It's that time of year when most people think thoughts of giving and receiving gifts. Every year magazine and websites come out with their list of the top ten gifts (toys/tech items/games/etc.). I have a list like that, but my list is a little different. The most fun I see kids have all year is when I turn them loose to explore a woods or a pond. My list is focused on items to help kids explore. Without further ado, here is my top ten list of gifts for kids for this year (or any year).
It may come as a shock, but most kids still love to explore the outdoors. They just need a few things to make it more enjoyable.
1. Rubber Boots - Wet feet are no fun. Very few things will ruin a day outdoors faster than having cold wet feet. Rubber boots also let you explore puddles and the edges of ponds. These boots do not have to be expensive - look for one under $15 at Walmart or your local farm and home center.
2. Waterproof Jacket/Rain Suit - I love being out in the rain. Everything seems so much different when it rains. Rain softens the ground and quiets sounds,. Animals often hold tight in the rain. Worms come up out of the ground. Tiny streams form and cascade. In my mind there is nothing better than exploring a woods on a rainy day, but I hate having wet clothes. A pair of rubber boots and a good rain suit opens up new worlds for exploration. Try this set.
So the kids are outside, what are they going to do now? They need the tools to explore - tools to help catch small creatures and look at them up close.
3. Aquatic Dip Net - One of my favorite things to do is to look for aquatic invertebrates. What kid doesn't want to see what is swimming around in the water? The tool needed for that is a good net. This is not a place to skimp on price - that cheap butterfly net from the local big box store will not last long. I like these adjustable nets from Acorn Naturalists. At $24.95 this is one of the most expensive things on my list.
4. Insect Net - Sometimes I would rather look toward the sky than the mud. I have yet to meet a kid that was not interested in catching butterflies, dragonflies, or other flying insects. You need a large net with a long handle. Again I like a net from Acorn Naturalists - another big purchase item at $21.95. A nice thing about these nets is that parts can be replaced if they are ever damaged.
Once the kids have caught something they will need a place to put it so it can be observed. There is no need to get fancy here. A cleaned out clear plastic or glass jar (peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, etc.) will work just fine for any invertebrate (or even frogs, snakes, and salamanders for a short time). A five gallon bucket is great for dumping your dip net into. Ice cube tray and wash basins are prefect for observing aquatic creatures. Sometimes, a closer view is desired.
5. Magnifying Glass - Any magnifying glass will do. They can be found at any drug store, big box store, or even many dollar stores.
Identifying and Recording
6. Guide Books - There are dozens of great guide books on every nature subject. Peterson First Guides and Audubon First Field Guides are great options for kids. The Peterson Guides are such a bargain at under $7.00 each that you can afford to buy more than one.
7. Note Book/Sketch Book - Having a place to write or draw pictures of what is found is a favorite of many kids (and adults). A simple wirebound notebook will do, or good blank books can usually be found in the bargain sections of bookstores for a few dollars. Even a stack of printer paper and a clipboard will work for this.
8. Colored Pencils - Splurge on the Crayolas. They are really that much better than the other cheap brands and at under $3.00 for a 24-pack, they might be the best deal on this list.
9. Pencil Sharpener - A good colored pencil deserves to be sharpened with a good portable sharpener. I purchased several of this style from Staedtler for students to use. They are worth the $5.16 price tag.
10. A cheap Digital Camera - This is the only thing on my list that requires batteries. It will also require some sort of memory card to store pictures. Good used cameras can often be found on craigslist. (Right now Target has this model on sale for under $10!) A digital camera is a great tool for the budding naturalist it is a great complement to (not a replacement for) the sketch book. One advantage of the digital camera is that it reproduces a true to life image of those things that cannot be identified in the field so they can be looked up later.
There is my list of ten things that every kid should have on their Christmas list. Even if you bought everything on that list, total cost should still come in at under $150 (before any shipping costs). Leave off any two of the four most expensive items (camera & memory card, nets, and rain suit) and cost come in under $100. Twenty dollars will buy a field guide, sketch book, colored pencils, and pencil sharpener - this will make a great start toward a lifetime of studying nature.