What is that bug? Where do squirrels go in the winter? Is there a difference between a frog and a toad?

If these questions strike fear in your heart as a parent, you aren’t alone. Most of us have little difficulty in identifying everyday animals like a squirrel or an ant. But what about that big yellow and black spider at the corner of the house with a zigzag pattern in its web? Or those black birds with the red slashes on the tops of their wings? Or that tree with leaves shaped like a star? What do you call them, and maybe more importantly, what are they good for?

As parents, we are our children’s first teachers. It’s up to us to help them make sense of the world around them. In today’s complicated urban world, we may be the last generation to have played outside with only the requirement, “Be sure you’re home in time for supper.” Yet, even with our own memories of outdoor play, we may not feel competent to answer more than the most basic questions about bugs, birds, and buds. Fear not - there’s help on the horizon!

Field Guides

A good quality field or nature guide allows you to not only name and identify what you find in the out-of-doors, it can give you the ‘so what’ about them too! Field or nature guides let you know the favorite foods of the animals or the flowering and fruiting times of plants. Color pictures and/or drawings illustrate identifying characteristics and the ‘range map’ of where you can expect to find a particular species of animal or plant. Even pre-readers can use simple, well-illustrated field guides to identify common creatures.

These kinds of guides are available for all sorts of living things, including trees, wildflowers, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, insects, and even fish and grass. Some of them pack an amazing amount of information in books that are small enough to keep in a pocket or backpack. More in-depth guides for older audiences give additional facts, such as notes on behavior, color phases, offspring, breeding, and more. 

Choosing a Field Guide

If you are starting a personal library of nature guides to use with your child, here are five quick guidelines:

1. Consider the age of your child. A field guide specifically written for their age group will draw them in and encourage their interest. Golden Guides are a favorite for their simplicity, durability, and size. They are inexpensive enough to keep a set at home to check out the birds at your bird feeder, as well as in the car for ‘nature on the go.’

2. Think about the geographic region in which you live. A guide to birds of the Eastern United States isn’t much help if you live in Nevada. A guide specific to your area helps narrow the possibilities when trying to identify a specimen. 

3. Visit a bookstore. Nature guides can be found not only in the ‘nature’ section of your local bookseller, but guides specifically for younger audiences will be found in the children’s section under ‘nature’ or ‘science.’ Letting your child help pick out a guide gives him or her a sense of empowerment; they’ll be more interested in the book and more likely to use it!

4.   Size does matter. Portability is of utmost importance if you are going to be using the guide in the out-of-doors. A pocket-sized guide or one small enough to carry easily is probably a good choice to take out and about. No one wants to carry a heavy book on a hike!

5.   Check to see what is free. Your state fish and wildlife agency, forestry division, agricultural extension, or department of natural resources may have short, simple guides that are specific to the state or region. A quick Internet search or phone call can let you know if that is the case where you live.

See our other Education.com article, Great Field Guides for Young and Old, for a list of field and nature guides for every age.

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.