

Materials: measuring tapes, one per pair; copies of the Sugar Maple Circumference chart, colored string cut into 31″and 56″ lengths for younger children.

Objective: To model how much sap is needed to make a gallon of maple syrup.

Fill four or five gallon jugs (or sap buckets if available) half-full with water and distribute them around the playground. These represent the maple trees. Near each jug, place a stack of empty eight-ounce reusable cups. Designate another area to represent the “sugarhouse.”  This should be equipped with a one-teaspoon measuring spoon, funnel, a small maple syrup container or empty cup labeled “syrup,” and a tray labeled “steam.”

Explain that the class will be modeling the collection of sap from maple trees to see how much is needed to make syrup. (Optional: Pass around small samples of real sap to taste. They will see that it is mostly water.) The process of turning sap into syrup involves boiling it to evaporate away most of the water and concentrate the sugars. Children will go out to the maple “trees” and collect a cup of “sap,” then return with it to the sugarhouse. To simulate the boiling and conversion of sap to syrup, children will measure out one teaspoon of water for each cup they collect and add this “syrup” to the maple syrup container. The remaining water will be left in the cup and placed in a tray labeled “steam,” to represent the amount of water or steam that gets boiled off and evaporated away. How many cups of sap will children need to collect to make one cup of syrup? Record their guesses.

Have children form two to four lines, depending on how large the group is, then send one person from each line to collect a cup of sap and bring it to the sugarhouse. Here, each will measure out a teaspoon of water, add this “syrup” to the syrup container, and place the cups of “steam” on the tray. Have the children then tag the next person in line and continue the process until the syrup container is full. Count the cups of steam to determine how many cups of sap it took to make one cup of syrup. How close were their guesses?

Materials: Forty-five to fifty eight-ounce reusable cups, four or five gallon jugs half-filled with water (or sap buckets if available), measuring spoon (one teaspoon), empty one-cup maple syrup container (preferably clear), funnel, tray labeled “steam,” optional: box labeled “syrup evaporator” and/or sign saying “Sugarhouse.”

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE:  How Much Sap? (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To use math to understand how sugar content affects the amount of sap needed to make syrup.

Ahead of time, make up three solutions of “sap” in different concentrations:

2% sap = 2 tablespoons maple syrup plus water to make 1 quart

5% sap = 5 tablespoons maple syrup plus water to make 1 quart

10% sap = 10 tablespoons maple syrup plus water to make 1 quart

Add a drop of food coloring to each jar so they will be easy to tell apart.

Pour small amounts into plastic spoons so that children can sample the three concentrations. Have them decide which is the sweetest, which is the least sweet, and which falls in between. Now label the jars with the concentrations shown above.

Explain that trees differ in the sweetness of their sap. To figure out how many gallons of sap will be needed to make a gallon of syrup, sugar makers use the Rule of 86 – divide eighty-six by the sugar content of the sap. Ask the children to work alone or with a partner to calculate how much sap would be needed to make a gallon of syrup with each of these solutions (i.e. divide 86 by 2, 5, and 10). Which kind of sap would take the longest boiling time to turn into syrup?

Answers: For one gallon of syrup, the sugarmaker would need 43 gallons of 2% sap, 17.2 gallons of 5% sap, or 8.6 gallons of 10% sap.

Materials: 3 quart containers, about 1¼ cup of maple syrup, water, measuring spoons, food coloring, plastic spoons, paper, pencils.

Objective: To share thoughts about maple trees and sugaring.

In their science journals, have children write or draw a picture of their favorite activity related to maple trees or maple sugaring. It could be tapping a tree, collecting firewood, climbing a sugar maple, eating pancakes with syrup, collecting colorful leaves in the fall, etc. Afterwards, in small groups, have children share their journal entries and tell about their favorite maple tree activity.

Materials: science journals or clipboards and paper, pencils; optional: colored pencils.


Visit a Sugar House: Bring children to a sugarhouse where they can participate in the process of collecting and boiling sap into syrup, as well as sampling the final product.

Tap a Tree: If there is a local sugar maker willing to collect and boil the sap, it’s fun for children to experience the process of tapping a tree. In small groups, locate a sugar maple tree on the school grounds, using twigs and bark rubbings to help with identification. Have the children help to measure the circumference of the tree, using the chart to determine if it is big enough to tap. Check the trunk for signs of past tapping or damage when selecting a good place to drill. Give each child a chance to help with drilling the hole with a slight upward slant 1½ inches into the tree, hammering in the tap, hanging a bucket from the hook, and putting on a lid. Children should check the bucket daily and inform the sugar maker when there’s sap in the bucket.

Maple Memory: Ahead of time, place a collection of maple sugaring artifacts under a large blanket. Explain that when you lift the blanket children will have thirty seconds to observe and record as many objects as they can. Have each child share one of the objects on their list. Reveal all the objects and discuss their uses as you place them in the order in which they would be used during the sugaring process.

Taste Test: Have children test samples of each of the three grades of Grade A maple syrup: Golden Delicate, Amber Rich, and Dark Robust. Which grade of syrup tastes best? Have children sample syrup by pouring a few drops into small spoons for them to taste, then vote for their favorites. Tally the results in a chart and make a bar graph to display the results for the class. Was one flavor more popular than the others? Make a graph of the results for the whole school.

Make Your Own Sugaring Legend: There are several Native American stories that tell how the art of maple sugaring was discovered. Have the children create and act out their own legends, using classroom materials. See some legends in Project Seasons by Deborah Parrella, and Keepers of the Earth by Michael J. Caduto.

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