There are many great field guides available that will make a walk or hike with your child both fun and educational. What follows is a list of our personal favorites sorted by target audience. In addition there are several online identification guides for computer whiz-kids. Get out there with your child and see what both of you can find and identify. For tips on how to incorporate field guides in your hikes, see our other article in, Using Field Guides with Your Kids.

PreK – 6 Year Olds (PreK - 2nd Grade)

Young children learn from sensory experiences and are interested in facts if they see concrete examples. They like and need to do their own exploring and are interested in information but it should be immediate and easy to get to - hence, field guides on the go! Golden Guides from St. Martins Press are the leading nature guides with simple color drawings and clear easily read narratives. Designed for portability and easy access, these compact, lightweight books can be used by all ages. There are over 50 pocket-sized books with titles ranging from birds, to insects, to mammals, spiders and their kin, flowering plants, and trees.

7-11 Year Olds (3rd – 5th Grade)

Information should be presented in terms that hold value for the child and keep his or her interest. Relationships that occur between people and nature are a good example. Children in this age group are developing their own sense of place as well as likes and dislikes. We suggest the Golden Guides series in addition to Petersons First Guides series: Field guides for young naturalists, Roger Tory Peterson, series editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Publishers.  Books in the series include birds, flowers, reptiles, amphibians, and many more.

12- 15 Year Olds (Middle - Early High School)

For young teens, talking is a key way to communicate. Using field guides and exploring the out-of-doors allows you to make good use of this skill by asking questions, taking time to talk things over, and helping them make connections from concrete to abstract ideas. We recommend Golden Guides and Peterson First Guides, which have excellent drawings, and National Audubon Society Field Guides, Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, a series of durable field guides, each with a plastic cover, organized with photos grouped by color and shape.

Keep in mind that teenagers can use any adult field guide that you are comfortable using. Share the experience of using the guide with them. Teens crave empowerment, so put the guide in their hands and let them steer. Any teen would likely be pleased to know that his or her observation might actually be used by a scientist. They can even report their findings on the following online guides:

Here you will find bird sighting information by location, species, and time of year. View others’ observations and enter your own.

Journey North
Kids in grades K-12 can use this site to enter their field observations and track the migration of monarch butterflies, birds, and mammals; the budding of plants; and other natural events, like changing sunlight.

Project Budburst
The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research allows you to be a citizen scientist! Enter information about the budburst, leafing, and flowering of native tree and flower species in your neighborhood and you will see current climatic characteristics of your region.  This information can then be compared to historical records to determine climate change.

For Everyone:

Nature journaling hones observation skills. If you are out and about and discover yourself without a field guide handy, jot observations down in a nature journal to try to identify the species later at home. For those of you who want to actively encourage literacy skills as well as observation and identification, we suggest My Nature Journal: A personal nature guide for young people by Adrienne Olmstead (2000, Quality Books Inc.). This hardback book is the perfect tool for nurturing a child's innate curiosity about the natural world and makes a ‘consumable’ keepsake that provides prompts and ideas for study and is excellent for family outings and backyard discovery. Easy to follow and fun! The book becomes a personal creation where children record their thoughts, feelings, and discoveries.

Online Nature Guides We Recommend:

eNature is filled with information and images of birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fishes, seashells, seashore creatures, spiders, insects, butterflies, wildflowers, and trees from the National Wildlife Federation. You can enter in your zip code and see what lives near you.
Nature Serve is an online encyclopedia of plants, animals, and ecosystems of the U.S. and Canada established by The Nature Conservancy.
Online Bird Guide from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology   provides images, sounds, and behaviors of birds, as well as tips to identify birds for beginners. Check out their online guide “Birding 1, 2, 3.”
BugGuide  can help you identify nearly any insect by species name, image, or shape. You can also upload images to be identified by experts.
Butterflies and Moths of North America  is a searchable database of butterfly and moth records in the United States and Mexico. Follow the link for “The Children’s Butterfly Website” to find coloring pages and species stories.

The nature resources page of Richard Louv's website  is full of good suggestions of books and field guides for parents and adults to use with kids' explorations of the outdoors.

Cindi Smith-Walters holds a PhD in Environmental Science, is professor of Biology at Middle Tennessee State University, and co-directs the MTSU Center for Environmental Education. Her interest in the environment and sharing outdoor experiences began as the oldest of four sisters growing up in rural Oklahoma and continues today with her husband, a forester, and her 15 year-old son, an aspiring Eagle Scout.  Karen Hargrove, MS, EdS, a life-long environmental educator, teaches in both formal and nonformal settings and is a past-president and current board member of the Tennessee Environmental Education Association. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Health and Human Performance at Middle Tennessee State University and enjoys all aspects of the out-of-doors, especially those she can share with her husband and two corgis.Hilary Hargrove holds a MS in Environmental Education, is president-elect of the Tennessee Environmental Education Association, and currently teaches environmental science at Riverdale High School in Murfreesboro, TN. Vera Vollbrecht has been involved in environmental education for over twenty years and holds a MS in Environmental Education.  She is the current president of the Tennessee Environmental Education Association, directs Warner Park Nature Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and in 2005 was awarded the TN Recreation and Parks Association’s Young Professional Award for her work with ‘young people’ of all ages.