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Get Outdoors! Recommended Resources for Exploring the Natural World

Spring is here! And with it the urge in all of us to spend more time outdoors. Whether gardening, hiking, playing, or just plain sitting and enjoying the slightly warmer and longer early spring days, this time of year is perfect for outdoor learning. 

We have put together a list of books with great ideas for exploring the natural world while at school or at home. On our books for children and young adults list you will find books with fun, inventive activities meant to be done outdoors. The next list of book is for teachers. These books include classroom ideas for outdoor learning. And lastly we’ve included a list of some of the most recent highly recommended field guides. Field guides are a great way for older students and adults to do some self-directed outdoor exploring.   

Books for Children and Young Adults

Amateur Naturalist. Nick Baker, with a foreword by Lee Durrell. (Illus.) National Geographic Society, 2005. 288pp. $30.00. 2004057568. ISBN 0-7922-9348-7. Index; C.I.P.

With a very appropriate title, this book is meant for those who like to investigate the outdoors and who see themselves as amateur naturalists. The first chapter addresses the types of equipment a naturalist would need. Subsequent chapters are each devoted to a major group of animals, except for one chapter, which is given over to plants. Each chapter is a practical combination of natural-history information about the organisms and the particulars involved in tracking, observing, capturing, or otherwise interacting with those organisms. Safety and the ethical treatment of living things are stressed. The level of detail provided is adequate for those who are familiar with the outdoors, but might be perceived as lacking by those who spend little time outdoors. The text is illustrated with lovely photos and drawings. Being a British publication, the book describes species that are native to Britain, but the information about how best to observe certain types of animals (e.g., squirrels) is applicable anywhere. Preceding the index is a list of conservation organizations, suppliers of specialized equipment, and books for further reading. Teachers who are looking for outdoor investigations would be interested in the projects described in this book, which would be a good addition to any public, college or university, or high school library.

Backyard Science. Shar Levine and and Leslie Johnstone. (Illus.) Sterling, 2005. 80pp. $19.95. 2004026753. ISBN 1-4027-1519-6. Glossary; Index; C.I.P.

Backyard Science, by Shar Levine and Leslie Johnstone, contains a series of 29 life science activities designed to be investigated in outdoor settings. The book opens with a thorough description of the guidelines and safety issues associated with outdoor science. Mid-elementary through middle school readers are encouraged to elicit the help of adults with selected activities. The activities are evenly split between the study of plants and animals; the book closes with three environmental activities and a challenge to become actively involved in improving the local environment.

Each activity contains a title with a brief introduction that sets the stage for the ensuing investigation. Under the heading “What You Do” are clearly written narrative directions accompanied by colorful illustrations and ample photographs. The hands-on activities provide ample opportunities for observations relative to a key question listed in the introduction. A follow-up section entitled “What Happened” provides an accurate description of the content of the activity. Key vocabulary words appear in boldface and are defined in a glossary at the end of the book. The activities appear practical, yet engaging. The book is versatile in that the activities can easily be conducted in urban settings. The activities may be strengthened with additional opportunities for readers to record data and generate questions as a result of the investigations. This durable hard-cover book is well written and is likely to increase children’s awareness of life science concepts in one of the best science laboratories available: the outdoors.

BugZoo. Nick Baker. (Illus.) DK, 2010. 64pp. $12.99. ISBN 9780756661663. Index.

This is the perfect book for any child who has shown more than just a casual interest in “bugs.” Most any child, endowed with a natural curiosity as all are, will look at a bug, perhaps even pick it up, ooh and ahh for a few seconds, then move on to the next subject of interest. But when a child looks and looks and asks questions like, "What is it?" and "Can I keep it?", then the parent or teacher recognizes that special spark of interest and guides the child to the next step. This book is that next step—and it is fabulous. Using lots of pictures, mostly in color, the author shows the budding naturalist how to collect and set up “housekeeping” for a big variety of “bugs,” using simple materials that are usually readily available around any household or classroom. He shows what the “zoo” should look like, how to collect the animals to put in it, how to feed them, what the responsibilities of the zookeeper are, and how to observe the animals and even conduct and record simple experiments with them. His list of suitable zoo creatures includes sow bugs, slugs, snails, aphids, caterpillars, earthworms, earwigs, ladybugs, spiders, crickets, katydids, pseudoscorpions, larval mosquitoes, larval dragonflies, and backswimmers. The author provides scientific names for all of these creatures and tells about their close relatives. He goes to great lengths to show how to care for the animals in such way that they can be eventually released to the environment in good health. The British vocabulary will occasionally seem strange to American eyes (e.g., “fiddly” for “fussy”), but this aspect, too, is a path to learning new things.

