Explore! A Child's Nature
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Nature Collections
Collecting shellsKids can (and do!) collect just about anything. Many parents can testify to how crazy their children are about collecting ALL the different versions of a particular toy. In fact, collecting and organizing are valuable tools in a child's developing mind. It teaches them to group things by type and differentiate between types of objects. Many adult scientists started out as young collectors. Why not direct that desire for accumulating things into a less costly direction—natural objects. We have a bundle of ideas to help you get started collecting leaves, rocks, shells, sticks, and a whole bunch of other stuff!

 Activity Sheets

What to do with a hundred rocks
What to do with a hundred sticks
What to do with a hundred shells
Other collections
Toddlers can begin with rock collections. It's a great way to start! Rocks come in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. You can admire them, classify them by color, organize them by type, or use them in art projects. The important thing as a parent is to encourage the collecting. What child wouldn't rather hear, "What a beautiful, smooth gray one!" than, "Oh no, not ANOTHER rock!"

If your child isn't into rocks, try something else. Shells are a good choice. Or how about leaves—particularly fun in the fall, of course, but leaves are quite nicely preserved when pressed at any time of year. Flower petals can be pressed too. One eagle-eyed five-year-old boy we know takes pride in his stick pile. Your child might love a massive collection of discarded cicada shells, a rock and shell display, a basket of assorted nuts and pinecones, or a handful of fossils.
Collecting pine cones
The beautifully written and illustrated children's book, The Puddle Pail by Elisa Kleven, tells the story of two siblings who go off with their buckets to collect whatever they find. The older brother collects traditional items, but the younger, more artistically inclined brother, interprets collecting more broadly. He scoops up a puddle in his bucket and then proceeds to "collect" clouds, stars, and rainbows. Ultimately, his puddle collection turns into a beautiful display of paintings. Perhaps you have an artist in your family, too—use the beauty and variety of nature as raw materials in the next art project. Start a collection of bark (or leaf) rubbings, use pressed flowers as art supplies, or create a collage of fall leaves.

Collection of rocksWhat can parents do to encourage collecting? Find the time to go on nature walks. Point out any interesting finds your child may have overlooked. But most of all, just "ooh" and "ah" over what your child discovers. Another way to encourage collecting: have your child bring her finds to Brookfield Zoo's Child's Room in the Hamill Family Play Zoo. She'll earn points for each item she brings in, and can then exchange those items for other natural treasures.

When you get home from your collecting excursion, find a way to put the collection on display for everyone to see. We have some ideas, but it's easy to come up with your own. Find an old basket, a recycled jar, or different sized boxes. Use a basket of pinecones as a centerpiece on the dinner table. Dedicate a window sill or a bookshelf as nature's corner, and place the collections there. Or enlist your child's creativity in coming up with a way to hang the treasure up, or to make it into an art project. Or, your child may opt to keep her collections private, and not want them on display. Take your cues from your how your child wants to treat his or her treasures!
The whole point is to encourage discovery, to hone observation skills, to learn to group and differentiate, and, most importantly, to feel that the world offers endless treasures to be found.

A few caveats:
  • We don't recommend bringing living creatures indoors for collections, but we certainly encourage up-close observation of bugs, frogs, and other critters (come to the zoo to see some, if you can't find any near home).
  • It is illegal in Illinois to collect artifacts from birds, so no nests, eggs, or feathers.
  • You might feel more comfortable with collecting if you carefully inspect the treasures for dirt or bugs before proudly exhibiting them in your home.

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