Temperate Deciduous Forests
by Zheljko Stanimirovic
Most of the first civilizations emerged in places with Mediterranean-like climate. However, preference by humans led to large-scale destruction of pristine Mediterranean forests, and by the time Middle Ages came, the most important forest in Europe was the broadleaved deciduous one.
That forest type was still well developed and lurked at edges of town. One of greatest human fears was to be lost in the forest and eaten by ferocious animals. Only super-humans could live there outside of civilization, and often these were not humans but fairies, elfs and dwarfs. Today, however, only remnants of these old forests are to be seen.
Best known trees in these forests are beech and oak, accompanied by maples, ashes, elms and wild ancestors of our present-day cultivated apples, pears, plums and cherries. Although leaves of all these trees share a common characteristic that they wither and fall off in autumn, they vary greatly in shape.
If you live in the climatic zone of temperate deciduous forests, you may want to include the topic in your curriculum year-round. Here are some suggestions for each season.
Early Autumn Or Fall
Start the year with bats! The European Bat Night is somewhere around end of August -- beginning of September. Invite a guest speaker from your local Bat Conservation Society. Make a cake with small bats on dark chocolate background (the above picture shows me eating one of these cakes). There is no need to postpone it until Halloween -- there will be those yummy pumpkin pies then anyway. Unfortunately, in many regions bats are victims of superstition and undeserved stereotyping. Explain to kids that we are going to be nice to bats the year round, not only on their "day".
Collect the autumn leaves! These can be used to make a nice herbarium collection. The older children should learn the names of the species, especially those native to your area. The autumn leaves collection can be used throughout the year whenever leaf shapes are important. For example, in many species the first spring leaves are too small and alike, but the autumn leaves are all well developed. Use the leaves to make nice pictures, with or without addition of colors. The youngest children, who are learning to count on the number line (one-two-three...), can practice on lobes of oak leaves. These vary in number even when coming from the same tree, but are repetitive enough as is needed in that age. Be careful to wash the hands after touching the leaves -- they contain tannin.
Collect the autumn nuts and acorns. These can be used as natural math manipulatives for practicing addition and subtraction. Mix them up in order to explain the children that these are abstract processes, not depending on kind of object.
I do NOT suggest that you try any bird species identification during the early autumn. Birds are then molting, look shaggy and many species can be extremely hard to distinguish. Therefore, any tries to identify them can frustrate the inexperienced observer.
Late Autumn Or Fall
In November the forest looks drab and uninviting, but there is place for more activities, some even indoor ones.
Play a very popular ecological game Oh, Deer where children act the ecological factors affecting deer in the forest. The precise instructions can be found on many web sites. Feel free to change the rules as best suited to your lesson. Take tally on the number of deer after each round, and draw graphs that represent the fluctuations in animal numbers. This is at the same time math, ecology and physical education.
Dissect the owl pellets! This is another popular activity for all age levels, which you may already use in your classroom. It can be used as the beginning of a unit on food chains, and different rodent groups (mice, voles etc.) are introduced as concepts.
Begin practice in identification of bird species! The meager number of present bird species is actually the advantage. It is easier to learn to recognize the five birds if there are only six than if they are swamped by twenty others. The present birds are year-round residents, and all of them are worthwhile to know. Use tapes or records to introduce bird songs to your students. That way, once the migrant birds arrive in spring, they will be recognized even if not seen.
Put out a bird feeder! Experiment with positions to find the ones where you can observe the birds best. Many forest bird species will in winter come even in gardens, so a well-placed feeder can be easily scanned from inside the window. Also put out nesting boxes for chickadees/tits. They may be used in winter as shelter during the cold night.
Observe lichens! Lichens grow throughout the year, but in winter they are more visible as the green leaves are not present. Most lichens grow on trunks of old trees, especially oak. Some may also grow on branches. Find a field guide and try to recognize species. As most lichens are extremely non-resistant to air pollutants, presence of certain species can be used to determine quantity of pollutants without doing chemical analysis. Beside this use in raising environmental awareness, lichens are one of best examples of symbiosis.
Continue with studying bird species! Winter guests have arrived and most of them will visit the bird feeder, which you now fill with choice morsels (seeds, nuts and various lipids). Be careful not to stop feeding before spring, as birds may become habituated and starve while waiting for your help. Birds belonging to certain family often group in mixed species flocks (especially finches and chickadees/tits). It is easier to look for distinguishing characteristics against the white background of snow, and presence of different species beside each other will give you good practice. A good field-guide book and a pair of binoculars are essential for this activity. Also continue practicing recognizing birdcalls and songs from tape.
Read aloud fairy-tales! Winter is the traditional time for such activity, and you shall remind the children of the times when there was no TV and the best stories were told by the fireplace. Many fairy-tales include forest as main background (Little Red Riding Hood, Three Pigs, Snow White). Choose versions where violence is reduced, especially with younger children. Older students can read chapter books, such as Red Fox, the original version of Bambi, and the Hobbit.
Recognize the first spring plants, such as snowdrop, violets and others! These plants flower and bring seed before the trees start producing leaves that cast a shade. Chart the emergence of each species. These charts can be compared from year to year, and are a good example of fluctuations in nature. Instruct students NOT to pick these plants, as they are mostly rare nowadays.
Enjoy the bird songs! Now the hard work of studying the songs during winter pays off as each singer is promptly recognized. Chart first records of each species (same as with plants) and use them to study fluctuations. Observe the hole-nesting species such as chickadees/tits breeding in boxes that you put out. You can count the number of caterpillars and other insects brought to baby birds by their parents (the number gradually increases as babies grow older, larger and hungrier).
Visit a zoo to see baby bears! Bears are born in winter while mother is in the den, and in spring emerge out of shelter to play. There are many other young mammals, too, and this opportunity can be used for explaining mammal classification. Bears should never be fed by children (or adults as well) as they may associate them with food (especially wild bears in national parks).