With regard to technical accuracy, this book rates very high, the misspelling of “opisthosoma” notwithstanding. The binding is sturdy and the index is excellent, but there are no suggestions for further reading or helpful websites. This book could well be the first step toward a professional career in invertebrate zoology; such an outcome would be wonderful, indeed. But even if that never happens for any reader, just the experience of close observation and hands-on caretaking and experimentation that this book promotes will serve any child well no matter what he or she does later on in life. In short, this book is a good investment for any parent or teacher to make in order to help children understand the fascinating world of nature all around them.

Nature Science Experiments: What's Hopping in a Dust Bunny? Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen. (Illus. by Edward Miller; from the MAD Science Series.) Sterling, 2010. 64pp. $12.95. 2009033327. ISBN 9781402724121. Index; C.I.P.

This delightful book is full a variety of interesting experiments, from observing the reaction of earthworms to moisture and light to collecting personal DNA samples. The experiments are clear and simple to follow, with most of the materials found in the home or inexpensive to purchase. The one possible exception is a high-quality microscope.

The book starts with the importance of asking questions, observing, being prepared for anything, being informed, taking suggestions, getting assistance, and being careful. The experiments start, not with a hypothesis, but rather, with a general question incorporating the topic to be examined. The steps of the experiment are then clearly explained; the "What's going on?" section describes why certain reactions happened in the experiment. It would have been helpful if the author had provided some questions for the reader to ask before embarking on the experiment—questions that would have given the young scientist an opportunity to form a hypothesis. It would also have been useful and would have supported the idea of "being informed" if the author had included reference sources within each topic or experiment. This book is a wonderful resource for a classroom teacher who wants a springboard for the development of different topics.

Pocket Guide to the Outdoors: Based on My Side of the Mountain. Jean Craighead George, with Twig C. George, John C. George, and T. Luke George. (Illus.) Dutton, 2009. 138pp. $9.99. ISBN 9780525421634. Index; C.I.P.

Wow! Reading this newest book by someone who influenced my life so deeply was a joy, taking me back nearly 40 years to a time when everything seemed possible to a boy growing up in the Midwest. Yes, I'm one of the millions of kids who read Jean Craighead George's My Side of the Mountain right at the time that I was beginning to wonder just where I fit into the world of adults, into nature, and into the world in general. As I read her new Pocket Guide to the Outdoors, the short passages from My Side flashed me back to that 12-year-old boy. Seriously, I remembered reading the same words on a school bus or under the covers with a flashlight. These were major memories. My kids read My Side of the Mountain, too, and now we're passing the Pocket Guide around. It's terrific—how to make shelters and fire; identifying and cooking edible plants; simple fishing and trapping methods; telling birds by their calls—and everything is clear and realistic for young adults to attempt. Well, OK, probably not falconry, but it had to be included for us adults who dreamed of our own falcon best friend who found us food out of love. Pocket Guide to the Outdoors has great illustrations, is very readable, and even has a cover that will resist weather and wear. The best thing I can say about this book is that you need it. For classrooms, libraries, or home—you need it. Just as you needed Jean Craighead George when you were 12.

The Practical Naturalist: Explore the Wonders of the Natural World. Chris Packham. (Illus.) DK, 2010. 256pp. $19.95. ISBN 9780756658991.Glossary; Index; C.I.P.

The Practical Naturalist is a stunning photographic compendium of species and places from ice cap to rain forest, grassland, forest, desert, and mountaintop. In general, the book’s organization takes its reader from the broad scope of the whole earth (sky, weather, biodiversity, and niches, each in a two-page spread), to the local, likely familiar landscape of backyard habitats and the techniques available to a budding naturalist, and then out traveling to a diversity of biomes: shoreline, pond, bog, mountain, prairie, moor, forest, shrub land, and desert. Photographs are the stars of this book, each spread studded with more biodiversity than most adults actively notice in a week. Facts are delivered in chunks accompanying photos, with various friendly looking fonts competing (sometimes in vain) for attention with the textured and brilliant color life-forms in the photos. The primary and premier skill of a good scientist is his or her power of observation, and yet, this book offers a strong antidote to the passive dullness of the word “observation.”

