Historical Lesson Plans for Arbor Day

Happy Arbor Day! This year’s National Arbor Day falls today, April 29th, while Colorado’s Arbor Day was celebrated on the third Friday in April: April 15th.  Arbor Day is known as the “tree planter’s holiday” because many people celebrate by planting individual trees or organizing large-scale tree planting activities in their communities.

Four book cover illustrations for Arbor Day lesson plan books. From left to right, the first is from 1906 and features three red poppies. the second is from 1908 and features two birds perched on the stems of small yellow prairie flowers. Teh third in from 1922 and features a close-up look at four pinecones on the branch of a fir tree. The fourth is from 1910 and features three columbines flowers in full bloom.
Illustrated Arbor Day book covers.

In honor of this year’s 150th celebration of the first American Arbor Day, let’s take a look back at how Arbor Day was celebrated in Colorado’s schools at the turn of the 20th century. The State Publications Library holds a series of lesson plan books for Arbor Day that were sent to teachers from 1899-1913 by the Colorado Department of Public Instruction (now the Department of Education). As the 1901 version states:

“We send you this little book for Arbor and Bird Day, with the hope that it may offer you some practical help in your school work, not only in assisting the celebration of this particular occasion through tree planting and appropriate exercises, but to further the greater mission of the day, in bringing our boys and girls nearer to Nature…so that in the years to come Colorado may, at least in part, be relieved from the harm that has been done through the careless destruction of her plant and animal life.”

These beautifully illustrated lesson plan books helped teachers to achieve this goal by providing suggestions for Arbor Day lessons for students of all ages. These lesson ideas include teaching about Colorado’s trees and flowers, telling stories about the forest, singing songs, and reciting poetry (there’s quite a bit of poetry).

Below are some of my favorite highlights from the Arbor Day books, but they are worth a closer look in our digital repository. The lesson plans provide both an historical perspective on teaching environmentalism and plenty of charming little poems about bumblebees! Click on the images below to view larger versions.

A scanned page from an arbor Day lesson plan book. The text on the page describes a tree planting competition for Colorado school district and explains the cash prize amounts: $25 for the school district that wins first prize, $15 for second prize, and $10 for the third place prize.
The first American Arbor Day took place in Nebraska and included a competition to encourage children to plant trees. Colorado followed suit; in 1903, the Colorado State Forest Service offered a cash prize to the school district that planted the greatest number of trees and shrubs.
A scanned page from an Arbor Day book showing a print of two purple columbines in full bloom on a solid black background. The caption reads, "Symbol of greatness, mountains rise, 'Neath Colorado's sunny skies. Both pure and royal is her sign, the white and purple columbine."
Many of the poems and illustrations found in the Arbor Day books focus on Colorado’s state flower, the columbine.
A scanned page of an Arbor Day book with two typed poems titled, "Let's plant a tree" and "When the flowers lend their colors." The page has a green decorative border of illustrated leaves.
Several lesson suggestions make sure to capture the tree-planting spirit of Arbor Day, including this poem from the 1910 book.
A scanned page of an Arbor Day book titled, "Topics for Arbor Day Essays." Topics include Celebrated Trees, How to Plant a Tree, The Most Useful Tree, What Leaves Do, and How to Make Arbor Day Most Useful.
The books aren’t all pretty pictures and poems – they also contain assignment ideas, like these potential essay topics for seventh and eighth graders.
A scanned page from an Arbor Day book titled, "Suggestive Arbor Day Program for First, Second, and Third Grades." The page has a decorative green border with illustrated leaves.
These books contain suggested programs that students could perform for their parents and communities to celebrate Arbor Day. The programs would usually feature students singing songs, reciting poems or essays, performing skits, and showing off their knowledge of Colorado’s plants.

Have these books gotten you into the Arbor Day spirit? Watch the Colorado State Forest Service’s video titled “How to plant a tree” and get started!