Lesson Plan

Boston's Arnold Arboretum: A Place for Study and Recreation

Flowers and trees in grassy field

Overall Rating

Not that bad
Add your review
Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 6 Standard 1B: The student understands the rapid growth of cities and how urban life changed.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies


1. To consider how 19th-century urban conditions influenced the development and design of parks;
2. To examine the history of the Arnold Arboretum and its role in the Boston park system;
3. To gain a better understanding of Frederick Law Olmsted and Charles Sprague Sargent, the two men responsible for the Arnold Arboretum;
4. To conduct research about the history of planned parks in their own community.


Time Period: Late 19th century
Topics: The lesson can be used in teaching units on late 19th-century urban expansion, especially as influenced by immigration and the Industrial Revolution. It also could form the core of an interdisciplinary unit when used in conjunction with lessons on the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements and lessons on botany.


By the mid-to-late 19th century, the crushing density of increasingly crowded cities led to the view that parks and public gardens could serve as antidotes to the urban environment. Renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted believed that visiting oases of green space could help ease the pressures of urban life for both the poor and the rich. In response to Olmsted's Central Park in New York, the first large public space set aside for recreational use in an American city, cities such as Philadelphia and Boston began planning their own green spaces. In Boston, Olmsted designed a series of parks linked by parkways collectively known as the "Emerald Necklace."

The Arnold Arboretum, one of the "jewels" of Boston's Emerald Necklace, has served as a tranquil haven since it opened to the public in the 1880s. There, seasons come alive in vibrant colors. In the spring, the delicate perfume of lilac, mock orange, and viburnum float on soft breezes. The pale green leaves of hickory, walnut, and hackberry trees offer verdant canopies. By mid-summer, the Arnold Arboretum is ablaze with color and heavy with ripening nuts and fruit. In the fall, rich autumn colors catch the sunlight. Even winter is beautiful in the arboretum. The trees and shrubs stand in stark contrast to gray skies and snow-covered slopes.

Lesson Hook/Preview

In the mid-19th century many urban centers saw their population double within a few decades, mostly through a huge influx of European immigrants. The cities were ill prepared to absorb such large numbers. Without a proper sanitation system to handle trash and human waste, epidemics raged unchecked. Mental health suffered as groups of people, many from agrarian cultures, tried to adjust to these new conditions.

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), widely recognized as America's premier landscape architect, believed that overcrowding in cities made people nervous and wary of one another as well as susceptible to disease. He suggested that while many people may have had to live in claustrophobic urban neighborhoods, planned parks and open spaces could serve as a respite by providing beautiful, tranquil, and healthy environments. He felt that parks would improve the health, disposition, and morals of city dwellers, and in particular, the poor and the sickly.

These views, steeped in the Romantic and Transcendental beliefs that nature was a necessary element in psychological and physical survival, were first fully realized in the United States between 1857 and 1863. Olmsted and his partner, architect Calvert Vaux, designed and oversaw construction of New York's 800-acre Central Park, the first large open urban space set aside for recreational use. Central Park served as the catalyst for other parks in cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. In the 1870s, the City of Boston hired Olmsted, whose expertise was much in demand at the time, to develop plans for a park system.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



Additional Resources

Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site
Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System. Visit the park's web pages for a detailed history of Olmsted as well as information about the Olmsted Archives that has historic documentation for Olmsted-designed landscapes. Also featured on the site is the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation (OCLP) providing technical assistance to historic properties in cultural landscape research, planning, stewardship and education.

National Register of Historic Places Program: Landscape Initiative
Learn more about the National Register of Historic Places Program: Landscape Initiative.This program promotes responsible preservation practices that protect our nation's irreplaceable legacy--designed landscapes such as parks and gardens, as well as vernacular historic landscapes such as farms and industrial sites.

The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University
Visit the Arnold Arboretum website for more information about this research and educational institution. It manages a collection of hardy trees, shrubs, and vines located on 281 acres in Boston, Massachusetts and associated herbarium and library collections. The grounds were planned and designed by the Arboretum's first director, Charles Sprague Sargent, in collaboration with the landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmsted as part of Boston's Emerald Necklace park system.

Visit Some of the Parks Created by Frederick Law Olmsted

The Cultural Landscape Foundation
The Cultural Landscape Foundation is the only not-for-profit foundation in America dedicated to increasing the public’s awareness of the importance and irreplaceable legacy of cultural landscapes. Visit their website for more information on what cultural landscapes are and what they represent. Also learn about endangered landscapes and grassroots efforts to preserve them.

Library of Congress
Visit the Digital Collections website to search through the archives for the writings of Frederick Law Olmsted, pictures from his personal collection, and information on his various parks. Also search for information on the industrialization of America, the reactionary movements to the consequences, and Arnold Arboretum. Of special note are the environmental and landscape photographs of Arnold Arboretum.

American Journal of Botany
Browse the American Journal of Botany, a journal devoted to the study of plants, for a variety of articles on botany.

For Further Reading
Students (or educators) wishing to learn more about Frederick Law Olmsted, Charles Sprague Sargent, or the Arnold Arboretum may want to read: Ida Hay, Science in the Pleasure Ground: A History of Arnold Arboretum (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995); Witold Rybczynski, A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Scribner, 1999); S. B. Sutton, Charles Sprague Sargent and the Arnold Arboretum(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970); and Cynthia Zaitzevsky, Frederick Law Olmsted and the Boston Park System (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1982).

Contact Information

Email us about this lesson plan

Last updated: October 12, 2018