Nature Study Tools

A simple kit of nature study tools can greatly expand students’ journaling approaches. Give students a watch, and they will start timing everything they can think of. Offer a hand lens, and the micro world opens to them. Each new tool brings a different approach to observation. The first time you introduce any new tool to your students, it will be a distraction. Expect this. It doesn’t mean they can’t use that tool, just that they need some time to explore how it works, and that means playing around with it. Try introducing a new tool in the classroom and giving students time to explore it when they are not in the field. Offer basic instructions for using the tool as well as ground rules for how to do so responsibly. This is especially important for tools such as binoculars or hand lenses, which can be easily damaged if handled improperly and can have greatly improved function if students know some basic techniques for using them. Here are some nature study tools we like to use:


Cups and nets. 

Simple clear plastic cups (with lids!) and aquarium nets are great tools for catching and observing small critters. They are cheap, light, and easy to carry. Find cups at any drugstore or in bulk at a restaurant supply store, and aquarium nets (larger than the 2-inch model is best) at pet supply stores.


Hand lens or magnifying glass. 

A powerful magnifying loupe gets you close to the details of objects you can hold in your hand. It is worth investing in quality hand lenses; this is one product for which it is true that you get what you pay for. The least expensive plastic lenses scratch easily, do not give much magnification, or greatly distort the image. If possible, invest in quality glass lenses and think ahead about taking care of them. Look for models with a hole in the handle so that you can tie a string through the end and students can wear them around their necks. Store a class set in the compartments of a plastic bead box so that the cords don’t tangle.


Magnifying box. 

A clear plastic box is indispensable for close looks at live insects. All the better if you can get one with a magnifying lens built into one side. Do not leave magnifying boxes in direct sunlight (with or without critters inside). Release any animals in the same place that you found them when you are done observing.


Ziploc bags. 

These have lots of uses, from catching pencil shavings to collecting leaves to bringing back interesting specimens from the field.


Small ruler. 

A small, hard millimeter ruler is useful for careful measurements. Measurements in millimeters are more easily converted and used in calculations than inches.


Retractable standard/metric measuring tape. 

A measuring tape is compact, lightweight, and useful for measuring distances larger than a ruler can (e.g., while measuring the distance between a set of tracks). Look for lightweight measuring tapes in hardware stores or sewing supply stores.



Students can use watches to document the time of observations, to time how long diving birds stay underwater, and to count how many times a bird sings in a minute or how many ants in a column pass one point in a minute. Stopwatch and countdown functions are very handy.



Clear plastic tape is great for adding flat found objects to journal pages. These could include pressed flowers (let them dry to avoid mold) or paper from an abandoned wasps’ nest. Depending on your students’ responsibility level, make a decision about whether to give students their own tape or distribute it yourself.



Use any leftover money in your budget to buy a few pairs of binoculars every year. Consider the Pentax Papilio 8.5-by- 21. They are lightweight, durable, and great for kids. They magnify any distant object (as all binoculars do), but can also focus on objects as close as a foot-and-a-half away.



A small, portable thermometer can help students record more accurate thermal data.


Bags for carrying investigation kits. 

If students will be carrying their own journaling kits, large drawstring bags are an economical way to go. Avoid brightly colored cotton