Trees, leaves and sandwich boards

posted in: Donna Jo Napoli, Kadir Nelson | 9

Sometimes I love the books I read with my daughters because of the delightful, uninhibited play they inspire. Other times I love the books we read together because they engage us with something bigger; they cause us to reflect upon our actions and the world around us and encourage thoughtfulness and care. Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson is a recent find that has done both these things for us.

Photo: Charmainezoe

Mama Miti is an enduring story with fable-like quality about a woman who loves trees. She knows which trees are good to harvest for firewood, which trees are best for building with, which tree leaves have medicinal properties as well as the trees which provide food for both people or animals and she happily shares this knowledge with the women she meets. In doing so, these women, armed with knowledge (and saplings!) are able to build better homes and communities, to provide more for their families and to build a more sustainable future – in fact all the things I try to do in my own small way.

It’s a fantastic book for stimulating discussion with your kids about plants and trees around you and what uses they have, what you can harvest from them, and why we might want to ensure that we continue to have plenty of trees and plants around us.

It’s a brilliant book for encouraging you to keep faith in the idea that small changes will eventually add up to something substantial that makes a difference.

It’s an inspirational book for anyone, but particularly girls wanting to read about amazing, strong women – it is actually a biography of Wangari Muta Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I left out this fact till now as Mama Miti is one of those non-fiction books which probably provide librarians with a puzzle – should it be shelved with literature, perhaps amongst picture books for slightly older children, or on the non fiction shelves (Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca which I reviewed here is another such dilemma posing book). Mama Miti is definitely a story that can be enjoyed for its writing and resonance first and foremost – the revelation that it is actually a true story about a real woman only further delighted M (and me!)

Kadir Nelson‘s illustrations are amazing – yet another reason to love this book! He has created artwork primarily using scraps of African cloth, providing his illustrations with great visual texture which reward repeated, detailed observation. The use of African fabrics paradoxically really roots Napoli’s tale which has so much universality in it.

Our first response to this book was to find out more about the trees the grow near us. I was rather ashamed to realise that I couldn’t name most of the trees we see every day. So a tree nature trail is what we set out on.

I created sticky sandwich boards for the girls to wear and on which they could collect leaves from the different trees we found. The boards were made out of cardboard, hung together with strips of ribbon, attached using split pin paper fasteners. I attached a sheet of contact (sticky, transparent) paper to the front board simply using tape.

Wearing our sandwich boards we walked through our local parkland looking for different trees. Every time we found one we each took a leaf and stuck it on our boards.

Flowers and fruit discovered along the way also got added!

I came up with the idea of sandwich boards as I wanted the girls to be able to keep both hands free whilst we were out collecting things and also to make it easy to check whether the latest leaf we found was actually one we already had or not – simply looking at our boards was easier than rummaging through a basket or bag of leaves.

As we walked along collecting our leaves lots of people stopped us and asked us what we were doing – they were really interested in our little project – and I was glad it gave us an opportunity to talk with neighbours and other people in the park as well as enabling us to look closely at the trees around us.

Once we were home we were able to use our leaves to identify the trees we had walked passed (and in some instances climbed), and to discover some different uses for the said trees. One website we found useful for this was British Trees. I should also highlight the Nature Detectives website from the Woodland Trust – it is packed full of fantastic activities for kids, with hundreds of amazing, free downloads. Whilst this is a British organization, and therefore focusses on UK flora and fauna, I’m sure it could inspire you wherever in the world you are based.

Music to spot trees by:

  • Hug Trees by Tom Freund and Friends
  • Forest Melody by The Hollow Trees
  • Hollow Tree by The Not-Its
  • Under A Shady Tree by Laurie Berkner

  • Other lovely tree activities:

  • A tree themed post from Cassi, The Crafty Crow with lots of different activities
  • A woven tree wall hanging from that artist woman
  • How to Draw a (Fall) Tree, How to Paint Spring Trees and Abstract Tree silhouette from Art Projects for Kids
  • A Stunning Winter Tree Silhouette from Frugal Family Fun Blog
  • A wonderful activity book all about trees from Matzo Ball Soup
  • This Life Sized Field Guide from Journey into Unschooling could easily be adapted for leaves from different trees
  • A popcorn cherry blossom tree from Babycenter (but dye the popcorn green and it could be a tree in summer!)
  • Inspired by Kadir Nelson’s illustrations you and your kids could make fabric collages – like this Tree-mendously Fabulous Fabric Fall Tree Project from Creativity Portal. I think it would be really fun to do this with different textured fabrics.

