Building a Junior Naturalist Kit For Your Child

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

The summertime is a great time to encourage kids to explore nature and develop their naturalist side. A naturalist is someone who studies the natural world, and with plenty of sunshine and warmth, along with longer days and fewer obligations, now is the perfect opportunity for you and the kids in your life to wake up early to watch the sunrise, explore nature journaling, camp in the backyard overnight, stay up late and point out the constellations, or join a citizen science project on iNaturalist using your Seek app.

While there are plenty of websites, blogs, and videos you can watch on kids, nature, and being a junior naturalist, I prefer books (I’m sure you’re shocked, being that I write for a site called “BOOK Riot”). There are so many fabulous nature guides, instructional guides, and nonfiction books on nature and the natural world out there right now for kids and young adults that it would be a shame not to utilize as many as possible. Plus, many of them are easy to throw into a backpack for easy reference. For me, nothing takes the place of a physical guide or book in my hand. While apps are great for confirming an identification, there’s something special about searching for a wildflower or leaf in a guide, and being able to correctly match it.

If you want to learn more about putting together a junior naturalist kit for your child (or yourself!) and what books to consider, read on!

Basics of the Junior Naturalist Kit

The benefits of being in nature and nature journaling have been well documented, and putting together a junior naturalist kit for your child can be fun — and help them get the most out of their time outside. Some basics to have first include:

  • A backpack
  • Binoculars and/or a magnifying glass
  • Waterproof bag (you never know)
  • Water bottle
  • Safety whistle
  • Sunscreen
  • Hats
  • Snacks
  • Pencil and eraser
  • Colored pencils
  • Notebook/sketchpad of your choice

You’ll also want to pack some field guides appropriate for your region, and some laminated folding identification guides. For field guides for kids, I really like the National Geographic Ultimate Explorer Guide: Birds, as well as the Trees edition. They’re small and lightweight, but filled with vibrant pictures and lots of information. The Take Along Guides are also great and come in a variety of editions, including Caterpillars, Bugs, and Butterflies; Birds, Nests, and Eggs; and Rocks, Fossils, and Arrowheads.

Books to Get You Started on the Naturalist Journey

First, check in with yourself, and be honest: are you enthusiastic about this? If not, your kid will pick up on it. Kids are masters of observation, and if an adult isn’t psyched about something, they know it. You don’t have to be ready to be the next contestant on Alone, but this should at least be a fun activity. You don’t even have to know anything about nature — I know I’ve found that part of the fun is learning alongside kids! I am in no way an expert, but I’ve attended nature classes with my son and have fallen in love with exploring nature and learned so much, and often come home and make lists of books I want to read about whatever topic was in class.

I really like irreverent nature books like The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America, and have found that memoirs from naturalists can inspire me to learn more about topics. Christian Cooper’s memoir Better Living Through Birding made me want to go birding, and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life made fungi fascinating. You never know until you try, and even if that means picking up a book you normally wouldn’t, or taking a walk with your child and taking turns observing nature, every little bit helps.  

One thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to live near lots of open green space or take expensive vacations to state or national parks to explore the natural world. While you can always start in your own backyard, you don’t even need a backyard to get started! Even if you’re in the city, there are patches of grass or city parks to explore. If there are planters around, learn about the flowers in the planters. If you can send away for a butterfly growing kit, that’s another option. What’s Wild Outside Your Door?: Discovering Nature in the City is a great resource to check out that brings to life nature in cities, with plenty of activities to try. If you do have your own yard, Nature’s Best Hope (Young Reader’s Edition): How You Can Save the World in Your Own Yard is a great introduction to conservation for middle grade readers, bringing the message home in a very real, direct way.

If you’re looking for more instructional manuals or guides to use with your children that involve more involvement from you, the Keepers of the Earth series by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac is a fabulous resource, filled with Native American stories and accompanying outdoor activities and lessons, with clear explanations of what cultural appropriation is and how to avoid it when doing nature activities. In that same vein, Braiding Sweetgrass For Young Adults is a great read for tweens and teens (and even adults!). Nature School: Lessons and Activities to Inspire Children’s Love for Everything Wild has been a great addition to our summer homeschooling that explores different biomes and doing different activities and experiments.

Having environmental and nature books on hand on the shelves at home as resources is helpful, too. On days when you just don’t have time or for whatever reason can’t get outside, books can be a great way to learn about parts of the natural world or pique interest in something new. Pairing specific readings with National Geographic documentaries or shows really helps in a visual way as well.

If fungi are your thing, Humongous Fungus is a fun nonfiction book about fungi, and Fungarium is a gorgeous book that will entrance both adults and children with its beautiful illustrations. The Backpack Explorer series consists of books for younger kids (around 4-8 years old) that can be used both in the field and reviewed at home, like Bug Hunt; if you’re looking for books that do double duty for middle grade kids and teens, the Outdoor School series has titles like Rock, Fossil, and Shell Hunting, along with sticker activity books.

For kids who are a little young to go exploring or nature journaling, don’t worry, there are plenty of great picture books to help instill a love of and interest in nature. Books like We Are Water Protectors, A Beach Tail, Outside In, and Little Owl’s Night are great to have on the shelf for some nature reading.

Why now?

It seems like lately there’s been a bit of an explosion of books about children being outside, outside activities for children, and environmentalism for children, and while some of it might be seasonal marketing, I do think there’s something else here. I think we’re seeing the negative effects of too much screen time for some kids, we’re seeing the physical and mental impact of being sedentary and indoors too much. For many people, nature has become a source of healing and calm, and we want to pass this on to our kids.

The climate crisis and very real environmental issues are also on our minds and impacting our lives in real-time. We know that, like many subjects, in order for our kids (or anyone, really) to care about environmental and conservation issues, their interest has to be piqued. What better way to do that than when they’re young and intensely curious about everything, including the natural world? Teaching young children about responsible environmental stewardship in a fun and age-appropriate way, like by setting them up as exploring as junior naturalists for instance, can help set the tone for future actions, and now more than ever, that’s important.

What are your junior naturalists going to study first?

If you’re looking for more suggestions for books about nature, check out this post about nonfiction books about trees, and this post exploring picture books about nature.