Your children have made the most out of the gloom and drear of this

February 15th, 2012
Dear Red Room Families,
Your children have made the most out of the gloom and drear of this winter, even as it drags on with its
grey skies and bleak landscape. They are still excited about going outside every day, braving the bitter cold
with smiles and playing boisterously in the barren park, jumping in the last of the dry leaves and digging with
fallen branches. We still talk about the trees. They note the lack of color and bare, exposed branches, but are
nevertheless inspired. Have you seen the dark enchanted forest growing in our classroom? The children see
through different eyes than us, painting a vibrant and majestic winter into their own personal trees. This spirit
has kept our tree study alive, taking us through five months of studying, creating and reinventing. It has been a
most insightful process, and has taught us all far more than we could have expected.
In the beginning of the year, we spent almost every day visiting the tree
we adopted that the children affectionately named Max, after the boy from
Where the Wild Things Are. The children collected the leaves and skin off the
bark to study back in the classroom. We made leaf rubbings and dissected the
fruit and seedpods that surrounded the roots of the tree. On our way to the
playground on some days, we would detour just to stop by and see how Max
was doing. It became he, and he became part of our family. When the
teachers suggested that we build our own version of Max in our classroom, the
children were ecstatic. They became such experts on our little birch tree that
making a Max for ourselves would be easy.
After brainstorming over junk materials, the children painted
Styrofoam squares brown and green to make a grassy base for their
tree. They chose paper towel and toilet paper tubes to create the
trunks. Attaching them with masking tape, they built them up tall,
making six trunks to match the Max outside. With the skin of the
bark there for reference, they mixed accurate shades of white, peach
and pink to paint the cardboard. For days, they painted and repainted
until they perfected the trunks of their tree. Their devotion was
endless. They dug holes in the base to insert the trunks, stabilizing
them with glue and using thin cylindrical wooden blocks inside the
tubes to weigh them down. After collecting several branches, they
painted them all white, poking them into the base to make roots and
taping them at the top of the trunks for branches. It was truly incredible to see them debate and problem solve
amongst themselves, to watch their faces light up as they figured out how to fortify their structure or make their
tree look more realistic. They finished by taping the leaves they had collected to the tips of the branches. Our
Max was magnificent.
Whenever anyone walked into our room, they would gasp in
admiration of our tree. Our Max was a product of a culmination of
knowledge, astute observations, studious work and most of all, love. He was
impressive. And he was always on our minds. The children would often
discover Max in unexpected places. One day while reading Caps for Sale, by
Esphyr Slobodkina, Abe exclaimed, “That tree is white!” Hadrien followed
“Oh, it’s Max!” The children had established such a deep connection with
birch tree that he was ever present to us.
As it was autumn, the leaves the children attached to our tree were red,
orange, yellow and brown. Appropriately, they began to fall off one by one,
at the base by the roots, similar to how we found them outside. But day after
our tree began to lurch over. The teachers would arrive in the morning to
on the floor and flaking paint. To be honest, we panicked. It was
heartbreaking to see Max falling apart after all of their hard work. How can
explain this to the kids? we thought every morning. Rather than let them see
deteriorate, we tried everything to fix him before and after school. We stuffed
inside the hollow parts of the tubes and wrapped the tubes in extra masking
When that did not work, we tied strings around the weakened trunks and
propped them up with a pulley system we had created. Alas, he was toppling
we had no choice but to talk to the class about it.
At a Circle Time, we approached the children with a question: Has anyone noticed anything different
about Max lately? The children had much to say, “He’s broken!” and “He’s falling!” Avery commented on the
string we had added, “It can’t hold the tree because it’s too heavy.” We agreed. There was another idea, one
that stung me with tears. Matt said, “Maybe he got old.” We had characterized our tree with such human
traits, a name, a gender, emotions… Of course, he would then age like a human as well. The rest of the
children affirmed it: “The pieces were getting too heavy and old.” They handled it better than we thought. It
seemed like they were at peace with what happened. A teacher suggested that we deconstruct our tree and make
our own small, personal versions out of the pieces. They would surely be
sturdier and live longer if they were smaller. The children approved and we
set to rebuild after the winter vacation.
