Trees: Tree Life Cycle

Pre-Visit Activity

Adapted from Project Learning Tree, "Tree Life Cycle" and Shelburne Farms:  Project Seasons, "A Year in the Life of a Seed" 


Students will discover trees go through life cycles as do all living things.  Students will act out the stages of life for a tree, from seed to decomposing dead log. 


  • White board and markers or blackboard
  • Plant mister
  • Seed collection (walnuts, maple, acorns, etc.)
  • Lullaby, wintry, rainy, lively, slow, and windy music (optional)
  • Small white cloth (one per student)
  • Box of crackers (one cracker per student)


Most trees begin as seeds.  Generally, trees are categorized as either flowering or non-flowering.  Angiosperms (which translates to seed in a vessel), are flowering plants such as wildflowers, shrubs, and many deciduous trees.  From the flowers of angiosperms develop seeds, then fruits to help protect and disperse those seeds.  Gymnosperms (from Latin words meaning "naked") have seeds that are not enclosed in fruit or flowers, but instead produce their seeds in cones.  Gymnosperms include conifers such as firs and pines. 

Seeds are well adapted to house the plant's next generation because they provide both nourishment and protection for the infant plant.  An inner layer, surrounding the embryo, stores enough food to nourish the tiny plant when it first sprouts until its roots can take nutrients from the soil and its leaves can produce their own food.  An outer seed coat protects the embryo from drying out, freezing and being destroyed by some animals.  An apple (fruit surrounding the apple seeds) is likely to be eaten, but the hard, smooth seed coat passes through an animal's digestive system intact. 

Once sprouted and established as a sapling, trees continue to grow, but are subject to many outside forces, such as insect and fungus attacks, getting eaten by animals, lightning strikes, and other weather-related risks.  If they survive to old age, trees eventually weaken, die and fall down to be decomposed and returned as nutrients and other elements back into the soil. 


1.  Seat children in a circle and ensure all can hear you and see the board.

2.  Discuss the idea of life cycles by asking students to describe the life cycle or story of a person.  Ask children what steps they will go through as they grow up.  How did they begin life?  Make sure children include infancy, toddler, childhood, teenager, adult, and senior (they may understand grandparent stage).  Write or draw representative pictures of these stages on the board as children think of them.  Use the top of the board for these illustrations so you can draw corresponding tree stages on the bottom.

3.  Ask children how trees are "born."  Show children different seeds and ask them if they know what is inside all of the seeds, even though they are shaped and sized differently.  What is the purpose of a seed?  What does it need to grow?  (Make sure they include water and sunlight).  Tell children they are going to act out the life of a seed, like actors in a play and must listen carefully for directions from you, the director.  Remind children playfully (if necessary) that seeds do not talk, giggle or whisper!

4.  Explain that it's autumn and seeds are falling from a maple tree, getting ready for a long winter rest.  It's getting too cold and hard to find water for seeds to grow right now, so instead, it's time for a nap.  Explain that each seed comes with its own food to help it begin life in the spring.  Give each a snack and stress that if they want to survive and grow in the spring, they must not eat their food until it warms up in the spring and rains begin to fall.  Ask each student to flutter gently to the ground, plant themselves an arm's length from their nearest fellow seed and curl up in a tight ball.  (You can play lullaby music at this point).  Encourage children to snore gently as they lay dormant guarding their spring snack.

5.  As winter progresses, snow begins to fall.  Gently drape the dormant seeds with white fabric pieces, explaining that these are their winter blankets of snow.  (If you are using music, play "wintry" music).  Students should continue to sleep soundly through the winter, guarding their snack until spring rains come.  If indoors, turn off the lights.

6.  Next comes spring.  Explain that the ground is slowly starting to warm and the seeds slowly and quietly awaken.  Encourage them to wiggle just a bit and yawn, but don't stretch yet, because they haven't begun to grow yet.  They are still under the snow, and it's not yet time to eat their food.  Tell children once they feel the warm spring rains begin, they can pop out a root (stick out a foot) and begin to slurp up water.  (If you are using music, rainy sounds are now appropriate).  Gently mist sleeping seeds with the plant mister and encourage them to make slurping sounds and stick out their "roots."

7.  Tell children it's now time to begin to uncurl slightly and eat their stored food.  As they enjoy their snack, explain they now will have the energy to grow and sprout from under the ground.  (Music would now be lively).  Tell children that on the count of three, they should throw off their snow blankets, rise to their knees, and stretch their branches (arms) upward.  If indoors, turn on the lights at this time.

8.  Now it's summer and our trees have sprouted, grown into saplings, and have leaves.  Have children wiggle their fingers overhead as their leaves gather sunlight.  Have children make "ahhhh" sounds as they gather in sunlight.  Remind children sound effects must be quiet enough so they can hear your continued instructions.  Leaves make food for the tree to grow on, using sunlight, water, and air.  (Children can make eating sounds if they keep quiet so they can hear your continued instructions.)  This food enables the trees to grow more, so have children stand up (feet together) and grow tall.  As trees grow taller above ground, their roots underground are also getting longer.  Have children spread their feet apart and wiggle their toes as the roots grow and slurp up water.  Explain that slurping, eating, and "ahhhh" noises should really go on continually, and allow them to do that for a bit.  Then ask children to quiet down again so they can hear their next directions.

9.  Trees get old, just like people, and at this point, explain that your trees are getting too old to survive much longer.  (Play slow/grand music if you have it).  Have children move their legs together again because their roots are rotting.  (Begin windy music.)  Tell children a strong storm is pulling on their branches and old roots, and can't hold them up any longer.  Have them gently crash and fall to the ground.

10.  Wait for quiet.  Whisper that although they have died, there can still be new life where they lay.  As trees rot, their old wood turns into nutrients and other elements that enrich the soil under them, and before long a new seed can sprout.  Have children stick up one arm as this new sprout begins to grow.

11.  Encourage applause for the good life these trees have lived.  Ask children to collect white cloths, plant mister, and any leftover crackers.