Though too finely made for grubby-handed toddlers, the book would appeal to those of any older age: My 7- and 10-year-old daughters were fighting over reviewing it, and I may well give a copy to my 75-year-old father, who loves a good walk, but whose access to the outdoors is currently restricted by his precarious mobility. I expect that about third grade to middle school would be exactly the right time for a student to optimally benefit from the text. The book could be used in a classroom of almost any age to teach about biomes or species diversity, or as a preview of what wonders to look for on a nature walk, whether in the schoolyard or off campus, at woodland or pond or stream. The glossary and appendix make the book quite useful as a reference, although the appendix is far from a complete guide for helping locate the book’s many detailed and delightful photos. Obviously, for information about any single habitat, a serious naturalist would need more complete and specific texts would be needed for a serious naturalist. Still, this volume gives you the world in about 250 pages, without a single unappealing page on the whole journey.

True Green Kids: 100 Things You Can Do to Save the Planet. Kim McKay and Jenny Bonnin. (Illus.) National Geographic Press, 2008. 143pp. $15.95. ISBN 9781426304422. Glossary.

True Green Kids is aimed at U.S. kids who live in U.S. households, which contribute almost one-fifth of the country’s greenhouse gases in a country that has the highest rate of carbon emissions in the world. The book’s purpose is to motivate kids and to guide them in the philosophy of “reduce, reuse, recycle, rethink.” The book is graphically very attractive, with a very simple and straightforward organization: one hundred single actions that would move the child and his or her household toward a smaller “eco-footprint.” Actions are organized by where (your room, your home, outdoors, your school, on vacation) and by how (with friends, buying stuff, teamwork, making fun things). Each action is given its own brightly illustrated page with a few powerful facts, an action step, and, often, a reference website for more “how-to” information. Actions range from the very simple (“Turn off the faucet when you brush your teeth”) to the more complex “Make a video with an environmental message.” Some of these actions are simple enough for children to do on their own, but many steps will require the support, encouragement, and engagement of the whole household, friends, or the classroom. Despite the complexity of a number of the suggested actions, the purpose of the book is to encourage kids’ involvement and leadership in reducing the nation’s carbon footprint. The actions and concepts in True Green Kids are appropriate to a wide range of ages. Everyone, including younger children, can understand and help by taking the simpler actions, and older children, teachers, and adults in the family can organize or lead some of the more complicated projects (a school recycling program, a neighborhood car pool, a school or household energy audit, a local carbon trading-card system). The section on resources includes a quiz to help kids and families assess their status and progress, a list of web resources organized by topic, and a glossary. This book is attractive and fun enough that it might make a great gift to a family, child, or teacher who is becoming concerned about global warming and the future of the environment.

You Can Be a Nature Detective. Peggy Kochanoff. (Illus.) Mountain Press, 2009. 63pp. $14.00. 2009004534. ISBN 9780878425563. Glossary; C.I.P.

 Peggy Kochanoff clearly loves exploring the outdoors with children, and her love shows in this little book—in the luminous watercolor illustrations, in the descriptions of the organisms, in the activities suggested, and in the glossary with its simple, but clear and accurate, definitions. Unfortunately, the detective question-and-answer format is a bit repetitive and makes a book that could be interesting to a wide range of ages more suitable in tone for a younger set (grades K-2).

The strongest parts of the book are the pages that can assist with identification—of butterflies and their caterpillars, of animal tracks (including a nice variety of all the more common, less intimidating creatures), of bones from an owl pellet, of feeding marks on trees (including marks of beavers, sapsuckers, and others), of soil organisms, and of bird nests. If this book isn’t entirely a field guide in scope, it should still serve as a beginner’s guide. I can see the book inspiring a young person into looking at the world with fresh attentiveness and also helping an accompanying adult by giving answers that are no longer common knowledge. The book clearly has a place in a school library or on a classroom shelf, but also opened wide on a kitchen table, helping a parent and child solve a mystery they have found outdoors.

