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Sample lesson: Maple sugar bush

This is an excerpt from Outdoor Education-2nd Edition by Ken Gilbertson,Alan Ewert,Pirkko Siklander & Timothy Bates.

This lesson is taught during the late winter or early spring when daytime temperatures are above freezing and nighttime temperatures are below freezing. The lack of detail is deliberate, allowing instructors to be creative within a base set of guidelines. This allows instructors to make the lesson their own.


This lesson plan is designed for students in 4th grade. When working with older or younger participants, you will need to change the approach a bit. With younger children, talk even less and do more. Older participants can handle broader concepts and relationships and will have more in-depth questions.

School groups typically include parents and teachers. Use them to your advantage when conducting this lesson. Invite them to help with discipline and to get involved in the lesson.


  1. Gain an understanding of identification and natural history of maple trees.
  2. Explore what happens in the forest during spring.
  3. Discover the components of traditional collection and processing of maple sap, including customs and cultural significance.
  4. Participate in the process of collecting sap.


Students will do the following:

  • Find a sugar maple tree using identification techniques.
  • Demonstrate the process for tapping and collecting sap using a brace, hammer, spile, and sap sack.
  • Describe the process of sap flowing from roots to buds and why it is associated with spring.
  • Describe the procedure for turning sap into syrup.
  • Hear and see historical methods for collecting and processing sap.


1 hour


16 or fewer 4th-grade children


  • 1 or 2 brace and bit combinations (drill and bit)
  • 1 or 2 hammers
  • 2 spiles (devices put into the tree to allow the sap to drain into a bucket)
  • 2 sap sacks or buckets with lids (make sure spiles and collecting devices are compatible)
  • Enlarged, laminated historical photos of sap collecting and processing (find examples online)
  • Naniboujou story (Caduto and Bruchac 1997)
  • Chief Woksis story (Nearing and Nearing 2000)
  • Small paper cups for all participants
  • Garbage bag to collect the paper cups in
  • Bottle of real maple syrup for tasting
  • Bottle of imitation syrup for demonstration
  • Laminated visual aid for demonstrating 32:1 ratio

Lesson Preparation

Organize all equipment in an easily accessible location. If you are teaching immediately after another instructor, coordinate the equipment switchover.

Have student groups meet at a well-defined place that is located near the sugar-bush lesson area. Instructors need to be ready and waiting at least 10 minutes before the group is scheduled to arrive. If the group is large, one person needs to meet the bus and work with the teacher to divide the group quickly and efficiently. The sooner you divide the class into groups, the less likely chaos becomes a problem.

Have each group come up with a name for themselves that relates to nature. This adds some fun and later on might help with some friendly competition. Name examples include Maple Leaf, Melting Snow, and Spring Sun.

When multiple instructors are leading groups at the same time, have a plan for using different teaching sites (i.e., do not have all instructors start off at the same meeting spot).


Methods: lecture, inquiry, theatrics, guided imagery

This is where the quality of your lesson gets its start. Explain who you are, and establish behavioral ground rules. For example, the presenter is always in front, and students who want to speak must raise their hand and wait to be called on. Enlist specific assistance from the adults (e.g., “Mrs. Brown, will you help by ensuring that everyone stays together and listens when others are talking?”). If you do not set rules early, you will end up creating them as you go and you will lose control.

Try to learn names, if you can. This helps greatly with discipline. Most groups will come already wearing name tags.

Explain to the group what will be happening and why they are outside. Involve the students in finding out what they will learn by using questions or a game. Before moving on, finish with a brief discussion of how the group should act toward the forest. An example might be, “We will be visitors to the forest today, and it is important for us to show respect for the inhabitants. How can we show respect for the forest? Yes, by not breaking branches or injuring any of the wildlife.”


Methods: guided discovery, inquiry, experimentation, storytelling, peer teaching

Here is one way to introduce the identification lesson: “We’re here to learn about maple syrup. Where does maple syrup come from?” (Pull out a bottle of imitation maple syrup.) “Where does this syrup come from? Corn! Corn syrup is very sweet. It is used as a sweetener in many processed foods. Because it’s easy and cheap to make, it is actually the primary sweetener in many maple syrup brands, with artificial maple flavoring added to make it taste like maple syrup. Real maple syrup comes from maple trees. We need to learn how to find a maple tree.”

Another option for starting out is to use the Chief Woksis story to discuss how maple syrup came to be. After telling the story, you might say, “Chief Woksis found his tree by accident. But we need to learn how to find a maple tree. How do we do this?” Then lead the students through the identification process:

  • Find a tree to identify.
  • Explore the skills of identifying a tree without any leaves. Ask, “How can we identify trees without any leaves?” Students will come up with many different responses.
  • Start with branching pattern, then go to bud shape and color (opposite branching; pointed buds; brown, syrup-colored buds). Make sure everyone can get a view of the branching patterns and how the buds look. Tell the students, “We are looking for a sugar maple.”
  • Use the kids’ body parts to demonstrate the difference between opposite and alternate. Stick both arms out—this is opposite. One arm sticking out on one side and the leg sticking out on the other side is an alternate pattern.
  • Check for understanding by calling out, “Everyone do opposite branching,” or, “Everyone do alternate branching.”