In January, we strolled by Max in Morningside to see how he was
faring through the winter weather. All of his leaves had finally fallen and we
could see every one of his branches. Ava was the first to comment, saying
“He has no leaves, just bones!” After she thought for a moment, she added,
“He’s just naked!” Her friends agreed, walking up to the trunks to get a
closer look. Without leaves, our birch tree looked completely different.
Sam was excited. He turned to everyone and announced, “Max became a
new Max!” Winter had not taken away Max’s vitality; it just gave him a
new life. Our own personal trees would have to match this transformation.
We spent some time reading about nature in the wintertime and
educating ourselves on what trees and animals still flourish in this weather.
Winter Trees, by Carole Gerber, taught us about spruces and pines, as well
as birches surviving in the cold. To get a glimpse of the woods blanketed in
snow, we read Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, a Robert Frost poem illustrated by Susan Jeffers. We
closed our eyes, blew air and whistled, pretending we were in a windy blizzard. We were ready to work on our
new little trees.
The children began a process, similar to the first one. They chose bases and branches for trees, and
painted them. In considering the wintertime, they chose extra colors like blue and silver that would give the
illusion of frost and ice. We gave them white sand in a shaker and they made it snow. Everyone wanted to
make a personal tree, even our newest friends who were not engaged in the original process of creating our big
replica of Max.
Making trees has become an
important part of pretend in our
classroom. Most of the stories the
children are interested in acting out
involve dark forests and woods.
They are using cardboard boxes,
scarves and play dough to make all
kinds of trees. “Look! I’m working
on a tree,” Ollie has said, while
stacking pieces of clay and sticking
a chopstick out of the top. Play
scenarios often revolve around trees
in our classroom, which help the
children work through some
complex ideas. Recently, Lev was building a tree out of play dough and he abruptly chopped it in half. “Look,
the hurricane broke my tree! The huge storm broke it!” he shouted. But after the destruction, there was a
rebirth. “It’s okay,” he said, pressing the dough back together. “It grew back.” Revival has been a common
theme throughout this curriculum. After our first Max fell apart, the children were committed to giving him
new life. They wanted him to “grow back,” but into tiny new trees, trees that they could all have.
Our classroom forest is growing by the day, adorned lovingly with decorative beads that the children
have been making using paper and water mixed with glue. It is a long process; they have to roll the paper
around a chopstick, apply glue, twist them off slowly and let them dry before stringing them. But the children
want to personalize their trees, beautify them to offset the winter bareness. The trees are truly breathtaking.
One day, we read Pablo’s Tree, by Pat Mora, a book about a boy whose grandfather decorates the boy’s
tree for his birthday every year. It inspired the children to think of other things to embellish our little trees with.
“Lights!” suggested Zoya. “Maybe bells?” The options are endless. The personal engagement that these
children have to one particular tree has opened a door of possibilities, an infinite curriculum. They have
developed a sincere sensitivity and appreciation for nature that surprises and amazes us daily. In reading The
Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein, it was clear that the children had a deeper understanding of the tree because of
their own connection to Max. Like Max, this tree had feelings. Throughout the story, the children agreed in
unison, “The tree is not happy,” or “That tree is very sad.” I could not help but shed some tears at the end.
Max has been our own kind of Giving Tree. He has taught us about compassion and dedication, about
thinking and problem solving in a group with others. The children have figured out how to turn failure into
success, to be flexible and accepting when the unexpected arises. We have learned so much about working as a
community to rebuild. I recall earlier in the year that some parents expressed concern about how to talk to
children about death. Inadvertently, we finally came up with an answer. As we think on the life cycle of both
our real and constructed trees and watch how they continue to unfold, we can see that even when something is
gone, it can always live on. The end is just another beginning.
Warm wishes,
Ashley, Maryann & Nicole