Flora, Fauna and Family Togetherness

Help nurture your children’s love of nature—and your own—by creating a field guide to your backyard or other favorite outdoor spot

04-29-2011 // Kelly Senser
Broad-headed skink on tree snag

MY SIX-YEAR-OLD son calls regular “bug club” meetings. I haven’t missed one yet. While his invitations let me know he’s in the mood to explore the outdoors, they are also my cue to slow down, let go of worries for a spell and tune in—not only to wee critters but also my family.

“It is easy to share with [children] the beauties we usually miss because we look too hastily, seeing the whole and not its parts,” biologist Rachel Carson once wrote. Though my love of nature is keen, I sometimes fail to nurture it. Both my kids, meanwhile, routinely embrace the joy and mystery of the natural world around us.

One way I’ve found to help keep alive their sense of wonder—and nourish my own—is creating a field guide to our backyard. My husband and I designed our garden beds with wildlife in mind, choosing native plants and other elements that support birds, bees and other animals (broad-headed skink, left). About a year ago we decided to get better acquainted with these wild visitors: We began keeping records of the wildlife we saw, placing pages filled with images, sketches and notes into a loose-leaf binder.

“It’s not just a project—this is an experience!” says Jane Kirkland, author of the Take a Walk series of nature discovery books, about putting together a field guide. I agree wholeheartedly. Whether you’re surveying your property, a schoolyard or another favorite green space, here are some tips for making the experience an enjoyable one:

Take lots of photos: Besides being colorful, images are useful. Looking at them allows our family to study identifying marks, compare findings with reference sources and assign names to species that are new to us. Photos also help us to document the presence of family favorites such as monarch butterflies and eastern bluebirds in our habitat, as well as capture memories. Perhaps nontraditional, our field guide includes images of ourselves enjoying our adventures. They already spark warm “remember when…” reflections.

Be creative: You don’t have to catalog every critter you see. If you prefer, you can focus on one type of creature, such as dragonflies or beetles. Your guide is what you dream it to be. My friend Debi Huang, author of the Go Explore Nature blog, made an ABC book with her young son, photographing natural subjects representing the alphabet (snail for “S” and so on). “What started out as a fun way to learn the letters and get outdoors turned into so much more,” she says. Proud to have helped create the book, her then three-year-old made it one of his favorites.

Let yourself grow: Each family member’s point of view is reflected in the pages that fill a field guide. We’ve learned a lot from our observations and related research. When my daughter spots a bird outside her window, or my son and I venture out in search of insects, we’re now more apt to recognize the wildlife we’re seeing. This understanding has sharpened my kids’ conservation ethic and love of the outdoors. In the words of my 10-year-old daughter: “Nature is fragile. I want to take care of it.”

Kelly Senser is an NWF staffer, gardener and fan of play. For more field guide tips, check out “Make a Field Guide ... to Your Yard!

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