Exploring Animals in Trees

Has your child ever gazed at a tree and watched its leaves blow in the breeze or birds flying in and out of it? What about squirrels running up and down the trunk? You can help your child learn about trees, and the animals that use them, by exploring the trees in your backyard or neighborhood, and doing some leaf and bark rubbings together. 

  • Target Age:  3-6 
  • Learning Goals:  collecting and recording data, identifying patterns and relationships, developing ideas
  • Related Episode: Episode 107: Trees Company


Trees are plants that have characteristics and needs in common with all living things. They also provide a habitat for other plants and animals, and some of these animals have physical characteristics adapted for helping them move in and around the tree. 

Getting Ready
When you are out and about with your child, draw her attention to trees you see. Depending on where you live and the time of year, you may spend a few minutes together enjoying the shade from a tree, looking at some brightly colored foliage, or collecting some interesting pods and nuts. Encourage her to notice any small creatures or other animals she sees in or around the trees.

Exploring Trees


  • My Tree Observation
  • Trees
  • Pad of paper and pencil
  • Magnifying glass (optional)
  • Crayons or colored pencils for drawing; marker for writing


Choose a couple of trees in your backyard or neighborhood to explore with your child. Invite her to be an animal detective, and encourage her to look and listen for insects, birds, squirrels, or other animals that live in the trees or visit them. Take a pad of paper and pencil with you, and make sketches or notes of interesting things you see or jot down ideas that come up. If possible, take a magnifying glass along.

Encourage your child to stand back and notice the size, shape, and color of a tree from a distance. How can she imitate the shape of the whole tree by using her body? What about just one of the branches?

As she gets closer to the tree, encourage her to look more closely at its parts - leaves, fallen twigs, or branches - and any nuts, seeds, or pods on the tree. Collect some to look at more closely. Encourage her to notice the colors, shapes, and sizes of the different parts by asking questions like "What words might you use to describe this?" and "What is special about that part?" 

Encourage her to look for evidence of insects, caterpillars, or other small animals on the leaves and tree parts. Then help her look for birds' nests or squirrels' nests in the tree. Encourage her to listen for birds calling in the tree. Invite her to think about how these animals use the tree by asking questions like "Why do you think the squirrel/caterpillar/bird likes to be in the tree?" Jot down any interesting things she sees that may be evidence of animal visitors.

If she observes some small creatures or other animals in and around the tree, encourage her to watch how the animal is moving through the tree. For example, is it climbing on the trunk using its claws or is it flying from branch to branch using its wings? Invite her to use her body to imitate how the animal moves. Ask "What parts of your body do you need to use to get around in the tree?" If it's a small creature, invite your child to look at it more closely with the magnifier. 

Recording Tree Observations:
Using My Tree Observation, invite your child to draw the tree and any animals she might have seen moving in or near the tree. Write down her descriptions of the tree and animals she observed.

Making Leaf and Bark Rubbings


  • Trees
  • Plain white paper and crayons with paper torn off
  • Masking tape (optional)
  • Cardboard or clipboard
  • Paper bag for collecting leaves


  1. Take some paper, masking tape (optional), and crayons outside. Look for several trees with different types of bark and leaves.

  2. Encourage your child to close her eyes and feel the bark of the trees. Ask "How does it feel?" and "Which one is the smoothest? the roughest?" Encourage her to think about what it would feel like to be a small creature climbing or crawling on the bark. Ask "How would you hold on?" and "Do you think it would be harder to walk up the trunk or to walk on a branch? Why do you think so?" 

  3. Use tape to hold a piece of paper on the trunk at your child's eye level, or hold the paper for her. Encourage her to rub a crayon horizontally over the surface of the paper on the bark, just hard enough so that the bark';s texture shows on the paper. Encourage her to do several trees and compare the rubbings. "How can you tell which rubbing belongs to which tree?"

  4. Help your child collect some leaves from different trees. Encourage her to feel the tops and undersides of the leaves with her eyes closed. How can she describe the textures? Make leaf rubbings by putting the leaf on a piece of cardboard or a clipboard, covering it with the paper, and rubbing the crayon over it. Encourage your child to look closely at the rubbings and notice details from the leaves. Encourage her to think about - and show you - what it would be like to be an animal walking, climbing, crawling, or landing on these different leaves. 

  5. Once she has made several leaf and bark rubbings, play a matching game with them. Mix them up and see if she can both figure out which tree each leaf and bark rubbing came from. How can she tell?

Talking About Trees: Encourage your child to share her tree explorations, and her leaf and bark rubbings, with family members and friends. Invite family members to share stories with your child about trees that were special to them when they were children, or saplings they had planted that are now full-grown trees. 

Take it Further

With your child, do a more extensive exploration of animals that live in and around trees. Make a list of the animals your child finds, and encourage her to describe what they are doing and how they are moving through the trees as you take her dictation. Ask questions that help her think about how the animals use the trees: “What do you think that creature was doing in the tree?” and “How do you think the tree helps that creature?” 

More Information About Trees: 
The Arbor Day Foundation has a site for families with free, downloadable family activities. The site also invites families to send in photos of children imitating tree shapes or children’s drawings of trees.

More Ways to Discover and Learn

Go on an Adventure!

There are many free public parks, arboretums, and tree museums that welcome family visits and provide education about trees. Go on an adventure to a local park, and call ahead to see if you can join a guided tour with other families of young children. Take along a picnic lunch if permitted and eat it under the trees. Go to a local zoo or animal habitat and spend time with your child observing animals that live in trees.

Literacy Connection

  • Flowers, pressed flowers
  • Markers for writing
  • Heavy cardstock or construction paper
  • Crayons or colored pencils for drawing
  • Plastic wrap (optional), hole punch, yarn or string

As you collect and press individual flowers, encourage your child to describe them. Take her dictation, writing down her words on the paper next to the flower. Encourage your child to use words to describe the shapes, colors, and textures of the flower parts. This is a good time to introduce and use "flower words" with your child like blossom and petal. Invite her to draw and describe any insects or small animals that might have visited the flower.

Help your child make a small flower book from her pressed flowers by punching holes on the left side of each piece of paper and attaching them with yarn or string. Optional: Before punching holes and tying pages together, cover each page with plastic wrap. Invite your child to share and "read" the book to family members and friends.

New Word
Habitat: The place or environment where a plant or animal normally lives or grows; the living and nonliving parts of the environment utilized by an animal for survival 

Look in a Book

  • I Can Name 50 Trees (The Cat in the Hat's Learning LibraryTM) by Bonnie Worth. Random House, 2010.
  • The Lorax by Dr. Seuss. Random House, 1971.
  • Animals That Live in Trees (Books for Young Explorers) by Jane R. McCauley. National Geographic Society, 1986.
  • Peterson First Guide to Trees by George A. Petrides, illustrated by Olivia Petrides and Janet Wehr. Houghton Mifflin, 1993 (or 2nd ed., 1998, edited by Roger Tory Peterson).


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