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Art, science and beauty: The tradition of leaf collecting lives on

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Catherine W. Idzerda
October 25, 2008
— Since the beginning of time—or at least since the beginning of schoolrooms—children have been doing projects with fall leaves.

Leaves have been collected, labeled, laminated, painted, glued, written on, crushed, photographed, examined and placed between wax paper with crayon shavings and ironed.


Fortunately for kids, the tradition of fall leaf collecting for science classes and art works continues into the 21st century.


“I think what I like about it is that it gets children to look at the beauty outside,” said Jane Hamel, elementary art teacher at Edgerton Community and Yahara elementary schools.


There’s so much there to mine for an art project: Texture, shapes, overlapping colors, outlines, veins, the simple variety of leaf geography.


For science teachers, fall leaves provide the perfect learning tool for basic botany, said Mike Maddox, horticulture educator for Rotary Gardens and UW Extension.


It introduces students to botanical nomenclature and provides an easy way to teach concepts such as photosynthesis, Maddox said.


It’s also an easy way to teach concepts such as photosynthesis, leaf morphology, water transport and, of course, leaf identification.


“They’re also gaining an appreciation of nature,” Maddox said.


Of course, it helps that the teaching materials are free.


“There’s an abundance of leaves on the ground for kids to collect,” Hammel said. “Instead of looking at books, we encourage kids to go out and make their own collections.”


Her children collect leaves from their yards, school grounds and on their walks home.


In the process of creating something beautiful in art class, even the youngest students learn the difference among oaks, maples, elms, willows and other standard tree species.


Most students and teachers are careful not to denude or damage existing trees, but sometimes people get carried away. Every year, a handful of students and parents go on a spree at Rotary Gardens, tearing off branches on pines, leaving a stub that won’t regrow or damaging rare species of deciduous trees.


One of the strangest tales is of the parent who came to the gardens with a child, stopped in the gift shop to ask for a collection bag—which the shop doesn’t carry—and then went through the gardens, ripping off branches for her child’s science project. The child was “busy” with other activities.


Garden visitors are asked to collect leaves only from the ground.


“We really want to be an educational resource, but we’re trying to protect our collection, as well,” Maddox said.


Maddox, who has never been the king of subtlety, pointed out that the educational value of such an experience might be lost on a child who was not actually there.


And that’s what it’s all about—kids connecting with the beautiful and contradictory science of autumn: As the leaves die and the plants hunker down for winter, the world transforms into a life-affirming landscape of color and light.



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