Move to a small sugar maple. Work together to identify it using branching, buds, and color. Have everyone touch the tree and describe its color, shape, and texture. Repeat key terms like opposite branching. Once they see it is a maple, ask them if it is big enough to tap (no). When the answer is established, ask them why (need to make sure a tree is big enough and healthy enough).

Select two people to find a sugar maple bigger than 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter. As a group, confirm the identification: “Does it have opposite branching?” and “Are the buds small and pointy or big and fat?” If the tree is wrong, help the students along and do not embarrass them for being wrong. Move on to another tree. Some students might need additional help, in which case you can let other children help in the hunt.

How Sugar Maples Make Sap

Methods: guided discovery, discussion, inquiry, peer teaching

Once you have found a large enough tree, gather everyone close in a semicircle. Discuss the process of leaves making sugar water (food) in the summer, sending it down to the roots in the fall, and bringing the sugar water back up the trunk to nourish the buds in the spring. Days above freezing and nights below freezing are when this flow of sap happens. With younger kids you can act this out: Fingers (sap) are stored in the feet (roots), then slowly move up the body until fingers are outstretched, feeding the buds. Quiz the students on what happens in the tree in the fall and spring.

Tree Wounds

The sap is somewhat like the blood of the tree. So, a good analogy to use is blood. For example, you might say, “When you get a cut in your arm, you bleed. If a tree gets a cut, it bleeds sap. Does it hurt the tree? Yes, just a tiny bit. Like a person who eventually gets a scab over a cut, a tree also scabs over. Look for healed wounds on the tree.”


Now it is time to tap into the tree. Show the tools that people use today (brace and bit). Ask, “Is this how it was always done?” Show a laminated picture of a Native person and the slices in the tree, and discuss how they tapped into the tree.

Get input on the proper angle to put on the bit: “Remember, the hole must act like a faucet for sap to flow out. What direction do faucets in your house flow?” Show them how to use the brace (round handle in belly, crank clockwise).

Take half the group and line them up (i.e., “I want these 4th graders to line up behind Jiawen”). Get the bit started. Everyone gets five cranks on the brace (or whatever number of cranks might be appropriate). Have everyone in the group count the cranks to keep them involved. If necessary, finish up yourself.

If it is a good day and the sap is really running, let them taste the sap with their finger.

Next, show the spile and explain what it is for. You could go back to the old picture to discuss other types of spiles. You might say, “Everyone say ‘spile,’” then have one student put the spile in and another hammer it in. (These are kids from the first group, who drilled the hole.) The other half of the group observes because they will be doing this process next.

Ask, “How do we collect this now?” Talk a pair of kids through putting the sap sack together. Put it on the spile. Questions you could ask might be, “Is this the only way to collect sap? What would have been used 150 years ago?” Show a picture of birch-bark buckets (makuks) or wooden buckets.

Send the other half of the students off to find a tree within a boundary area. You or another adult bring the brace and bit over, and they do the rest.

Sap to Syrup

Methods: discussion, inquiry, storytelling

Go to a tree with sap that has collected. Distribute cups, and have the children taste the sap (optional). Make sure you tell them not to crush the cup or toss it because it will be used for a special treat later on. Ask, “What does it taste like? How is this different than syrup? What needs to be added to make syrup? We need to take away water. How do we do that?”

Go to the sap-boiling area. Discuss boiling and turning sap into syrup. Explain how much sap it takes to make syrup. One good way to explain this is to ask, “How much sap would it take to fill Sarah’s shoe with syrup? It would take everyone else’s shoe (if there are 16 people in your group) filled with sap.” Or you can use a laminated diagram to show the 32:1 ratio. A 32:1 ratio means that for every 32 gallons (145 liters) of sap, 1 gallon (4.5 liters) of syrup is made.


Tell the Naniboujou story or the Chief Woksis story. If you are comfortable with the story, you can try to direct the children in acting it out while you narrate and talk the kids through it.


Everyone gets to taste real maple syrup. If the snow is clean, they can try snow cones (optional). Using the paper cup they already have, put a little syrup (about a spoonful) in each. For snow cones, put snow in first.

Students should put their cup into the instructor’s garbage bag. If students do not like the syrup, they should pour it out onto the ground.


Method: inquiry

While children are snacking on the syrup snow cones, review the activity. Ask questions that assess whether they learned the concepts. Examples might be, “What kind of branching do maple trees have? How much sap does it take to make a gallon of syrup?”

Thank the children, and walk them back to the parking area. Finish by thanking the teacher. Do not leave until the children are loaded in the bus. If the bus is late, do some activities to keep the students together, such as a cleanup competition.


  • Return all equipment to its proper place.
  • Meet with your supervisor to discuss how the lesson went. This ensures quality and consistency in lesson delivery, especially when multiple instructors are teaching the same topic.
More Excerpts From Outdoor Education 2nd Edition