Leaf ID-Thinking Like a Scientist


Can we observe the differences between plant species? How can we tell the difference between edible crops we have planted and plants we may want to remove or that may be even be poisonous?

Our Story:

Every year when we first introduce groups to the garden, we strive to awaken observational skills, to help children slow down, observe, and make sense of what they are seeing. These are skills essential to visual art and, of course, science. Plants are fascinating and important living beings, but for most children, they are less interesting than bugs and larger animals, and (at least at first) all seem the same. Building observational skills helps us avoid accidentally pulling recently planted crops, or accidentally eating something that might be poisonous. (*NOTE: Our garden rule is that you only eat what you can positively identify as edible. Children always must check with an adult before tasting something new.)




We created this game to make the first introduction to observing plants fun and help our volunteers and children mix, mingle, and form into groups. This game is effective with children grade 3 and up to adults. However, most elementary students need some scaffolding for the game to be successful.

1. Standing in a circle, one person explains the game. While this happens, another person tapes a leaf from the garden onto the back of each participant. (We choose 7 different edible leaves and then make sure that members of the same group get the same leaf. We find it helps to use leaves with very different qualities such as feathery fennel, furry mint, purple kale, red orach, long chives, round/spicy nasturtium, and bi-coloured chard.)

2. When we say “begin”, participants begin introducing themselves to each other. Each person may ask one “yes/no question” about their own leaf, and then find a new partner. We prepare children to use multiple senses in this game and to consider questions that will help give them an idea of what their leaf might look, feel, and smell like. (**NOTE: Because of our garden rule, children do not do any tasting in this game, but can taste their leaf once they have found their group and positively identified it as edible.) We found it’s important to help children think of effective questions. For example: “Is my leaf longer than my hand” will give us a much clearer idea of what the leaf looks like than “Is my leaf big?” An effective question for smells might be “Does my leaf smell minty,” rather than “Does my leaf smell good.” Children also need to be taught that rubbing a leaf releases its fragrance.




3. Once a participant thinks they know which leaf they have, they find someone who has the same leaf and ask a third participant to confirm that the leaf is the same. If it is, they can then find the rest of their group. The groups can then get to know each other while they look at, smell, taste, and try to identify their leaves.

Extension Ideas & Connections:

The diversity of leaves lends itself to scientific skills such as observing, describing, documenting, sorting, and labeling. Children can create their own plant families by collecting leaves and grouping them by similarities. They can describe the similarities, give their categories names, explore the rules they used to create the groups, and compare with categories that scientists have used before.

Another great activity that can be done with sturdy autumn leaves (like alder, oak, or laurel:  Each child finds a leaf and sits down to draw it. It’s important to capture unique details of the leaf, such as cracks or holes, the texture of the leaf edge (margin), the shape, and the correct number of lobes. Then put all the leaves on a table and have the children trade their drawings with a partner. See if they can find the leaf. This activity can also be done “blind”: Give each student an opaque bag with a leaf inside. Without looking, have the children feel their leaf with one hand while they draw it with another.)


Links to Materials:

This Wikipedia page has lots of information on leaf morphology if you want to share the scientific terms for leaf shapes, margins and venation. There are also some great visuals: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glossary_of_leaf_morphology

Please leave your comments and experiences below.

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