  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya reminded me of this poem (sometimes attributed to Celia Congreve, first published in The Times on March 2nd 1930):

    Beechwood fires are bright and clear
    If the logs are kept a year;
    Oaken logs burn steadily
    If the wood be old and dry;
    But ash dry or ash green
    Makes a fire fit for a queen.

    Logs of birchwood burn too fast,
    There’s a fire that will not last;
    Chestnut’s only good they say
    If for long it’s laid away;
    But ash new or ash old
    Is fit for a queen with a crown of gold.

    Poplar makes a bitter smoke
    Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
    It is by the Irish said
    Hawthorn makes the sweetest bread;
    But ash green or ash brown
    Is fit for a queen with a golden crown

    Elmwood burns with a churchyard mould,
    E’en the very flames are cold;
    Apple logs will fill your room
    With an incense like perfume;
    But ash wet or ash dry
    For a queen to warm her slippers by.

    I would love to contact a local tree surgeon to get some samples of these different woods to compare and then to burn – a fire is always fun and I think it would be a great little investigative project to see if the folk truth in this poem is true.

    Do you have a favourite tree you walk past on your way to school or work? Can you name all the trees in your neighbourhood? What other lovely tree books would you recommend – either fiction or non fiction? I’d love to know of a tree guide (preferably a UK or European one) that you think is particularly good.

    9 Responses

    1. Bernadette

      Those sandwich boards are awesome! What a great idea for nature walks with little ones! We have spent a lot of time this past year learning about the plants in our desert and trying to learn their names in Arabic (Egyptian and Bedouin), English, and of course their scientific names. My favorite post-flood desert plant is a “nim nam” and I just love saying it! I like your idea of experimenting with the burning wood. I’ve recently discovered that smoke from burning almond trees smells divine!

      I’ve been wanting to read “Planting the Trees of Kenya: The story of Wangari Maathai”, which I’ll still look for, but the illustrations in “Mama Miti” look more engaging!

    2. Zoe

      Hi Bernadette,
      Oh yes, Nim Nam just trips of the tongue doesn’t it! How did you discover the scent of burning almond trees? I’m intrigued. Yes, I’m also after Planting the Trees of Kenya, but haven’t yet been able to get a copy through the library system.

    3. Cathy @ NurtureStore

      Hi Zoe – what a super fun idea! My 2 love nature treasure hunting. B has just borrowed the Kingfisher Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Europe from the library to help with her spotting. P.S. Would you come and share with the Play Academy link-up at mine tomorrow (Friday)?

      • Zoe

        Hi Cathy, Do let me know if the Kingfisher guide is the business! I’ll try to remember to link up tomorrow 🙂 If I don’t manage it, put it down to summer holiday madness 🙂

    4. Bernadette

      H Zoe – I was on a camping safari in the desert with a Bedouin friend/guide. The first day out he collected wood from a nearby grove of almond trees, long since dead due to the lack of rain in the past 40 years. Bedouin people nearly always have a fire burning to make their tea and all of our meals were cooked on the fire. I actually loved coming home smelling of the smoke!

    5. Zoe

      Wow Bernadette, that sounds amazing! Now I want to knowwhat other oily trees (eg walnut) or fruit trees also smell beautiful when burnt! I know the poem says apple wood smells lovely.

    6. maggy, red ted art

      What a fabulous way to collect leaves! Better than holding them and get them all scrunched up! Love it… Yet another project to add to my long long list of things 😉

      Fabulous to have you as a resource!


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