Keywords: sugaring, maple tree, sap, history; Lesson Plan Grade Level: can be adapted for kindergarten through third grade; Total Time Required: 40-60 minutes, depending on grade level; Setting: classroom or kitchen

Goals for the Lesson

  • Students will explore how maple sugaring began

  • Students will experience the ways the pioneers and Indians produced sugar.

  • Students will appreciate the importance of maple sugaring in the pioneer culture.

Materials Needed

  • honey

  • real maple syrup

  • molasses

  • brown sugar

  • white sugar

  • maple sugar or candy if available

  • pot of water

  • large rocks that will fit into the pot, which have been preheated in an oven

  • hot pad

  • Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, published by Harper & Row

  • sumac tree branch section at least 0.5 inch in diameter and 4-5 inches long

  • large nail

  • carving knife

State Standards Addressed: E & E Standards: Renewable and Nonrenewable Resources (4.2); Agriculture and Society (4.4); Humans and the Environment (4.8)

Subjects: history, science, literature

American pioneers, Native Americans, Laura Ingalls Wilder, maple syrup production

Introductory Activity

  1. Provide small samples of honey, maple syrup, molasses, brown sugar, white sugar and other maple products for children to taste. Taste and compare the different flavors and textures.

  2. Explain: When the pioneers were settling the American frontier, they could not go to the grocery store every day. Most of their supplies had to be made, harvested from the land, or purchased during very rare trips to a town to purchase supplies. As you have observed from our taste testing, there are many different types of sugars. Molasses, brown sugar and white sugar were available to early Americans but they had to be purchased and were quite often very expensive. White sugar was the most expensive and was reserved for only very special occasions or guests. Since it was often a year or more between trips to a town, they needed to make their own sugar. Honey was collected whenever someone discovered a beehive but honey was difficult to store and transport.

  3. The settlers learned from the Indians how to tap the maple trees to make maple sugar. The sap of the maple tree is high in sugar content. Making sugar requires evaporating out the water and leaving the sugar behind. The Indians collected maple sap by slashing the tree bark with a hatchet and allowing the sap to flow down into a hollowed out log. Then they would boil off the water by adding hot rocks to the log container.


  1. This activity can be observed by younger children. Older children can participate in as much as you feel is safe for them. Fill a pot with water. Using hot pads, carefully place the rocks, which have been heating in the oven, into the pot. Observe how the steam rises from the pot. Explain that the steam is water rising (evaporation), which would leave the sugar in the pot if the process were continued.

  2. The Indians would also leave the sap out in the cold to freeze. Then the ice could be lifted off of the top, leaving a higher concentration of sugar behind.

  3. The pioneers, over time, improved the process. They developed the "spile." The spile is a "faucet" placed in a small hole, drilled into the tree. Early spiles were made from sumac branches.

Activity: Making a Spile

  1. Use a 4- or 5-inch, 0.5-inch diameter sumac branch. Sumacs have a soft matter inside of their branches. This matter can be hollowed out by inserting a very hot large nail through the center and burning it out. Use the hot pad! This will leave a "pipe." Carve one end of the "pipe" into a point (like whittling a pencil to sharpen it). This spile was hammered into a hole that had been drilled into the tree. The sap would then flow out through the spile.

  2. In the spring time, the pioneers would tap their trees and collect the sap in buckets each day. The sap would then be heated over an open fire in a very large pot. The sap could then be boiled down to syrup or boiled completely into sugar. Granulated sugar was much easier to store and transport than syrup.

  3. Read chapters 7 and 8 ("The Sugar Snow" and "Dance at Grandpa's") of Little House in the Big Woods. Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up on the American frontier. She wrote a series of children's books about her life. This selection is about making maple sugar in the woods of Wisconsin during the late 1800s. Ask the students to look at the pictures and identify the steps in the sugaring process we have discussed. The students should observe the methods Laura's family used and the importance of sugaring in her culture. They can appreciate her excitement as her family gathers to celebrate the sugaring season.

Evaluation: Make a Picture Book

  1. Students can each create their own picture books or this can be a group project. Have the students make pictures of the following sugaring scenes:

    • the Indian method

    • making a spile

    • the improved pioneer method

    • Indian and pioneer children enjoying ways of eating maple sugar


Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1953). Little House in the Big Woods. New York: Harper & Row.

Davenport, Anni, Roy Adams, and Sanford Smith (2000). From the Woods: Maple Syrup a Taste of Nature. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University.


Heather Coder, Pennsylvania Homeschool