Tree-mendous Twigs

Children often look at trees in winter and assume that they are “dead” because of their lack of leaves. This is far from the truth. Trees have been working since the summer to produce the buds for next year’s flowers and leaves. These buds can easily be seen when you get close to the branches of the trees.

All types of trees have different bud patterns that can be used for tree identification in the winter. Buds at the tip of a branch are called terminal buds. They mark the end of one season’s growth and contain the embryonic stages of the next season’s growth. Oaks have a cluster of terminal buds. Beech trees have a single terminal bud. Twigs of maples are slender and numerous with larger terminal buds than side buds

Buds on the side of the branch are called lateral buds and may contain flowers or leaves. When two sizes of lateral buds occur on one twig, the larger bud usually contains flowers and the smaller bud contains leaves. The location of these buds on the branch can be in an opposite, alternate or whorled pattern. These patterns are reflected in the branching pattern of the entire tree and are often used for identification purposes.  Only a few trees have opposite branching; an easy way to remember them is to think of the acronym MADCAP HORSE. The letters stand for different families: M-maple; A-ash; D-dogwood; CAP-Caprifoliaceae (the family of plants including honeysuckle, elderberries and viburnums); and HORSE-horse chestnut.

The following activities are a conglomeration of twig activities that require little preparation and minimal materials. You may choose to do one or all of them with your students.

These activities are best suited for students in first and second grades.


Activity 1: Twig Twins

  • 10 matching sets of twigs – 5 different species of twigs in each set
  • 1 set for each of 5 groups (Group A) and an additional 5 sets for the duplicate pile (Group B)

Activity 2: Twig Hunt

  • 5 twigs for each small group in the class

Activity 3: Rainbow Are Everywhere

  • Crayons
  • Paper

Activity 4: Dissect A Bud

  • Large buds – 1 for each pair of students

Activity 5: Sprouting Twigs

  • Clippers
  • Jars of water
  • A variety of winter twigs

Getting Ready

Activity 1: Twig Twins

Go outside and choose five different trees and shrubs that have different characteristics (i.e., large buds, small buds, gray bark, flaky bark, etc.). Cut two branches from each and bundle into 10 identical sets. Five sets will be Group A and five sets will be Group B.

Activity 2: Twig Hunt

Collect twigs from the trees and shrubs that grow around the school. Bundle them into groups of five twigs to be distributed to each small group in the class. Different bundles may have the same kind of twigs in them but each bundle should be a little different from the others.

Activity 4: Dissect A Bud

Collect enough large buds so that you have one for each pair of students. Horse chestnut, buckeye, beech or dogwood trees all have large buds that dissect quite nicely.

Doing the Activity

Activity 1: Twig Twins

Divide students into groups of five. Give each group a set of twigs (Group A) and ask them to lay them out in front of the group. The other sets of twigs (Group B) should be set in another part of the room. One student from each group should go to the Group B pile and select a “secret” twig. They should then go back and sit with their back to their group. They should then describe their twig. The rest of the group, with the examples of the different twigs spread before them, should choose the correct twig from the description. Check to make sure the two twigs are “twin twigs.” Have other students in the group repeat the activity to match other twigs.

Activity 2: Twig Hunt

Divide students into small groups and distribute a set of twigs to them. Have the children look at the twigs to see special features that they need to look for. Point out that those with opposite buds will have opposite twigs on the trees, alternate buds will have alternate twigs. What size are the buds? Are the twigs all the same color? Tell the students that they are going to be sent out on the school grounds to find the trees and shrubs that match the twigs in their groups bundle. When they find the tree or shrub, tell them that they are not to break any of the branches off of the tree or shrub but to remember where it is located so that they can report back to the rest of the class. Make sure to set boundaries before they begin.

After the hunt sit the students down in a circle and discuss some of the locations where they found their matching twigs.

Activity 3: Rainbows Are Everywhere

Ask students what color trees are. They should answer green and brown. Explain that twigs of trees and shrubs are often in colors different than brown. Go out on a “Rainbow Hunt,” looking for different colored twigs, such as yellow willow, green sassafrass, purple-blue flowering dogwood, etc. See how many different colors you can find.

Have students draw a picture of their favorite tree or shrub they saw on the walk.

Activity 4: Dissect A Bud

Divide the class into pairs. Distribute a bud to each pair. Ask the students what they think they will find in the bud. Write the answers on the board. Have students dissect their bud by carefully removing the scales and notice the layers. What was in the buds? Have students draw a picture of the different parts. Did what they find match what was written on the board? Discuss when the bud was formed and what it will become.

Activity 5: Sprouting Twigs

Early in spring, take students outside and clip twigs of forsythia, pussy willow, red maple or other shrubs and trees found on the school grounds, and put each of the stems in a jar of water.

Observe what happens. Leaves and perhaps flowers will appear. Have students draw changes they see occurring in the twigs.

Additional Activities

Activity: Twig Safari

In early spring have students choose one of the trees from their group and check it weekly to watch its buds open.

Activity: Dissect A Bud

If the buds are from a tree or shrub on the school ground, check it weekly in the spring to watch the buds open.

Activity: Sprouting Twigs

Experiment with bringing twigs in at weekly intervals and compare the results. What are the differences and why?


Lingelbach, Jenepher, Hands-On Nature, Information and Activities for Exploring the Environment with Children, Vermont Institute of Natural Science, 1986

Sisson, Edith, Nature with Children of All Ages, Prentice Hall Press, New York, 1987