Tree Murals and Foxes and Rabbits

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine

The children’s program of the religious education conference continued this morning. Lisa and I are doing nature and ecology with rotating groups of children in grades 1-6. Some notes on Thursday’s activities:

We started off with the 1st/2nd graders this morning. It’s a small group (only 8 children), with mostly 2nd graders. They have been a very easy group — lots of sunny personalities, and no conflicting personalities. The weather was finally clear and dry, so at last we were able to do one of the lessons we had planned out in advance — the Tree Mural project, a way to help children appreciate a living thing (a tree) while learning about the ecological concept of habitat.

First we went out and “adopted” a tree. We lay around the base of it while Lisa read a sort of guided meditation to help the children get a sense of the tree (the complete lesson plan is at the very end of this post). It was a little hard for children of this age to focus on this part of the activity, but they did pretty well — especially when we all sat up and started looking for living creatures on and around the tree. The children found spiders, ants, caterpillars, a hole that might be a chipmunk hole, and other small creatures.

Then we went back to our tent, where we had a big table set up. I drew a very sketchy outline of a tree on a big piece of paper (30″x96″), with a tall tree trunk and a deep tap root, and then we let the children take over. They drew branches and pine needles and sun and sky above ground; they drew roots and stones and underground pipes below ground. Then they started drawing in living creatures who might live in and around the tree: birds and mole and ants (lots of ants, with elaborate ant tunnels and ant hills), an owl living in a hollow in the tree, spiders, worms, snakes, and lots of other creatures. At the end, I wrote the key concept statement at the top of the mural: “Our tree is home to many living creatures.” And of course we talked about Unitarian Universalists try to respect all living things, and respect the web of life.

We had expected this activity to take a half an hour. The children grew so involved that we spent the entire hour and a quarter on the activity. At the end, we took the completed mural over to show our adopted tree, and then we hung it up near the entrance to the dining room so that everyone in the conference community (including parents of the children) could see it.


In the second half of the morning, we had the 3rd and 4th graders. They wanted to play a game that we had played last year, called “Foxes and Rabbits” (rules for the game here). The game had been a little chaotic when we played it last year, with both the children and us adult leaders getting a little frustrated. But I thought we could play for half an hour, and then do another activity that we adults really wanted to try.

We reviewed the rules of the game. One of the children in the group is on the autism spectrum;– he is fairly high functioning, but he had wanted to have a day off from the group today. But as he listened to the rules of the game, he got drawn in, and came and joined us in the circle.

We began to play. At first, it was just as chaotic as last year. Then suddenly, everyone seemed to internalize the rules, and we played round after round of the game. There were a few little squabbles over the rules, but on the whole everything went very well indeed — and the child with autism was fully included in the game. And while we were playing, the children noticed that sometimes there were population explosions of rabbits, and then pretty soon there would be population explosions of foxes, and so on.

The children were having so much fun that we kept playing for the whole hour. At the end, we all went back to our tent and talked over the game. The children thought some of the rules needed adjustment:– It’s not fair that the rabbits have to be completely still so the foxes can’t catch them! We talked about how, in the real world, rabbits did have to be absolutely still so that the foxes couldn’t see them. But maybe we could really play in the trees, so the rabbits could hide. Yeah! And maybe the leaves should have to be eaten twice before they’re gone. Yeah, and maybe the rabbits should have to eat twice, from two different leaves, that would be more like what real rabbits have to do.

We talked over a number of different rule changes that we might make, always trying to make the game more like real life. We decided that maybe next year we could try playing the game again, but with the different rules.

Tree Mural Project

Sensory immersion: Adopt-a-tree [10-15 minutes]

Find a big, full-size tree to adopt (allow older children significant input into this decision, but be more directive with the youngest ones).

Have everyone lie on the ground looking up with their heads in by the trunk of the tree (the adult leading this should not lie because then his/her voice will not be heard by those on the other side of the tree trunk — but the other adult should lie down with the kids). “We’re going to look very carefully up into the tree. Start by looking as far up into the tree as you can — see if you can see the topmost branches from where you are lying. If you can’t see the topmost branches, look for the farthest-away leaf that you can see. Now look for the twig that leaf is attached to, and then follow that twig back to a branch, and then to a larger branch. If you were a squirrel, you could walk on all the branches and twigs. Take a moment and pretend you’re a squirrel walking from branch to branch….”

Next: what other animals live up in a tree? Can you see any of them?

Now life on bellies around the tree, and pretend that you can look through the earth: how far down do the roots go? What animals live among the roots of the tree?

Sit in a circle around the tree, facing outwards. Listen to the tree — what do you hear? Can you hear any animals that live in or around the tree?

Drawing the mural [15 minutes]

Based on the sensory immersion activity above, make a tree mural, showing branches above ground and roots below ground. (For younger kids, adults will want to outline basics: tree trunk, big branches, ground level, big roots.)

Key concept: habitat. Key concept statement: “Our tree is home to many creatures.”

Process to help guide the children in creating the mural:

  • “What lives in a tree?” (let children help develop ideas)
  • “Where do these creatures live?” (e.g., below ground worms, above ground birds, etc.)
  • Possibly research who lives in the actual tree we’ve adopted — go back to visit the adopted tree as necessary
  • Children draw tree denizens on the tree mural

Summary statement: “All these living creatures have homes, just as you and I have a home. The tree is their home.” Then review key concept statement: “Our tree is home to many creatures.”

Draw in the sun, and show energy flow.