The physical and mental benefits of taking a walk or hike in nature are reasons enough to spend as much time outdoors as possible. But when you think about the endless lessons nature can teach a child—species identification, animal behavior, changing seasons, photosynthesis, adaptations—the benefits of being outdoors, also seem endless.
Unfortunately, many parents (and teachers) don't feel confident enough about their natural history know-how to help guide a child in discovering nature's teachings. No worries. That's what a homemade natural history museum is for.
Building their own natural history museum can help guide a child through their own education in nature. This activity allows your child to collect, explore and curate objects in nature for their own designed natural history museum. And it's no surprise that we learn from doing. Get ready to be shocked at how much you all learn from this nearby nature activity!
To start their museum, you might want to give them a mini primer on natural history museums. Feel free to take a virtual tour of one, such as this great tour of the Smithsonian or the Museum of Natural History. You can discuss how curated collections can help us, and scientists, learn about different species.
Now it's time to hit the hiking trail! Bring a collection bag for your child to carefully fill with objects as they collect natural items that attract their attention. Remind them to pick up objects that have naturally fallen to the ground. Ask them to gather their objects into a bag, being careful not to take any critter or any poisonous plants or mushrooms along.
Once you return home, set the objects out for your child to study them. Help your child spread their objects out on a white background or in a tray. A small portable light source is helpful for seeing details. They might enjoy using a magnifying glass for closer observation.
Now it’s time for the fun part: figuring out what these objects are! You might have to help a younger child do an online search, use guidebooks or use an app with a built-in image recognition algorithm like iNaturalist. If you're doing an online search, be sure to stick to websites such as your state forest service, state parks service, local arboretums or local Audubon society to help identify local species. Don't waste your time identifying species that aren't found in your part of the world! And likely you'll have to use a combination of these sources to get the ID right.
Once the object is ID’d, your child can learn more about the species. Help them browse a few different sites until you find one that is written in a style that kids can appreciate.
After they have become an expert on their object, it’s time to fill out the specimen cards. Your child can include whatever information they chose on the card but you might start with a common name, scientific name, fun facts, and where found. Feel free to add space for artwork or more details on why the object attracted your child, what the setting was where it was found.
After the specimen card is complete, it’s time to create a specimen box, aka the Natural History Museum. You can use a pre-made box or any container for this. If using cardboard or wood (if you have carpentry skills), create compartments for your specimens that vary based on the size of the object.
Glue works fine for cardboard. But feel free to make the project as elaborate as you would like. A cardboard case works just as well as a glass-enclosed case you display in the living room.
After the mini Natural History Museum is made, it’s time for tours! If your children each made their own museums, they can act as the curator and explain each specimen to the family. Everyone can take turns exploring each museum. Keep expanding the mini-museums each time you head out in nature. You will be amazed at how much you all learn about all that is waiting to be discovered in nearby nature!