When brisk fall nights begin to light up trees’ leaves with reds and yellows, spend an evening outside. The spectacle of the season offers the perfect opportunity to enjoy the beauty of nature and teach your preschooler about the science of trees. By gathering fallen leaves and seeds from all the trees around you, your child will begin to notice what makes them unique.

The observation of nature is one of the first science skills available to children. (One study found that it’s the amount of time spent playing in nature (and not the time spent conducting science experiments) that has the greatest effect on children choosing to become scientists.)

So get outside and let your little scientist put a spotlight on their environment.

What you’ll need

  • Leaves and seeds from a variety of trees
  • A bag or basket to hold the leaves and seeds you collect

Make it happen

Take a walk with your child, in your neighborhood, in a park, or wherever’s convenient, and collect fallen leaves. If you can find them, collect the seeds too—they might be in the form of acorns, pine cones or eucalyptus pods. Talk to your child about the change of seasons, pointing out that deciduous trees lose their leaves while evergreen trees keep their leaves year-round.

At home, sort the leaves and seeds by color, shape and size. This helps your child develop observational skills like sorting and classifying. Help your child build their vocabulary by learning the names of a variety of trees, moving from general (tree) to more specific (oak, maple, ash, pine.) Try some of the following questions.

  • “What can you tell me about these leaves?”
  • “Which ones are alike? How are they alike?”
  • “Which ones are different?” “How are they different?”

Activity extenders

  • Help your child link each seed to its leaf (e.g. oak leaf and acorn; pine cone and pine needle; walnut leaf and walnut; maple and winged seed.)
  • Create an autumn leaf collage. Help your child glue the leaves and seeds to a piece of paper. Then you can label the names of the types of leaves and seeds.
  • Trace a leaf onto a piece of paper. Have your child color in the leaf.
  • Go to the library and check out a picture book on trees to learn more.