This fall lesson plan explores the science of autumn leaves. Objectives will depend on resources allocated to the lessons, and on ability of students. One possible set of objectives for elementary students could be to make students aware of: 1) What makes leaves green during spring/summer, and why they change colours in the fall (chlorophyll, photosynthesis); 2) What makes some leaves turn orange or yellow (other pigments like carotene and xanthophyll); 3) Why some leaves turn red or purple (glucose in sap); 4) Why leaves turn brown and dry in the fall (no water getting to leaves.)
Vocabulary and Introduction:
Read a story or give a brief lecture about the science of autumn leaves (see suggested books and web sites at the end of the article.) Science literacy lays the foundation for later success in the sciences, so take lots of time to discuss new vocabulary words. Words can be divided into those which students are expected to learn and be able to use in their everyday speech and written classwork (e.g. autumn, leaf/leaves, sap) and more technical terms they need to understand the lesson. Scientific vocabulary may be taught as pairs or opposites (e.g. deciduous vs. coniferous) or in groups of similar terms (e.g. chlorophyll, xanthophyll and carotene; or, photosynthesis, oxygen and carbon dioxide.) It may be helpful to write the words on illustrated charts or flashcards. These will be valuable later for fun follow-up activities.
Take a walk as a class to gather fall leaves, or bring leaves in for students to use in the classroom. Exploration can be as simple as a craft, or as elaborate as the green leaf chromatography project from Science Made Simple. Other possibilities include classifying leaves by colour, size or shape. This is a superb opportunity to work on graphing (number of leaves of each type) or on Venn diagrams (leaves that are small and red, versus leaves that are neither yellow nor maple.)
Easy fall crafts like bookmarks or collages can be made from leaf rubbings, or leaves protected using clear plastic sheeting. Press fall leaves in heavy books or a flower press for later use, or iron them carefully between two sheets of waxed paper. The resulting leaves can be used to create a fall bulletin board display, or students can include them in art projects or science reports.,/p>
Have students collect or draw specimens of leaves from different types of trees, and use them to create an album. Time can be given during science class to find out what trees the leaves came from, and to learn something about each type of tree. Forms for leaf collection albums can be found here, or you can create your own according to the needs of your students.
Fall Leaf Fun & Games
Reinforce the fall science students have learned through fun activities like puzzles and games. Use flash cards to play a game of concentration, or hold up a picture and see who can call out the correct vocabulary word. Give the students word finds, acrostics or anagrams, or create simple crossword puzzles using the fall leaves vocabulary. Create a science worksheet that asks students to match vocabulary words with images, or to group like words together (e.g. vocabulary words related to photosynthesis, types of pigments found in leaves, etc.)
Play a game of tag in the gym, or when you are out collecting leaves. In this game some students can be grouped together to represent packets of chlorophyll, carotene or xanthophyll. At the start of the game, the groups of chlorophyll are larger than the other groups. If a chlorophyll tags any other student, that student becomes part of the chlorophyll group. It is spring, and green is dominant. As play progresses the science teacher can break up chlorophyll groups (or reassign them to carotene or xanthophyll, if necessary.) Now it’s fall, and the chlorophyll is breaking down. Reds, oranges and yellows now begin to show through as the green loses its dominance. As the game winds down, you may choose to assign some students to represent the glucose that turns some leaves red or purple. Or you may simply have all groups break down. Students slow to a walk, and finally fall to the ground like the leaves do. This is a good way to bring activities to a close at the end of the day, or to prepare for a transition to another class.
Related Topics for Science Class:
Photosynthesis, life cycles of plants, how trees reproduce, different types of seeds and how they travel, the water cycle, birdwatching and keeping a bird feeder, how maple syrup is made, how sugar is made, candy making
Fall Themes for Science or Cross-Curricular Lesson Plans:
Apples, pumpkins, root vegetables, nuts and seeds, harvest time, back to school, Halloween, food preservation (drying, canning, curing, etc.) and how our ancestors prepared for winter
Web Pages for Autumn Leaves:
“Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?.” About.com New England Travel – more details for teacher or student research; lists types of trees whose leaves turn yellow, orange and red
“Why Leaves Change Color.” US Forest Service – good for teacher background or more advanced students
“Why Leaves Change Color in Fall.” Kidzone fun facts for Kids – simple explanation with fun illustrations, great for younger students
Books to Read About Autumn Leaves:
Fall Leaves Fall! by Zoe Hall (Scholastic, 2000)
Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert (Harcourt Children’s Books, 2005)
Leaves Fall Down: Learning about Autumn Leaves by Lisa Bullard (Picture Window Books, 2010)
Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf by Lois Ehlert (Harcourt Children’s Books, 1991)
The Seasons of Arnold’s Apple Tree by Gail Gibbons (Harcourt Brace & Co., 1984)
Why Do Leaves Change Color? by Betty Maestro (HarperCollins, 1994)