Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Logo; Click to return to our Home Page.

Canals, Trees, and Communities

An activity designed to represent movement of lumber from forests, along canals and to cites.

Grade Level: 3-6

CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.3.3; 4.3; 5.3: Describe the relationship between a series of historical events, scientific ideas or concepts, or steps in technical procedures in a text, using language that pertains to time, sequence, and cause/effect.
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.3.7; 4.7; 5.7: Use information gained from illustrations (e.g., maps, photographs) and the words in a text to demonstrate understanding of the text (e.g. where, when why, and how key events occur).

Content Area: history, science

Recommended Length/Duration: 75 minutes

Goals: Students will understand the general Stem to Stern story of land use change and changes in trade. The Goal is to represent the changing relationship between people, waterways and the forests of Vermont and New York in the 19th Century, and in conclusion connecting that to modern stewardship and conservation.



Roles: Character Roles may be assigned to students prior to class. Download the Role Cards. The Role of the Canals should go to students who can handle a higher amount of activity. Likewise, students playing the forests will need to remain in one spot for the duration. Recommendations based on class size:


The Forest

Forest workers

Canal People

Boat People

City People

17 person class

6 students





20 person class

8 students





22 person class

8 students





26 person class

10 students





34 person class

12 students





Geography (Optional with LCMM staff and materials):  LCMM staff will lay out a classroom-wide topographical map (approximately 30 feet end to end), with lake Champlain connected to the St. Lawrence seaway at one end and the Hudson river leading to NYC and the Atlantic at the other.

WITH STUDENTS (75 Min Total):

Either pass out roles or remind the students of their previously assigned roles and arrange them into groups by role. Discuss each role, and have each group describe what it has, needs, wants, and is able to do. Walk through the rules of each role in the activity.

Show students a map of the region. Use the map on board to explain the larger geographical representation arranged on the ground. “On the map, we are up here near lake Champlain. See this big blue thing over here? If this is lake Champlain, where would we be?” Show them the mountain ranges and point out your physical mountain areas, point out waterways. Guide the Forest characters to their locations in the mountains or near the water, placing some closer to the waterways, and some deeper into the mountains (farther away from the lake). All the forests are different, have different types and amounts of trees, so give the more distant forest characters more popsicle sticks. The forests remain in their places, giving out popsicle sticks to the People Who Work in the Forest. Set aside a section (by the cities, possible) for the students who are not in play during the first round (Canal People, a couple of the People Who Work in the Forests).

2. PHASE ONE (3-5 MIN): An (LCMM or classroom) educator will begin the narration: EARLY DAYS/PRE-CANAL (1800-1823) - City people live in NYC and in Burlington. Send some People Who Work in the Forest out around lake Champlain to collect wood and bring it back to Burlington (1 city person for Burlington, two forest people, one boat person). They want to get at the forests inland. Talk about where they can send their wood – to Burlington and then to St. Lawrence. They bring their wood to the boat characters, who bring it to Burlington in exchange for money. This cycle continues, with one boat in Lake Champlain going to Burlington and one Boat on the Hudson going to NYC. Let some time play out so that the People who Work in the Forests can harvest some accessible wood in ADKs, Greens, and Catskills.

3. CANAL BUILDING (7-10 MIN) (1823-1840s) – City people want more wood, they want to grow more and everyone wants to connect Lake Champlain to Albany and NYC. Bring in the Canal people (Champlain Canal is built) and connect the Hudson and Lake Champlain, the boat people can now travel back and forth. NYC will pay more money for wood than Burlington, so boats from Lake Champlain will start to take wood through the canal to NYC instead of to Burlington. More boats can be created to move wood along that route and more forest people can go out to collect the wood. Burlington is bypassed by the Boat people more often for NYC. Let time pass until the accessible Forests approach depletion. The cities generate more money from the wood to encourage more trade.

4. LATER 19th C. (2-3 MIN) – Representing expanded canal size and better technology for harvest and milling, have the Canal person use their money to expand the canal: Allow the People who Work in the Forests to gather more than one popsicle stick at a time and to walk at a normal pace. The boats can also carry more and the canal does not have to count the popsicle sticks anymore. The boats by now should have plenty of money to pay canal tolls and to load lots of wood. The City People continue to get more money and buy more wood. Fewer forests are now left but the Cities still ask for more.


Feedback from each character (1 comment each)

  • Ask Forest characters to explain what has happened to them. Address topic of trees holding water in the soil.
  • Ask Boats what happened at different points? How much money where they getting, how much wood did they move around?
  • Ask the Canals what happens when there so much to move around?  How much money did they get? Ask them what happens when the mountains don’t hold water anymore.
  • Cities:  How many buildings did you build? NYC, did you get lots of money? Burlington, what about you? Did the boats stop bringing you as much wood?

Are there any trees left for the forest people to send to the cities?

  • Mention that slowly some of the forests begin to grow back (give some popsicle sticks to forests. What can the people do to deal with these problems? (plant trees, protect forests and waterways, manage cutting, set aside parks)

Narrator guides discussion toward unsustainable harvest. For the cities, boats and forest workers, it was fun to move wood and get money, but what happened to the forests? What larger problems might that have caused? The whole system is impacted—this means every role in this game.

What does that mean to each role when there aren’t enough trees? 

  • Forest  (animals, what happens to water when it rains? So what happens to soil?)
  • Boats (no more work, might have to go somewhere else, maybe can’t repair your boats, might have to carry something else, might go out of business)
  • Canals (forests can’t hold the water anymore so it floods)
  • Cities (if water is full of dirt, what will you drink; what will you use to build; how will you get food and other supplies without boats)

What could we do to make this system keep going?

  • Let trees grow back, protect the forest, plant more trees.
  • Trees regrow, but they take a long time.  We’re going to help grow more wood and plant some trees.

What would happen if we built another canal?  Well we did!  The Erie Canal!

  • Explain the 2017 Tour.  Lois McClure connecting schools in Champlain Valley to people and towns along Erie Canal.


Pre-assessment: Assess background knowledge prior to beginning activity by asking each group to discuss their roll. “Forests, can you describe what your roll is for us? What are you and where do you live? What do you think forests need?”
“Boats, describe yourselves for us? What are you made of, what do you do? Etc.

Post-assessment: Assess the connections and changes observed between roles through discussion. Ask each group to talk about what they needed and what changed over the course of the activity. “Foresters, tell us what you did and how your job changed through time!” “Forests, did things stay the same? What happened to you?” “Cities, what might have changed for you?” Look for understanding of wider systematic changes over time. “The cities wanted so much wood and the foresters cut so much wood that eventually there wasn’t very much left!”


Various extensions may be added by LCMM or classroom instructors depending on the course of the activity.

The largest extension will be the addition of an entire Erie Canal section to this game, to represent the same ideas on a much larger scale.