Conifer Clues – Activities

FOCUS: A closer look at the many variations in conifer cones and their leaves makes each species unique and recognizable and distinguishes the common evergreen trees in our neighborhoods and nearby woods.

Objective: To begin to explore and ask questions about conifers.

Give a variety of conifer boughs to small groups of children, and ask what similarities and differences they notice.

Materials: a variety of conifer boughs, magnifying lenses.

Objective:  To sort and identify cones by their patterns of similarities and differences.

Ahead of time, collect a wide assortment of cones, being sure to have some cones that match any conifer trees growing on or around the school grounds, for a total of at least 100 cones. Try to collect five different kinds of conifer cones.

Right before your workshop, scatter these cones around the schoolyard for the children to find. Cluster small cones in groups so that they are more visible. Place markers at the corners of the area in which cones are hidden to focus the hunt.

Explain to the children that they will be going on a cone hunt, and, similar to an Easter egg hunt, the cones will be scattered around the schoolyard in plain view. They are to collect any they see that are not attached to trees and bring them back to a central gathering spot. Here, the children will sort the collected cones into separate piles based on their appearance, noting their similarities and differences. When all the cones are collected and sorted, observe each group of cones, share sorting criteria, and confirm that they all match.

Divide the class into five small groups and give each team one or more labeled cones from the Cone Kit to match with and identify the cones in their class cone collections. What features helped them identify the cones?

Materials: an assortment of cones (five different types, about 100 in all); paper or plastic bag for each child; Cone Set: common cones of New England.

Objective: To use written and picture clues to match cones to their evergreen branches.

Ahead of time, cut conifer branches from the same species as cones collected for Cone Hunt and Sort. Have each of the five small groups from the Cone Hunt and Sort activity read the Take a Bough clues attached to their labeled cone. Explain that they will use the clues to match their cones to real evergreen branches. Pass the cut branches around and have the children examine them, then use the Take a Bough clues to match one of the branches to their cone. For older children, include one extra branch to make it more challenging. Confirm and display the cones with their matching branches.

Younger children can use the Photos of Conifer Branches clues instead of Take a Bough clues.

Note: Fresh branches will be needed after a week or so. They will keep better refrigerated in a plastic bag or other cool location.

Materials: Cone Set: common cones of New England, identified cones from Cone Hunt and Sort, matching evergreen branches, rulers; for younger children: Photos of Conifer Branches.

PUPPET SHOW “A Very Pine Day”
Objective: To learn how to identify common conifer trees by leaf and cone characteristics.

Perform the puppet show or have a group of children perform it for the class. Afterward, ask questions to review the key details and vocabulary in the story. Use the conifer tree puppets to review similarities and differences in both leaf and cone features. Which tree has tiny cones? (Hemlock.) Upright cones? (Firs.) Which trees have short needles? (Hemlock, spruce, fir.) Which tree has needles in bundles? (Pine.) What are cones for? Emphasize that all cones serve the same purpose: to hold and protect the growing seeds until they are ready to be dispersed. Pass out cones and ask the children to pretend to be squirrels pulling off the bracts to find the seeds inside. Show examples of cones in various stages of development.

Materials: puppets, script, cones to pull apart, Cone Development and Explanation handouts.

Objective: To use observations to notice patterns in conifer branches and match them to trees outdoors.

Ahead of time, mark conifers on or near the school grounds with colorful pieces of surveyor’s tape and label them with the tree’s name. After playing Take a Bough, give each pair or small group of children a branch. Have the children compare their branch to the tagged conifers around the school grounds to find the one that matches their branch. After they identify their branch, they can exchange it for a different branch and try to identify another tree. For each branch, ask what pattern they noticed that helped them to match it to a living tree.

Materials: branches from Introduction or Take a Bough, one per group, surveyor’s tape, Some Conifers of New England guide.

Objective: To record observations of conifers and other seed-bearing structures in nature.

Begin by having the children pick a conifer tree. Ask them to carefully observe the shape of the whole tree. Is it taller than it is wide? Does the shape change from bottom to top? Look closely at the top of the tree. Is it narrow or wide? Pointed or broad? Ask the children to draw an outline of  the tree without lifting their pencils, while continuing to look back and forth between the tree and their drawings. After they’ve outlined their tree, what do they notice about the trunk and branches? Do the branches angle up from the trunk? Down? Straight out? Note the same thing about the tips of the branches. Compare drawings to see if you can recognize your type of tree in others’ drawings.

If there aren’t conifers growing on the school grounds, using colored pencils, have the children draw one of the branches from the Take a Bough activity

Materials: science journals or clipboards and paper, pencils, colored pencils; optional: branches from Introduction or Take A Bough activity.

UPPER GRADES CHALLENGE: Know Your Needles (Grades 5-6)
Objective: To use a scientific key to identify schoolyard conifers.

Have students work with a partner or in a small group. Let them select an evergreen tree or shrub on or near the school grounds to study.*  Provide each team with a Conifer Key. To demonstrate how a scientific key works, have everyone follow along as you key out a branch that you have selected ahead of time. Then have the groups try to key out their own tree or branch. Finally, have the students compare their branch and cone to the pictures in the Some Conifers of New England Picture guide. Does their branch resemble the description and picture in the guide? What characteristics helped to identify the species?

*Be sure that the tree or shrub picked is one that is included in the key provided. Some cultivated ornamental trees and shrubs are not included on the Conifer Key.

Materials: magnifying lenses, rulers, Conifer Key, Some Conifers of New England guide.

Objective: To observe and mark the spiral patterns of scales on conifer cones.

Ahead of time, collect enough cones to give one to each child. Hand out a cone to every child and point out the scales that make up each cone. Explain that these scales are arranged in spirals around a central stalk. In one direction, the spirals will wrap around and around the cone gradually while in the other direction it will rise steeply from bottom to top. Have the children turn the cone in one direction and see if they can see the spiraling rows of scales. When they distinguish the rows, have them select one row to follow, then, while slowly turning the cone, highlight the row with either a spot of paint or marker on the tip of each scale in the series. When children complete this assignment, have them turn the cone in the opposite direction to try to find a different row or spiral going in this new direction.

If using paint, use cotton swabs as “paintbrushes” and place a dollop of craft paint in a jar lid for children to share. Or they can use markers or gel pens to highlight the spirals. The spiral pattern is sometimes easier to see if the scales are closed. If soaked, cones will stay closed for a few days. However, they do need to be dry enough to hold paint for this activity.

For older grades only: As a supplemental discussion, introduce the Fibonacci sequence using the Fibonacci Numbers handout, and have children count the number of gradual and steep spirals in their cones. Did the numbers of these spirals correspond to numbers in the Fibonacci sequence?

Materials: Norway spruce or white pine cones; one per child, markers, gel pens or paint and cotton swabs, jar lids, Fibonacci Numbers handout.

Objective: To share observations and learning about cones and conifers.

Pass around a cone and have the children share one thing they learned about conifers.

Materials: a cone from a conifer.


Cones in the Rain: if you take a dry pine cone and place it in a jar of water, the scales will close up in about ten minutes. If removed from water, the scales will open up again in a day or two. On a tree, this insures that seeds will fall out only in dry weather when they are more likely to be blown away from the parent tree. Why would growing under a pine tree not be a good place for a little pine? (Too shady, crowded, might get covered up with needles.)

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