This blog was written in early 2016 while Rachel worked at Chippewa Nature Center.
Late February and early March is a magical time in Michigan! At Chippewa Nature Center’s Nature Preschool in Midland, Michigan (United States) we take full advantage of this unique time to connect to nature in a way that is unique to our place in the world.
This time of the year is when the maple trees send nutrient-filled from roots to buds in order produce the first leaves of the season. The exciting part is collecting, boiling, and making the sap into sweet and tasty maple syrup. For generations people in the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada have been making syrup in the springtime after trees have been dormant for a few months and nighttime temperatures are below freezing and daytime temperatures are above freezing. It’s also important that collection occur before the buds open or the sap becomes bitter—yuck! While all trees have sap the maple tree has a higher concentration of sugar, so it takes less boiling to evaporate the excess water and make syrup.
At Nature Preschool we have an annual study of maple trees that includes activities inside, outside, and beyond the play area. When children first arrive in the morning they always sign-in, and during maple syrup season we make these sign-in activities connected to maple syrup. For example, predicting how many gallons of sap we’ll collect that day. In the outdoor play space we have sap buckets hanging from trees so children can check them during free play. Children are often seen integrating maple syrup production into their outdoor imaginative play, such the giant sap blender a group made using a section of pipe. (By the way, we don’t normally blend sap—this was their own extension.)
However, the most exciting activities are when we load up our “sap wagon” and leave the play area. The first day we focus on identifying maple trees by noticing buds, bark, and opposite branching. Once we’ve found the right trees, we drill a hole in the tree, hammer in a spile, and hang a bucket. If we’re really lucky it will be a day where the sap is flowing and will begin dripping immediately. (This of course requires a taste test!) Then, over the course of a couple of weeks we visit those trees every day to see how much sap we have gathered in our buckets.
After collecting the sap each day, we head back to the classroom where we measure the sap into one-gallon containers and count our season total. Our goal is 40 gallons of sap because that’s how much sap it takes to make 1 gallon of syrup, which we celebrate with a pancake breakfast! Towards the end of the season we also have an extra special outing where we hike to the nature center’s Sugarhouse to see the sap being boiled in the evaporator pan over the woodstove.
All of these activities are ways to connect children to the natural world unique to our community, which helps create a sense of place. There are many other positive child outcomes, such as children becoming tuned into seasonal changes; classifying; counting; measuring volume; and much more! But most importantly? It’s a fun and magical time to be in the woods—for children and adults alike!
Written by Rachel A. Larimore.
Rachel Larimore is a previous Director of Education at Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, Michigan, USA. She is a Claire Warden associate trainer. She wrote the book “Establishing a Nature-Based Preschool” and is currently a doctoral student at Michigan State University focusing on nature-based early childhood education. Learn more about Rachel and her work.