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Self-guided Family Play and Exploration: Plant a Tree

Fees and Registration


Course description

Children are planting a tree and using coloful shovels.

Trees fill us with wonder and help us breathe, eat, relax, and stay healthy. They also make our yards and neighborhoods more beautiful and provide food and shelter to countless birds, mammals, and insects.

Use these activity suggestions from our early childhood and family programs team to plant, protect, and enjoy trees anywhere you are!

Right Tree, Right Place, Right Way to Plant

Can you plant a tree on your property or in your community? Investigate with your child the conditions of the site where you want to plant, so that you can select a tree species that grows well in your soil and light conditions. Consult the site evaluation checklist in this Selecting and Planting Trees guide prepared by The Morton Arboretum, and then engage your child with questions such as:

  • How does a tree obtain what it needs to grow?
  • How much sun does this site get in a day, and how can we find out?
  • How far can the trees’ branches eventually extend, and is there anything standing in their way? How about its roots?
  • How can we test how well this soil drains? Why might that be important to a tree?

Use this Tree Selector tool to generate a list of trees that would thrive at your site, and then contact local nurseries to inquire about availability of seedlings and curbside pickup (or other physical distancing measures while shopping). The Growing Place in Aurora, IL, and Possibility Place Nursery in Monee, IL, might be good starting points locally, and The Jonsteen Company and Arbor Day Foundation are worth checking out for mail-delivery options. If you are in Illinois, don’t forget to Click Call or Click Before You Dig!

When you are ready to plant your tree, make it a family event! Even the youngest children will cherish helping to dig and backfill a hole, and to water and mulch a young tree seedling. A step-by-step guide for planting your tree is available on this Morton Arboretum page. Take a photo of the occasion as a memento for future generations who will surely enjoy the tree and all of the benefits it offers.

A women is planting a tree.

Care for Trees

Even if you can’t plant a tree, you can care for one as a family. An easy thing to do is to check the mulched area around a tree and adjust it as necessary. Mulch helps tree roots stay cool and quenched in summer, and protected from the cold in winter. But trees don’t like a big cone of mulch making their trunks too wet and susceptible to rot and disease. Kids can help pull mulch away from the trunk and spread it in a wide, even layer over the roots, as demonstrated in the video on this Mulching Trees and Shrubs page.

A women is mulching around a tree.


Create an illustrated tree walk to help your neighbors notice and appreciate the trees they pass by every day! Take some colorful chalk with you on your next walk through your neighborhood. Look at the flowers, leaves, branches, or bark of one or more trees to try to identify their species (you can find many helpful online guides to the Midwest’s common trees – here is one example). Write the name of the tree nearby on the sidewalk with an arrow pointing to the tree. Include a drawing of the leaf shape or anything else that the tree inspired you to think about!

The name of a tree is written in chalk on a sidewalk.


We Planted a Tree, by Diane Muldrow and illustrated by Bob Staake. Available in print or electronically.
Discover the many gifts that trees offer to people and the environment, in a trip through different cultures and settings around the world.

Book Cover for "We Planted a Tree

Other children’s books recommendations include Because of an Acorn, by Lola and Adam Schaefer, Little Tree, by Loren Long, and Tell Me Tree: All About Trees for Kids, by Gail Gibbons.


Imagine the shape of a tree’s roots underground by looking up at the shape of the branches above and at the size of the trunk. Think about how the roots anchor the tree in the soil and draw water and nutrients up through its roots and into its branches to make it grow.

Now stand tall, strong, and still like the tree, and feel the ground beneath your feet. Imagine roots extending downward from your feet into the soil, growing in all directions. What are your roots providing for you? Are they making you feel stronger? Taller? More confident?

Large twisted roots are growing above the soil line.

For Older Siblings

Explore the stories of two people who took planting trees to legendary levels: John Chapman, also known as “Johnny Appleseed,” and J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day. Johnny Appleseed traveled in the early 1800s from Massachusetts to Indiana, in a lifelong quest to plant, sell, and give away apple tree seedlings. J. Sterling Morton was the catalyst for people planting a million trees on the first Arbor Day in 1872.

These two men are actually connected through apple trees! J. Sterling Morton had an apple orchard in Nebraska, and his son, Joy Morton, sold apples to pioneers on the Overland Trail. There is still an orchard at Arbor Day Farm, in Nebraska, that is managed as a genetic repository to help create apple varieties that are suited to a changing climate.

Check out the young adult books, J. Sterling Morton: Arbor Day Boy, by Clyde B. Moore, and Better Known as Johnny Appleseed, by Mabel Leigh Hunt, from the Sterling Morton Library or your local library, to delve further into the lives and legacies of these larger-than-life figures!


Self-guided Family Play and Exploration: Plant a Tree