We plant them and cut them down, pick their fruit, rake their leaves and climb them. We harvest them for wood, paper and holiday décor. We bask in their shade, tap their sap to make syrup and their nuts for snacking. We need them to moderate ground temperatures, produce oxygen and reduce the level of carbon dioxide in the air. But how much do we really know about trees?

Actually, quite a bit. Technology has made it possible to pinpoint what goes on underground and behind all that bark. Researchers now know, for example, that the oldest tree in America is “Methuselah,” a 4700 year old Great Basin Bristlecone Pine in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest in California. They know the tallest tree is the 379+ foot tall Coast Redwood in Redwood National Park in California. And they know that trees are more important than ever in the battle against global warming.

The trees you see every day can serve as an instant nature lesson for your kids. Take a walk around your neighborhood and pay attention to the different shaped trees you see. Talk about the fact that each one is competing for sun and water. While some stretch tall to reach the sky, the “understory” trees beneath develop rounded crowns to collect the maximum amount of sunlight. If you live in the north where the sun is lower, you’ll see mostly cone-shaped (pine) trees. The cone shape allows the most efficient rationing of minimal sunlight, and needle-shaped leaves help the tree conserve water. These evergreens are conifers. Deciduous trees, like oaks and maples, drop their leaves in the winter to conserve energy.

Good news: talking about tree reproduction is a lot less awkward than dealing with the birds and the bees! Trees reproduce through seeds, but those seeds need to be dispersed to other areas first. There are three ways that can happen. First, the wind can carry them. Second, an animal can carry them either on its fur, in its belly or to a hiding place. Or third, the seed can be carried by water. Take a look at the seeds you find up close. The shape and weight of the seed gives clues to its preferred method of dispersal. For example, a sticky burr is designed to stick to animal fur.

Up for more discovery? Here are some activities to nurture tree appreciation in your little sprout:

  • Visit www.arborday.org for the online species reference guide. Then do a scavenger hunt in your neighborhood: can your child find a palm, a maple, an oak?
  • Collect various seed pods and cones and ask your child what their size and shape indicate about how they got where they are.
  • To catch a glimpse of what goes on inside of a tree, fill a glass with water and a few drops of dark food coloring. Cut a stalk of celery and place it in the water, cut side down. The dye will move up the celery, just as water and nutrients move through a tree’s root system.
  • Want to spruce up your table? (No pun intended!) Collect fall leaves and place them between two sheets of laminate to make placemats.
  • Talk about the role trees have played in different cultures and religions throughout history. The “Tree of Life” is mentioned in everything from Chinese mythology to the Jewish Bible and the Book of Mormon. Why?

Plant a seedling! Your lungs will thank you.