Exploring outdoors and becoming a museum curator

Sticks are super… but how to broaden our horizons when we’re out exploring? What else could we and the kids look for? How do we learn to identify what we find? Today I’ve once again got one fiction picture book and one non-fiction book that go together really well, and which could help us answer these questions.

Lollipop and Grandpa’s Back Garden Safari by Penelope Harper and Cate James (@catetheartist) is a delightfully playful tale about a young girl and her grandfather exploring their backgarden.

Having packed a rucksack full of sandwiches they launch themselves into the sort of knowing pretend play that my girls adore, imagining that ordinary objects in the garden are actually terrifying and dangerous safari animals. There is the croco-logus emerging from the pond, the snake-pipe slithering across the lawn and the hippo-potta-compost at the end of the vegetable patch, and young and old delight in scaring and being scared by the fates that might befall them if they were to be captured by these wild animals.

The adrenalin filled safari is going thrillingly well until the clothes-lion roars and sends Lollipop and her grandfather rushing back to the safely of their home. With all the familiar, delicious relief that readers and listeners feel with We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, Lollipop and her Grandfather do reach their house just in time, but then comes an unexpected twist – will they actually be safer inside?

Lollipop and Grandpa’s Back Garden Safari is great fun! All about entering into the spirit of things, relishing imaginative play, safely being frightened, and the sheer enjoyment that’s possible when playing outside, this book has become pretty popular in our home. This book really invites you to play the story, to play by the book. My kids think it’s such a hoot when they “see” threatening animals (the apple tree, the water butt, the bamboo sticks) and I act terrified. All powerful M and J have conjured up these creatures which have the power to scare me – the girls just can’t get enough of this!

Cate James‘ textured illustrations have a child-like quality to them, with lots of scribbles, and people with straight arms and legs rather like stick men. For a book which is all about really entering the mind of a young child, this style of illustration works really well.

Pretend safaris (also possible indoors!) are fab! And they complement “real” safaris too. Not, unfortunately to see lions and tigers, of which there are very few roaming the streets in central England, but to explore the animals and natural environments which are on our doorstep.

Nature Adventures by Mick Manning and Brita Granström is an all-in-one field guide for exploring the great (British) outdoors with kids.

Chapters include what to look out for in woodland, field and hedgerow, at the seashore, and in fresh water. Excitingly, however, the book starts with the adventures you can have in urban settings – immediately making the book seem more relevant to most UK kids. Chapters cover animals (including birds), plants from small to large (including trees), and descriptions of environments. There are also suggestions for activities (eg making plaster casts of animal tracks, doing a worm survey, learning how to make a blade of grass between your thumbs squeak), and quotes from poems and references to music (eg Keats’ Ode to Autumn, and Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending).

This is a field guide in the round! Not just science, but also art. Not just animals, but also vegetation. Not just rural, but also urban. And all of this is richly illustrated throughout, with pencil and watercolour drawings of the things you might see on your explorations. The layout makes reading the book appealing; most of each double spread is given over to lots of drawings of animals or plants next to their common names, with one single longer paragraph setting the context for where you might see for real that which appears in the illustrations.

A glossary and safety notes complete this pretty much perfect guide for exploring outdoors with kids. Some may feel that the book’s attempt at universality is in fact a weakness; not every British tree is included, not every shell you might pick up is illustrated. But this book is primarily about getting you and your kids excited about going outdoors. It does not attempt to be an authoritative guide on every subject, but nor does it need to be. All the essentials are included, and actually 9 times out of 10 this will be more sufficient. I say, if your school doesn’t have a copy, donate one! If your library has a copy, reserve it!

Image: Crafty Dogma

Taken together Lollipop and Grandpa’s Back Garden Safari and Nature Adventures inspired us to start our own natural history collection based on what we find when we’re out on our own safaris, in the local parks, woods and open spaces. Earlier this year we visited Oxford’s Natural History Museum and M in particular was fascinated by the specimen jars. With this in mind we gathered up lots of our used glass jars and used them to display our finds.

We’ve found it really helpful to have our jars all ready and waiting, even if for several weeks lots of them were almost empty. Having an anticipated space dedicated to our safari finds has made collecting, storing and examining our specimens easier and more enjoyable. Instead of cluttering up the bottom of the pushchair or nether regions of my rucksack, we’ve been able to immediately transfer our finds to a safe (and tidy!) space.

It’s a good idea to have a wide variety of different jars – some small (eg for dead flies… yes really!) and some wide (eg for special stones or large shells). I’m certainly being much more careful about the jars I put out for recycling and keeping the prettiest and most useful back for our own personal museum.