 Books for Teachers

 Exploring Ecology: 49 Ready-to-Use Activities for Grades 4-8. Patria A. Warren, with Janet R. Galle. (Illus.) NSTA Press, 2005. 252pp. $28.95. 2005003496. ISBN 0-87355-251-2. C.I.P.

 This useful guidebook, written by Patricia A. Warren, with Janet R. Galle, can be used inside the classroom and out in the field. The manual is organized so that it can be the curriculum for an eight-week unit on ecology or broken up into several one- or two-week units. It includes extensive teacher instructions, reproducible student work sheets with answer keys, a section on materials management and planning, a section exploring the meaning and hierarchy of ecology, and a final section about taking students out in the field to experience ecology firsthand. An extension section at the end of the book offers suggestions about ways to integrate aspects of ecology into language arts, art, and social studies.

Emphasis is placed on science as inquiry, as students explore the living and nonliving parts of sample ecosystems. Various activities allow the students to gain an understanding of populations, communities, food webs, energy flow, soil composition, chemical cycles in nature, and urban recycling. In addition, there are periodic references to SciLinks, the NSTA’s Web-site section that connects textbooks with Internet sites.

This guidebook is correlated with the NSES and can be used independently, as a supplement to an existing school curriculum, or as enrichment for gifted and talented students. The book is written in such a way that the teacher can individualize the program to his or her particular classroom needs, choosing only those activities that would be appropriate. One of the strongest aspects of the book is that it allows students to gain experience and an understanding of how real scientists work.

 Inside-Out: Environmental Science in the Classroom and the Field, Grades 3-8. Robert Blake Jr., et al. (Illus.) NSTA Press, 2010. xxiv+165pp. $22.95. 2009051811. ISBN 9781935155119. Index; C.I.P.

 Inside-Out landed on my desk just as our school was wrapping up its environmental program for the year. The book is a complete instructional manual for starting a comprehensive watershed project at any school. (The department chair immediately jotted down the ISBN to order her own copy after examining mine!) The text is geared toward grades 3-8, but certainly has applications for high school. Starting any environmental program from scratch can be daunting. Many school systems promote “project-based learning” (PBL) or “project-based science” programs; yet teachers can be overwhelmed by the scope and sequence involved in any environmental project. Here is a complete primer; each chapter is logically organized around a yearlong watershed program beginning with topography and ending with ideas for “action” projects. The chapters are logical in sequence: topography, physical geography, water, soil, energy, biodiversity, and “action” projects. One nice feature is the way the book dovetails with other environmental programs that are available, such as “Save Our Streams,” Project Wet,” “My World,” or GLOBE. (Schools certified in GLOBE could easily use this text in conjunction with the GLOBE program.)

The book provides excellent background information for the teacher, particularly an elementary school educator who may not have had any previous environmental studies. The text even supplies ideas for integrating the lessons into an existing curriculum; for example, an elementary school teacher who uses butterfly larvae to teach about life cycles might have her students plan and install a butterfly garden instead (pp.128-129). Inside-out gives teachers a host of different activities, projects, and program ideas to try; our school plans to use it as an outline for next year’s environmental program. This summer, teens are planning an environmental training week before school starts, in order to help jump-start our school’s program. Inside-out is the first book our group will use to help plan the training!

 No Student Left Indoors: Creating a Field Guide to Your Schoolyard. Jane Kirkland. (Illus.; A Take a Walk Teacher's Guide.) Stillwater Publishing, 2007. 178pp. $49.95. 2007903982. ISBN 978-0-9709754-5-4. Index; C.I.P.

Designed for teachers looking for ways to raise students’ EIQs (environmental and ecological IQs), this volume gives information and practical tips on how to help students discover and record their observations about nature in the schoolyard or neighborhood. The book also shows teachers how to incorporate the information presented into their existing curriculum and standards.

The book’s six chapters provide everything a busy teacher needs to create a successful project. One chapter is devoted entirely to explicating the definition of a schoolyard field guide; the chapter not only clarifies the scope of the project, but also serves to motivate readers into attempting to carry it out. Other chapters offer instructions on how to plan a field guide project, as well as information on how to teach students observation and data collection skills. Information on how to set up and keep a student nature journal is also included. An extremely helpful chapter presents technical information on the ways one can go about creating a field guidebook. If the teacher decides not to make such a book, he or she can thoughtfully turn to some of the nature-related exercises and forms that can be duplicated or downloaded from the book’s Web site. Additional features in this well-thought-out book include a list of resources (recommended books, the addresses of Web sites) and a list of supplies and equipment.

