10 secrets to identifying trees

Turn kids into tree detectives—and tree protectors—with these fun activities.

Observing and identifying trees is a type of play that benefits kids in multiple ways. For starters, research has found that simply being around trees improves cognitive development and lowers the risk of emotional and behavioral problems. “Because there's more to see of trees visually, you see less of the urban environments,” says Mikael Maes, a researcher at the University College London who did the study.”There's more buffering of the noises that can irritate people in cities.”

(Read more about why city trees are good for kids.)

Plus, identifying trees teaches kids to be observant and—by extension—to care about trees and the broader natural environment, says Timothy Beatley, a sustainable city researcher and author of Biophilic Cities: Integrating Nature Into Urban Design and Planning.

“Understanding the differences in the shape of a white oak leaf versus a red oak develops a sense of competency and accomplishment and pride,” he says. “Kids should become part of the community that protects the trees around us.”

You don’t have to be an expert yourself to inspire children to take a closer look at trees. They hold lots of clues that tell you who they are, and a little detective work can bring out their secrets. Here are 10 ideas to get started.

Look for the leaves. Plenty of leaves—for instance, from tulip poplar, willow, and ginkgo trees—have unusual shapes that can tell you right away what kind of tree it isOther leaves will give you some hints: Long needles point to pines, and some maples have a distinctive five-pronged shape.

Even just the basic oval-shaped leaves have clues. And if the leaves grow directly opposite each other on a branch, you could be looking at a black walnut or sweetgum tree. Trees with leaves that grow in alternate spaces on a branch include ash, birch, and sycamore.

Follow your nose. Certain trees have distinctive smells, especially if you break their twigs and take a whiff. Tulip poplar trees have a spicy smell, the roots of sassafras can smell like root beer, and the fruit of ginkgos smells, well, terrible.

Bark up a tree. A child’s sense of touch can also help ID trees. For instance, trees with smooth, unbroken bark could be beech or red maple; peeling bark can mean sycamore or birch.

Even the ridges of the bark can provide some clues: White ash bark has vertical ridges that intersect, but northern red oak bark has vertical uninterrupted ridges. Bark from the white oak has horizontal ridges.

Then there’s bark that looks like scales, which suggests a pine or spruce tree; diamond-shaped holes in bark—called lenticels—are found on aspens.

Shape it up. Take a step back and look at a tree’s overall shape. Trees that grow in long, tall columns could be Italian cypresses, Lombardy poplars, or pyramid oaks. Trees that are pyramids or cones include blue spruce, Fraser fir, and western red cedar. Round-shaped trees might be sugar maple, Bradford pear, or white ash.

Look for fruit or nuts. Not every tree bears fruit or nuts, but they can be telltale signs for those that do. Trees with fruit that look like blackberries and have saw-toothed leaves are mulberries. Beech trees have nutshells covered with spikes.

Junipers are different from pines—they don’t have the typical-looking cones (which house the nuts) but instead show off what look like large blue berries. Douglas firs have more distinctive cones than other pines, with “mouse-tailed bracts” that look like three-pronged tongues sticking out from the cones’ scales.

Flowers say a lot. A tree’s blooms can also help narrow down the ID. For example, some dogwoods and black locust trees both have white flowers—but black locust flowers grow in bunches, and dogwood flowers are scattered throughout.

Cherry trees have distinctive pink blossoms; saucer magnolias have white, pink, purple, or lavender blossoms that look like crocuses growing on the trees. Kids should look down as well—jacaranda trees have beautiful purple flowers that leave a sticky mess all around the tree.

Try some tree tech. Using an app can feel like cheating, but some are designed to help kids identify trees through a series of yes-or-no questions that teach them observation skills and how to make new IDs without technology. Apps like PictureThis, PlantSnap, and Seek ask you to take pictures of the tree and its bark; families can also log how many different species they’ve seen.

The Arbor Day Foundation can also help narrow in on tree identification with questions that highlight the differences between trees. Also, many cities have local groups that will lead you on a tree-identifying excursion, or have designated areas where trees are identified so you can learn their names and see their distinguishing characteristics.

Find an obsession. Children might balk at identifying all the trees, but choosing just one to be an expert on can help kids take more of an interest, and therefore ownership, says Nancy Ross Hugo, outdoor writer and author of Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees. One way to do that is to match a tree’s characteristics with a child’s personality. “You connect the kid to some tree that reminds you of them for some reason,” she says. “The child is fast-growing like a poplar, or staunch like a hickory, or graceful like a willow.”

Establish a tree timeline. It’s one thing to ID a tree in spring, but learning what it looks like during other times of the year is an important part of observation. Beatley suggests an exercise he has college students do: Sit underneath the same tree every day (or week, or month) and take note of the differences. Ask kids to draw the tree in different seasons and at different times of day, and collect its leaves throughout the year to notice the changes.

Rename a tree. Hugo says that tree identification doesn’t have to be about identifying the tree at all. It can be more about inspiring a child’s interest in nature and stimulating their sense of observation and curiosity. Looking at, touching, and smelling the tree can tell children way more about a tree than just its name.

“We seem to think that if you can name it, you know what it is,” Hugo says. “Well, not necessarily.”

Instead, ask kids things like: If you were the first person on Earth to see this tree, what would you name it? Would you name it for the feel of its bark, or the look of its flowers, or the way it grows? Its shape or its leaves? Those questions will get kids looking first—and naming later.

Read This Next

Why city trees can be good for kids’ brains
10 ways to boost the benefits of sunlight for kids