Color Changing Leaves

Color Changing Leaves

Do you know why leaves change colors in the fall? This is a popular question that many children have as they observe the seasons changing, grow curious about what makes leaves turn from green to vibrant autumn colors, and look to grown-ups and teachers for the answer. However, some grown-ups might not know exactly why leaves change color in the fall, either.

Don't be embarrassed if you don't have the answer! Exploring how and why leaves change color in the fall is the perfect chance to work collaboratively with your students to discover new science concepts and ideas. Children (and teachers, too!) will love learning more about the science behind the changing seasons while building meaningful connections and a strong classroom community!

Why Do Leaves Change Color?

Depending on where you live in the world, fall is a time of many changes as nature transitions from summer and prepares for the winter months. During this time, though, something almost magical happens: the leaves change color! Reds, yellows, and oranges make their mark on trees that were once summery green, creating natural masterpieces children of all ages love to see and explore. But what makes this process possible every year, and what is the science behind these colorful transformations?

What are Deciduous Trees?

Trees whose leaves change color in the fall are called deciduous trees. Deciduous trees are trees that lose their leaves every fall and grow new leaves each spring. Each year during the fall months of September, October, and November, deciduous trees go through a process where their green leaves slowly turn various shades of yellow, red, gold, and orange before turning brown and falling to the ground. This process is beautiful to watch and exciting for children as they see the seasons change before their very eyes. But, the changing of a tree's leaves is much more than a pretty sight! The scientific process of photosynthesis is a key part of this transformation and is very important to the life cycle of a tree.

What is Photosynthesis?

Photosynthesis is the process trees use to make their food. Using carbon dioxide from the air, energy from the sun, and water from the ground, trees make food to eat so they can grow to be strong and healthy! Photosynthesis occurs in the leaves of a tree because of a compound in leaves called chlorophyll.

What is Chlorophyll?

Chlorophyll makes photosynthesis possible because it helps leaves soak up energy and heat from the sun to make food for the tree. Chlorophyll is also what makes leaves green. If leaves get enough energy from the sun to make the food trees need to grow, they will stay green. But, as the seasons change, days become shorter, and cooler weather arrives, leaves no longer receive enough energy from the sun to stay green.

Since it gets harder for trees to use the chlorophyll in their leaves to make food and stay green, trees stop making new food and begin using the food they have stored away in their leaves all year long instead. While trees use up their stored food the beautiful reds, oranges, and golds of fall shine through! Once all of the stored food is used up, the leaves turn brown and then fall off the trees. When winter comes, trees are ready to use the water and nutrients they receive from their roots to survive the winter. Even trees need to rest and their color-changing leaves are their way of saying they're getting ready for winter like many other plants and animals in nature!

How Can I Use This in My Lesson Plan?

Discovering why leaves change color in the fall is the perfect foundation for numerous lesson plans and activities for all ages! For older children, leaf-focused outdoor science explorations and STEAM activities are a wonderful way to reinforce lessons on the scientific method as you work together to hypothesize, predict, and observe why leaves change in the fall and record those results in creative ways like journaling or arts and crafts activities!

Fall is also magical for younger children! Infants and toddlers are just discovering what makes fall special and different from the rest of the year. They look at changing leaves with a sense of wonder and curiosity, which provides you with a number of opportunities to engage infants and toddlers with developmentally appropriate fall activities such as fall-themed sensory explorations and story times. Why leaves change their color might be rooted in science, but that doesn't mean you're limited to only science learning!

Explore these color-changing leaves lesson plan ideas with your classroom!

  • Literacy
  • Read fall-related books like Red Leaf, Yellow Leaf to help explain why leaves change their color in terms that are developmentally appropriate and easily accessible by children. Encourage children to ask questions and use critical thinking skills to discover the magic of fall colors through literacy! They'll love working as a small group to predict and share why they think leaves are changing in the book and outside.
  • Put the "A" in STEAM by incorporating arts and crafts into your science discussions and explorations. Observe various leaves with your students and encourage them to record what they see through art. Have students decorate fabric leaves or color-diffusing leaves to capture fall colors and record what they see outside on the trees. Students can even use leaf stencils to create unique leaves of their very own! Hang these beautiful creations around your classroom for a colorful STEAM-inspired fall display.
  • Outdoor Learning
  • Head outdoors to learn about leaves up close! Take a nature walk with your students or encourage them to go on a nature scavenger hunt to collect colorful fall leaves. Use this outdoor exploration as the basis for a classroom discussion on why leaves change color.

Additional Resources

Fall Sensory Bin
Apple Boats STEM Activity
Season Sensory Spices Activities
Pumpkin Sensory Activities