This easy-to-use, attractive spiral-bound book is peppered with small black-and-white photos and illustrations. The author has included everything a teacher would need to create a successful guilt-free project. The informative sidebars offer insights from other teachers, as well as pointing out additional sources of information and injecting a few cautionary notes. The exercises have been tested and will work.

Since the demand for science education is growing while the time (and resources) available to teach science via field trips is shrinking, this book provides helpful timesaving tips for a backyard enrichment opportunity that can (and should) be available to all students. The book is sure to be a welcome addition to professional collections. Nothing else pulls so much information together in one printed source.

 Science Adventures: Nature Activities for Young Children. Elizabeth A. Sherwood, Robert A.Williams, and Robert E. Rockwell. (Illus.) Gryphon House, 2008. 272pp. $24.95. ISBN 978-087659-015-7. Index.

This book describes a variety of activities that introduce young children to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concepts, while providing a familiarity with, understanding of, and appreciation for the natural world.

The introduction provides a well-researched rationale for teaching science to young children, and for doing so outdoors. It also includes science standards that are an adaptation of national K-12 science standards to early learning standards developed by Head Start and a number of states. The book is organized around five general science standards: science as inquiry, physical science, life science, earth and space science, and science and technology.

Through the activities in the book, children are encouraged to engage in science processes: to observe characteristics and patterns, classify, measure, and communicate. The activities are straightforward and not intimidating for someone with little science knowledge. Necessary preparation measures, clear descriptions of procedures, and suggestions for follow-up and differentiation are provided with each activity. The book would be even more useful if further explanation of the topic were provided with some of the activities. For example, in the activity “Fuzzy Seed Art” (pp.152-153), the children are asked where the seeds come from, why they are blowing around, etc. Some general information on seeds and a suggested resource or two for the adults conducting the activity would be helpful.

This book is a wonderful resource for anyone who works with young children, as it provides numerous ways to make the children active learners outdoors as they explore the world around them and discover the scientific processes at work there. Hopefully, there will be similar volumes for older children.

Field Guides 

Birds of Eastern North America: A Photographic Guide. Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small. (Illus.) Princeton, 2009. 336pp. $18.95. 2009001494. ISBN 9780691134253. Index; C.I.P. 

Birds of Western North America: A Photographic Guide. Paul Sterry and Brian E. Small. (Illus.) Princeton, 2009. 336pp. $18.95. 2009001416. ISBN 9780691134284. Index; C.I.P. 

Field Guide to Grasshoppers, Katydids, and Crickets of the United States. John L. Capinera, Ralph D. Scott, and Thomas J. Walker. (Illus.) Cornell University Press, 2005. ix+279pp. $29.95. 2004010727. ISBN 0-8014-8948-2. Glossary; Index; C.I.P.

Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City. Leslie Day, with an introduction by Michael Bloomburg. (Illus. by Mark A. Klingler.) Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007. 342pp. $55.00. 2007006288. ISBN 978-0-8018-8681-2. C.I.P. 

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathon Alderfer. (Illus.) National Geographic Society, 2006. 504pp. $24.00. ISBN 0-7922-5314-0. Index.  

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion: A Comprehensive Resource for Identifying North American Birds. Pete Dunne. (Illus.) Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 720pp. $28.00. ISBN 0-618-23648-1. 

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 6th ed. Roger Tory Peterson, with a foreword by Lee Allen Peterson. (Illus.; from the Peterson Field Guide Series.) Houghton Mifflin, 2010. xiv+445pp. $19.95. 2009037681. ISBN 9780547152462. Index; C.I.P.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed. Roger Tory Peterson, with a foreword by Lee Allen Peterson. (Illus.; from the Peterson Field Guide Series.) Houghton Mifflin, 2010. xiv+493pp. $19.95. 2009039158. ISBN 9780547152707. Index; C.I.P. 

The Young Birder's Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Bill Thompson III. (Illus.) Houghton Mifflin, 2008. 256pp. $14.95. 2007043904. ISBN 978-0-547-11934-2. Glossary; Index; C.I.P.