As spring approaches, Margaret Mallett chooses ten of the best books to get children out of the house and into the sunshine.
Learning about nature and being active in the outdoors is an important part of childhood – perhaps even more so in our digital world. The best books show the possibilities of outdoor adventure, what to look for and how to develop practical skills. But sometimes children appreciate just listening, looking, dreaming and wondering as they experience the changing seasons. The following books, roughly in age suitability, cover activities in both rural and urban environments.
Out and About in My Boots: Lift -the-Flap and discover the World Around You
Christine Goodings, illus Jo Brown, Lion Hudson plc, 978-0-7459-6924-4, £5.99 pbk. Age 0-3
I find that there is a stage when lift-the-flap books are the ones searched for in the book box. This one helps very young children resavour an outing to the park, pond or garden by following the adventures of six little explorers. Putting on boots means you can rush into long damp grass or, like Peppa Pig, jump into muddy puddles with abandon. You might see a mouse or a frog, a bird or a deer, but the author suggests if you slow down and lift a log you will not miss seeing smaller creatures like beetles. ‘Can you stand quite still? What can you see?’ Yes it is good to stop, look and listen. Children will love looking at this book and sharing what they saw on their own forays into the outdoors.
Ruth Brown, Andersen Press, 978-1-8493-9252-5, £6.99 hbk. Age 0-5
A splendid starting point is provided here for even the youngest children to look for snails in their backyards or gardens or in the local park. They are introduced to a vocabulary to talk about snails and the exquisite, detailed pictures of the creatures will help direct and inform their observations. Many reception class teachers have used this book to enrich a minibeast project and to inspire children’s annotated pictures and diagrams. (For children just becoming able to read on their own, I also recommend Snails by Susanna Davidson and Rocio Martinez – it has helpful labelled diagrams and children are directed to the website of Usborne Quicklinks to research further).
Vivian French illus Jessica Ahlberg, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-6704-1, £6.99 hbk. Age 3+
Do you feel uneasy when some children’s books on minibeasts seem to suggest that ‘Ugh!’ is a reasonable response to these interesting creatures? Vivian French challenges the sentiment in her title by showing young learners that worms are fascinating and useful – they help plants to grow well by aerating the soil. Much scientific information is given in the context of an engaging story and children will be amused by the speech bubbles pretending the worms are talking. The detailed cross sections will make children want to search for worms and perhaps, with some help, make a wormery.
A First Book of Nature
Nicola Davies illus Mark Hearld, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-0491-6, £14.99 hbk. Age 5-8
I like the way this author connects with young readers’ experiences as she takes them through the four seasons, showing the main features and highlights of each. In spring the emphasis is on the reawakening of the landscape while the section on summer takes us to a city park where birds sing and a cricket rubs his leg along his wing in the warm dry grass. The autumn pages are full of fiery coloured leaves and berries and the fruits of the harvest – there’s a handy recipe for Berry Crumble. In winter we see the ‘criss-cross patterns that the twigs make across the sky’. The book is alive with instructions for practical tasks -seed planting, making compost and preparing bird cake to nourish the birds in the cold season. The action-packed illustrations and lyrical written text will sharpen observation powers and provide a starting point for children’s discussion and writing.
Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom, Frances Lincoln, 978-1-84780-436-5, £12.99 hbk. Age 5-8
Young readers learn here how to build dens and make secret signals, how to recognize star constellations and how to encourage wildlife into the garden. ‘Stay safe’ circles advise that care needs to be taken over such activities as organising camp fires and canoeing. These distinguished nature artists show the very essence of each animal and plant they draw. Take the double spread on ‘Evening Serenade & Dawn Chorus’: two children savour the outdoors in a tent with the sky full of beautifully drawn crickets, bats and birds. Brita’s distinctive hand lettering names the creatures and the sounds they make. Woodland, moorland, river and seaside are exciting locations. But town children can enjoy ‘backyard adventures’, cloud gazing and kite flying for example. The spread explaining how collections can be displayed on a nature table, after identifying the specimens using books and websites, is of great help to teachers. I would just like to squeeze in a mention of a new book – Den Building by Jane Hewitt & Cathy Cross (Crown House) – it has an exciting section on ‘Outside Dens’ with considerable appeal to young imaginations
A Little Guide to Trees (Eden project)
Charlotte Voake, Eden Children’s Books, 978-1-9039-1982-8, £7.99 hbk. Age 5-8
This writer’s nature books are amongst the best for helping younger children become able to know what to look for whether it is insects in Insect Detective or flowers in A Little Guide to Wild Flowers. My favourite is this book which helps young readers learn to look at a tree’s shape and size, where it grows and the shape and size of its leaves to help identify it. The delicate watercolours help children to appreciate the loveliness of different trees and to look for them whether they live in the town or the countryside. Voake encourages observation through the seasons as the trees change their appearance and gives helpful advice about creating a scrapbook.