We’ve been building up our natural history collection over several weeks, so we haven’t listened to any particular music whilst creating our museum. But if you wanted some music to go with these lovely books you could try:

  • Lollipop by The Chordettes – watch it here and put a smile on your face!
  • Surfin’ Safari by The Beach Boys
  • A Swinging Safari by Bert Kaempfert And His Orchestra (this will get your toes tapping!)
  • Nature by Band of Horses (watch the video of them performing it on Yo Gabba Gabba here on Rolling Stone’s website)


  • You could also listen to different birdsongs online to help you identify what you hear when you’re out exploring. The BBC has a page with lots of British birdsongs available to listen to online, and to download, but you might wish to search for more local (to you) recordings.


    For lots of activities which would be fun to try alongside reading these books do explore the hundreds of free activities available at http://www.naturedetectives.org.uk/. This website has been created by a UK charity, Woodland Trust, which focusses on “creating, protecting and inspiring people about woods and trees”. Some activities we’ve enjoyed include:

  • This leaf collection sheet
  • Playing Bat Splats
  • Making butterfly clips


  • If you like the idea of our specimen jar museum, I wholeheartedly recommend you read my review of Tibois fait son musée (Block makes a museum) by Åshild Kanstad Johnsen. It’s a truly wonderful book about collecting and displaying treasure!

    When’s the last time you went exploring outside? What did you find?

    Today I’m joining the weekly STEM roundup. This week’s host is Capstone Connect – I do hope you’ll pop over to discover more children’s books with a science, technology, engineering or maths theme. STEM Friday is something I’m passionate about, so much so I’ve just become a Stem Friday Contributor. This means that several times a year I’ll be writing STEM themed posts over at the STEM Friday blog – indeed my first contribution there will be up this time next week… And then at the end of May I’m hosting the STEM Friday round up here on Playing by the book.

    Join STEM Friday!

    Here’s how:

  • Write about STEM any Friday you can on your blog.
  • Copy the STEM Friday button to use in your blog post.

  • Easy Peasy, and a great way to get you looking for some exciting non fiction to share!

    Disclosure: I received both these books from their publishers. I’m grateful for this, but these reviews nevertheless reflect my own and honest opinion.

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    10 Responses

    1. Oh lovely post!!! These books look wonderful!!! We are huge Mick Manning fans and will have to look out for this one!!! And I love the glass jar collection – inspired!!! off to explore STEM Friday!!!
      se7en recently posted..Se7en Discover the Great Artists: Leonardo Da Vinci

    2. Looks great! And do you know Mariah Bruel of Playful Learning? If not, you would love to enjoy her work! She just wrote a great post about books to inspire play in nature…http://playfullearning.net/book-love-nature-explorations/
      Stacey recently posted..Scrabble Snack

    3. Hi there, I’ve been enjoying your blog for a while now. Have you read “Rocks in His Head” by Carol Otis Hurst. Based an real person who loved collecting rocks and went on to become a museum curator even though he never went to college(that’s the summary to the best of my recollection)-fun book. Thanks for the inspiration.

      • Hi Aimee, no, the book is new to me, but I’m off to investigate it now. Thanks very much for the suggestion!

    4. choxbox

      LOVELY!

      We took inspiration from Investigate of the NHM in London and set up an exploration table complete with a microscope and weighing scales. Great fun! Will add your brill idea of glass jars.

      Another very useful ‘toy’ (we were gifted it) is Eyeclops. Here is the link – http://www.amazon.com/EyeClops-Bionic-Eye-Multizoom-Green/dp/B000PGRBGA
      It magnifies stuff by 200 times and you can see it on your TV screen, and it is nothing but fascinating to see individual segments in a leaf too.

    5. Hi Se7en, STEM sometimes doesn’t get going until a bit later in the day (lots of contributors are in the US), but it’s a great resource I’m proud to contribute to.

      Hey Stacey, thanks for the brilliant tip – I didn’t know about Playful Learning but have just subscribed. Thank you!

      Hi Choxbox, wow, that looks lots of fun. We’re working up to getting a good microscope for the family, for sure.
      Zoe recently posted..Exploring outdoors and becoming a museum curator

    6. Thanks! what an awesome bunch of nature inspiration. I love the museum-in-a-jar; will look for the books, too.
      Sue Heavenrich recently posted..Checking out Bird Nests

    7. Thanks Sue, I love your phrase “museum in a jar”! Perfect :)
      Zoe recently posted..Exploring outdoors and becoming a museum curator

    8. Thanks for the Lolipop! It did indeed make me smile :)
      Charlotte recently posted..Cat Girl’s Day Off, by Kimberly Pauley

      • Always good to bring a smile to someone’s face Charlotte! I’ve got the song stuck in my head at the moment…

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