As cooler temperatures settle in and the maple trees begin their colorful autumn turn, author Tim Herd writes that the world of maple holds rich lessons for young learners.

When I used to do nature programs in elementary schools, the most common question I received from the eager upturned faces was: “Is it real?”

(What? You thought I brought fake nature?)

Despite how I may have liked to respond, the kids’ interest — and their question — was real, which reveals two important things:

  1. There’s an innate need to connect to our beautiful, resourceful, sustaining world.
  2. That connection is increasingly strained, ignored, and broken.

Perhaps it’s to be expected from a generation that has always known a “virtual reality.” But that such a question needs asking may well be the gasping canary of our educational coalmine.

No “virtual” substitute is truly viable for first-person knowledge and experience in our real world. Our food doesn’t come from a supermarket. Our water originates from sources other than the faucet. Our wildlife depends on clean resources and habitats, just like we do.

The more I thought about those elementary school visits, the clearer it became: one of the most direct and enjoyable interactions with nature — making pure maple syrup by tapping a tree and boiling its sap — could be the catalyst to extending its short season, turning it into productive, year-round educational adventures.

Although Canada and the New England states are well known as maple syrup producers, maple trees thrive over most of North America, and nearly anyone with access to a maple can tap the tree to make maple syrup. And the syrup itself is not only rich with flavor but history, culture, technology, science, and economics.

I’d already written Maple Sugar to entice year-round engagement with nature, but I wanted to help teachers and parents connect the many real lessons from the maple to young learners’ own realities. With that resource in hand, I collected more raw material and developed a Do-it-Yourself Maple Sugaring Multidisciplinary Curriculum.

DIY Maple Sugaring Multidisciplinary Curriculum Cover

Tim’s curriculum covers the science, history, geography (and more) of maple.

Students from 9 years old to those at the high school level can follow the footsteps of both bygone and present maple syrup producers, learning how to tap the trees, secure the sap, separate the sugar, and taste the treat themselves —and developing virtuous habits and many practical employment and life skills along the way.

With autumn in the immediate forecast, bestowing its particular glow on the landscape, one activity perfectly timed for the season is the study of seeds and the life cycle of maples, those great sap producers. As the “helicopter” seed pods blanket the ground, students can collect and examine a variety of seeds to consider how seed design impacts dispersal by wind and water. Why not give it a try with your young learner? Who knows — you may discover something new yourself! I hope Seeds to Go lesson, and the Do-it-Yourself Maple Sugaring curriculum, become a real avenue for real people to reconnect to our big, beautiful, real world. Now get out and go see! Learn! Enjoy!

Tim Herd

Tim Herd is the executive director of a parks and open space commission in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. He was the founder and director of The… See Bio

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