My Book of Bike Activities
Catherine Bruzzone, illus Jo Moore and Anne Wilson, b small publishing, 978-1-9097-6769-0, £6.99 hbk. Age 5-10.
For many boys and girls riding their bikes is an exhilarating and healthy way of enjoying being out of doors. This attractively designed book gives a great deal of information in the written text and in illustrations, some of which are clearly labelled diagrams showing the different kinds of bike. Young bike enthusiasts are encouraged to make a record of the different cycle symbols on road signs and then design their own. A task to engage the imagination is: ‘Can you design a bike for the future?’ There is advice about how to look after a bike and, importantly, how to mend a puncture. This would be a helpful resource for a teacher introducing that favourite early years project ‘Transport’ and a splendid guide to cycling for older children.
The Wild City Book: Loads of things to do outdoors in towns and cities
Jo Schofield and Fiona Danks, Frances Lincoln, 978-0-7111-2348-8, £9.99 pbk. Age 8-10 (and younger children with adult support)
Sixty-seven projects are set out in seven chapters with themes which include ‘Wild streets’ and ‘Games and trails’ as well as ‘Wild creations ‘ and ‘Imaginative play’.Each project has succinct instructions for an activity together with photographs of children absorbed in their tasks making exciting art works – grass dolls, conker creatures and stick totem poles. Green spaces abound in towns and cities – in urban parks, back yards and gardens. And resources to support the activities are easily obtainable. To make the mini-beast mansion, project 10, you need to track down old pieces of wood for the structure and then gather grasses, bark, pine cones and suchlike to make a cosy winter shelter. Project 28 ‘Teddy bears picnic’ and Project 29 ‘Making a mini-igloo’ seem promising for younger children while older ones are encouraged to make a creative response to the ideas in the storytelling and music sections.
The RSPB Children’s Guide to Nature Watching
Mark Boyd, A&C Black, 978-1-4081-8757-9, £7.99 pbk. Age 9+
This is a comprehensive, visually attractive guide to what to look for when exploring the outdoors. Before you set out you make some preparations and to decide on the equipment you need. There is advice about how to identify the animals, birds and plants you find- such things as habitat, voice and behaviour all help. This is a guide for serious young explorers and gives advice on how to write up field notes.
The Countryside Book: 101 Ways to Play, Watch Wildlife and Be Creative and have Adventures in the Country
Teresa Wardley, Bloomsbury, 978-1-4081-8703-6, £14.99 pbk. Age 10-14
The tens and over are ready to use adult editions of guides to identifying birds and wildlife including the well regarded RSPB books. They would also find much of interest in this final book which looks at all aspects of the countryside in each season through a detailed written text and fine photographs. There are sections on butterfly and moth watching, wild flowers and bird spotting and how to navigate using the sun and stars. The section on cloud gazing helps with identifying the different kinds and gives advice about finding ‘dark skies’ for star gazing where there is less light pollution. I like the ‘Questions’ section which considers, for example, where scientists get their species names and why a dock leaf soothes a nettle sting. The book has welcome lyrical moments too – the mythology of the hare includes the image of the creature as a ‘nocturnal moon gazer’. Readers are directed to helpful websites and books to extend their knowledge.
Margaret Mallett taught in primary schools and in the Education Department of Goldsmiths College. She writes books on all aspects of Primary English and is Emeritus Fellow of The English Association.