Addition, Elementary Math, Holiday Math, Math Talk, Number Sense, Problem Solving

Puzzling Tree

Throughout my career I enjoyed doing activities and projects with my students that got them thinking and problem solving. I knew they were learning when there was progressive struggle. The students enjoyed this activity by the end of our time allotted for it, but there were moments of frustrations for sure. In many of my classes throughout the years, I had a few students each year who found elementary school to be rather easy. As a teacher we are constantly trying to differentiate our instruction and activities to meet all the needs of our students; those approaching “grade level”, students who are “at grade level”, and those students who are “beyond grade level”. This is a fun holiday activity that gets kids thinking, but also in the wintery and holiday spirit.

You simply need:

  • green construction paper for the trees
  • brown construction paper for the tree trunks
  • your choice of background for the trees to be glued on
  • rulers
  • pencils
  • scissors
  • glue
  • small shapes cut out using di-cut or stickers

Students will get a piece of green paper that have four 1 inch thick rows that are each 9 inches long. Construction paper is 9 inches wide, so you just need to have 1 inch thick lines on the green paper like the image below. I had the lines printed from letter paper printed from a word doc, but printed on construction paper like this since construction paper is wider than letter paper. This never bothered my students, but if you need, just use a ruler to draw your lines for 1 in thick lines on the 9 inch wide construction paper. The red paper you see is what my students were gluing their trees on.

Each student will receive the 4 rows of green lines and be asked to measure and mark the following lengths: 1 inch, 2 inches, 3 inches, 4 inches, 5 inches, 6 inches, 7 inches, and 8 inches. Students will struggle with this. Most want to start measuring out 1 inch, then on the same line measure 2 more inches and so on. See what is a common mistake below and then a required measurement will be missing and the top and bottom will be a wasted piece. There should be no extra pieces.

I let kids struggle and encourage perseverance. I keep reminding my students to have a growth mindset. After a good amount of time, 15 minutes or so, I may give them the hint to think in terms of part-part-whole. Some students will start to have light bulb moments, some will still struggle. Let them struggle.


To save yourself time of having to make more copies of the green paper, students have to get teacher approval before they are allowed to cut their pieces apart.

For students who continue to struggle, encourage them to measure the whole wide of the paper. We are looking at 9 inches. Have students go back and look at the lengths we are trying to measure out and remind them we are thinking in terms of part-part-whole. You’ll have to hear a bunch of “ah ha” moments.

You can take this activity a step further and have the students decorate their trees with di-cut shapes or stickers. When I’ve had students decorate their trees I have then made shapes worth values. In 4th grade I would the values be a bit bigger so my students were then working on multiplying with multi-digit numbers.

Lastly, if you want to take it even a step further, you can have white paint out and use Q-tips or their finger tips to add “snow”.

Let me know if you decide to do this activity with your students. I’d love to hear how it went and see some of your students trees!

Puzzle Tree

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