Nature Study Identifiers

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  • scrappinfor7

    Help! My kids and I keep finding way cool stuff out in nature but I have a hard time identifying it! For example today we saw some little white bulb thingies (real scientific description I know!)with single green shoots coming out the top – The boys want to know what it is and if it is edible (they are on a survivalist kick right now) now where do I go??? are they plants? are they grass? are they trees? I take pictures of these things (I tried to put a pic here but couldn’t figure out how) and I have Ms. Comstock’s Handbook but I just don’t know where to begin.

    As a side note – I think it would be fun to have an area here in the forums where we could post cool nature pictures we took or samples of our finds! Maybe one already exists and I just missed it… if so let me know!


    I think that if I were just starting out in identifying things, and had very little experience, then I would gather up alot of resources for my area and just browse them.

    For instance, I have books of wildflowers and trees of my state (these are hands down the best ID resources that I use – mine are published by a university press, so if you are looking for similar, you might have to refer to a university in your state), and I have alot of guides for my part of the country – the southeast. I have a Peterson’s guide to forest ecosystems that is very helpful, because it takes all of the things you might see and combines them – from animals, birds, and trees to plants, geology and weather patterns. I also have some little pocket field guides that are only for specific subjects – like pond life, or butterflies, or ferns. These are very suitable for study before you go out in nature because they are very brief, and have lots of pictures. You want lots of pictures.

    But don’t waste time on wildflowers of New England if you live in Texas – in other words you may have to work a little to find the books for your area, but it is worth it if you are serious about nature study.

    I also use the game and fish website for my state, and my state (Arkansas, by the way) has a natural heritage commission that has a great site with information for each distinct geographical region of the state. Your state may have good resources like these.

    Anyway, I think reading and studying a little before you go out in nature may ease a little of your confusion, and give you a frame of reference for more detailed research. Say to yourself, I am at a pond in springtime, and I should see some plants like this and some trees like this, and look for them. Or, it is winter and these are common birds for my part of the county, let’s go outside and see if we can find a couple at our bird feeder.

    And the Comstock handbook isn’t very good for making identifications, the pictures aren’t good enough and that really isn’t the function of the book. So don’t beat yourself up for not finding your “thing” in that.

    Frankly I don’t always find the answer when I am trying to identify something. I have some oak leaves that have driving me crazy for about a week – I just can’t be satisfied with any ID, I know I haven’t nailed it yet. Sometimes the specimen is not representative, sometimes I don’t have the right book, sometimes I just can’t figure it out!

    Does this help? I’ve gone on too long and now I am rambling! 🙂


    CM mom

    An excellent resource for parents is called Botany in a Day. It’ll take longer than a day, but does lead you to identify all the major families of plants. The children’s version of Botany in a Day is called Shanleya’s Quest, but it’s a very magical-style story which evangelical or fundamentalist parents might not like.


    That Botany in a Day looks like a great resource. Thanks for the tip Lauri.

    I worked as a research assistant for a couple of biologists when I was in college. One very profound thing one of them told me was that, as my experience with our project grew, my “resolution would improve”. In other words, what starts out looking like a bunch of bugs, with experience and familiarity resolves into a group of different types of insects. Same with plants – a bunch of trees resolved into the different types, maybe at first just conifers and deciduous trees, then to the different types of each.

    Seeing patterns is a skill that can be learned/taught. I what we are striving for, through nature study, is to help our children see some of the patterns naturally, so that they can build on their skill as they grow and mature.

    So it seems that the botany in a day book is training to slowly and logically increase resolution – from the general to the specific.

    I like it – I am putting the kid’s version on my wish list!



    I have a few suggestions…

    * Draw whatever you find. This really helps in later identification. You’ll know the specimen much more intimately if you draw it rather than taking a picture or trying to remember what it looks like.

    * If you can’t draw it, write down key characteristics.

    * Google the key characteristic. We found an eyed-elator in the park once, but we had no idea what it was. We googled the description of its appearance and behavior and we were able to identify it from that.

    * Focus on one or two new things at a time. If learning a new plant, that’s enough for one day. A couple of plants or bugs per season is plenty of new information to retain, imo.

    * I think field guides with drawings rather than photos make identification easier.

    * Once you know the name, jot it down and maybe some other information such as a description, drawing, where you found it, etc. This added information is often the memory trigger for us when trying to remember a new name.

    * If you can’t identify it, make up a name! This will at least help you remember the plant or animal until you discover the proper name.


    WOW!! I am so encouraged by your responses! 🙂 You have given me so many good ideas!

    I live in SW Michigan and I never thought to check MSU for resources – thanks GEM for that tip! And Lauriknits… your book suggestion was perfectly timed as I have a cart on Amazon right now with some other school books I’m purchasing… I checked out Shanleya’s Quest and liked the write up – plus it is in story form – my kids will love it! I also reserved the Botany in a Day from our local library to get me started until the other book comes.

    Esby – your suggestion to actually draw the item has been taken to heart… I purchased blank nature books for my kids to use when we are out exploring so they can record their finds… however I find it is much easier to encourage them to persevere in their drawing skills than it is to take out my own book and press on in my own drawing skills (so I cop out and use my camera). I think the suggestion too of choosing one thing to draw and identify is very good… it will take some time though to get my kids calmed down outside again… with the recent thaw and now very light, light snow they are eager to get their studies done and see what new things are now uncovered from the snow 😆 Thanks again for your helps – can’t wait to slow down, try out one or two at a time and let my “resolution” develop along with my kids.

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