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Batteries Not Required – The Value of the Field Guide

Using identification cards, a student on Jost Van Dyke uses watercolors to help learn how to identify wetland bird species found in the island’s salt ponds. Photo by Susan Zaluski
Using identification cards, a student on Jost Van Dyke uses watercolors to help learn how to identify wetland bird species found in the island’s salt ponds. Photo by Susan Zaluski

As a child, a very dog-eared copy of ‘Peterson’s Field Guide to the Atlantic Shore’ kept onboard my parents’ sailboat proved to be a very flexible and consistently-available science teacher to me. Whether fixating on a diagram or reading up on a new animal, I was well occupied with that book. I fondly scrambled ashore to explore the mysterious pools the sea had left: metaphoric treasure chests containing the jewels of miniature crabs, tiny periwinkles, little urchins and diminutive fish. There I would uncover the names of these animals, feeling more like a detective tracking a suspect than a ten-year-old. At night, I’d snuggle myself into the V-berth and return to my field guide, trying to sketch and label whatever animals I had found feeling like a scientist instead of an artistically-challenged child.

Boating offers a chance to access reefs, offshore cays, remote beaches, and other pristine coastal areas. These new environments often bring a wave of questions from children. Do sea turtles live all over the world? What do starfish eat?  How do urchins see? For parents, these questions can be overwhelming; however, with a good field guide, that curiosity provides an opportunity to improve reading, writing, research and art skills.

Using a Field Guide to build a Nature Tool Kit

If you don’t already have a field guide onboard, try to choose a general guidebook to Caribbean seashores with enticing diagrams and pictures. Don’t be overly concerned with getting a ‘kid specific’ guide. Younger children can look at drawings and photographs, while older children can assume a leadership role in reading to younger siblings. A field guide is all you need to get started, but also consider assembling a small kit to enhance activities (I like to use a small tackle-box since it keeps everything together, organized, dry and easy to transport). You may already have some of these items, but many are inexpensive and widely available, including:

  • Plasticized bird and fish identification cards (or laminated placemats)
  • A journal or sketchpad
  • Set of watercolors
  • Coloring Books (usually widely available in souvenir shops and often featuring Caribbean plants and animals)
  • Magnifying glass
  • Compass and thermometer
  • Measuring tape or ruler
  • Binoculars and Snorkeling Gear  (you may already have these, and if not, they are a good long-term investment)

Field Guide Scavenger Hunt

Using your field guide, make a short scavenger hunt list. If you are not overly familiar with seashore life yourself, avoid being too specific in the beginning. Creating broad, simple categories, such as two seashore plants or three animals, will suffice. Familiarize yourself with the field guide first, but remember that you don’t have to be a nature expert to plan a basic hunt, although a general idea of which habitats, plants and animals the guide covers is helpful. Tell your children to locate and specifically identity the items on their list using the field guide. If you do have access to binoculars and snorkeling gear, this activity can also be adapted to become an underwater scavenger hunt while at anchor or a seabird scavenger hunt while under sail with fish and bird identification guides.

Based on interest level, age and whatever academic skills you want to foster, extend the activity by having children write a paragraph about one of the animals they located, sketch and label a detailed and scientifically accurate drawing, or write a poem or creative story about one of their items.

Using a Field Guide to Enhance a Nature Journal/Log Book

Whenever you read of sailors’ voyages, the theme of nature is often central.  Ask your child to write a daily journal entry during your vacation.  Entries should start with observations about weather (including wind direction, wind speed, temperature).  Each day, focus on selecting and identifying a specific plant or animal and spend several minutes observing the living thing and writing down observations. A magnifying glass and measuring tape may come in handy and help children record more specific details. Based on observations, have your child come up with a few questions about their new ‘living thing’. They can refer back to the field guide to try to look up some of the answers or to label drawings. Add color and detail with watercolors, which are inexpensive (I found a set for $0.99 in a drugstore), neat and easy to transport and cleanup.  They also seem more exciting to children than everyday crayons and require more concentration and patience.

Children can eventually use field guides on their own, but initial guidance with specific, clearly defined tasks can help pique interest. You’ll be amazed at how much this can improve kids’ drawing and observation skills, keeping them occupied in a fun, healthy way while building independence, self-reliance and creativity!

Susan Zaluski works for the Jost Van Dykes Preservation Society (JVDPS), a small environmental and heritage non-profit organisation located on Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands that leads environmental education activities for JVD youth.  She can be contacted at: susan@jvdps.org.

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