WOODSTOCK — Since daytime temperatures have been above freezing, it was the perfect time for students at Woodstock Elementary School to participate in a popular pre-spring ritual — tapping a maple tree and collecting its syrup.


On Feb. 4, children in Kindergarten through Grade 3 gathered on the school playground with Physical Education teachers Sonja Rothe and Patrick Burkhardt for a hands-on lesson on maple sugaring. For the past 10 years, Burkhardt has been sharing his extensive knowledge on the subject with students at all three of Onteora’s Elementary Schools — Woodstock, Phoenicia, and Bennett.


“With abundant maple trees, many locals have been making syrup for generations in all three communities,” Burkhardt said. “I like to think I am helping pass on this local tradition to the children so that when they see the blue sap lines in the woods, they know what they are.”


Burkhardt’s lessons covered a range of topics, including the history of maple sugaring in our area, the tools used, and the identification of maple trees.


Eager to get tapping, the young learners demonstrated their knowledge about a tree's circulatory system and how it utilizes sap. When Burkhardt pointed to a pine tree, they were quick to note that pine is not a good tree for syrup. “It's not sweet!” they shouted in unison.


Students were engaged, busy looking for the largest root on the selected maple tree to tap, using a tool called a “refractometer” to test the sugar content of the tree, and a “spile” or tap to extract the sap inside. Almost immediately after Burkhardt drilled a small hole into the tree and set the tap, the liquid began to drip. Students could also see how much sap had already gathered in a container from previous classes, and even get a taste.


Burkhardt first began making syrup as a hobby with very little equipment, literally boiling the sap down on an outside fire. He decided to share his experiences with students in the school he taught at, and from there, his lessons expanded to include all three elementary schools. Over the years, he was able to purchase more sophisticated equipment and give samples for each class to enjoy.


In the coming weeks, Burkhardt will return to Woodstock with an evaporator to show students how to boil the sap down, giving them a chance to see how it is transformed into the kind of syrup they might see on their breakfast table.


Another part of their learning involves nutrition. Burkhardt and Rothe emphasize to the students that pure maple syrup has natural sugars and is healthier, unlike the syrups we see at most pancake restaurants, which have a lot of added sugars. Over the years, both have noticed that more students recognize the natural kind and are using it at home.


“When we first started doing these lessons, some students didn't even recognize the ‘real’ stuff!” Burkhardt said.


They also are more familiar with the tradition of tapping. “I know people are getting sap from the maple trees when I see the buckets!” exclaimed Grade 3 student Byron Reznick. Seth Monroe, a Grade 1 student, said he was excited that the weather had gotten warmer because he and his family would be tapping maple trees this weekend right in his backyard.


Burkhardt hopes the lessons will continue to have a positive impact on the students and encourage them to support local maple syrup makers and see the value in all natural products.