Great Books for an Outdoors Education

Our family recently returned from our annual winter camping trip. Three wonderful days of backpacking, sleeping in a wood heated cabin, hiking to ocean lookouts, eating trail food, playing cards, sharing stories and many laughs. The woods and mountains, any time of year, are two of our family’s favorite places to be together.

Coming down from the natural high of that experience, and reflecting on the many other hikes we’ve had together, I believe strongly that an outdoors education isn’t about books at all.

It’s about actually being out there: tromping through the woods, climbing mountains, combing the seashore and exploring caves–discovering with your own senses the natural wonders of this world.

You can’t have firsthand nature experiences through reading alone, no matter how well written a book is. But you can support your outdoor studies with some good books in hand.

Here are a few to get you started:

1. Living Books

The term “living” books comes from the Charlotte Mason educational approach. Find out more in Jamie’s post on Educational Philosophies Defined, Part I.

Living books are real stories, not textbooks. They can be fiction or non-fiction but at the very essence they are quality stories that engage the reader and also transmit cultural, historical, or scientific details and values.

Stories about the natural world are some of our family’s favorites. By reading classics (and some not so classics) in this genre we have learned about natural history, plant and animal life and the role and responsibility we have as humans on this planet.

Photo by Renee Tougas

How do you find living books?

There are many bibliographies and resources for good children’s literature. For nature study start with seasonal stories, which may even be featured in your library.

Another easy and very logical place to start is with your child’s interests.

Most children, especially in their early years, are fascinated with animal and plant life. Read quality stories about topics of interest to them and you’ll open doors to other topics.

One of our favorites authors is Jean Craighead George. We have loved every book we’ve read by this prolific and well researched writer. Our most recent read was My Side of the Mountain. My children also have enjoyed the Thornton Burgess stories of Reddy Fox, Chatterer the Squirrel and others.

Photo by Renee Tougas

2. Reference Books

Stories are wonderful for inspiring exploration and fueling the imagination. But once that spark has been ignited and children want more factual information about plant and animal life you need quality reference books on hand to answer questions and facilitate learning.

You can also take reference books with you into the outdoors to help identify what you find. Or you can take a photo of an object to research later.

My favorite reference books for outdoor study include guide books such as the Peterson Field Guides and National Audubon Society guides.

Smaller, abridged versions of these guides have been designed for children. These may be a good start to your reference library, but I recommend the adult versions for long term study and learning. Check out to find these books at a reduced cost.

There are also picture book reference materials written specifically for children. These should not be substituted for living books but can be used to support your child’s investigation on a certain topic. Gail Gibbons in one of our favorite authors in this genre.

Photo by Renee Tougas

3. Nature Journals

A nature journal can be a great tool for children (and adults) to take what they’ve observed and make that knowledge their own. In that regard, journals (of all kinds) are powerful learning tools. We don’t include nature journals as a formal part of our homeschool. But my son, who loves to draw, has enjoyed creating one of his own.

Stefani, one of the contributors here at Simple Homeschool, has written a great post on how to keep nature journals at her personal blog Blue Yonder Ranch.

So take the time to explore with your children outdoors. But when you come back home, remember that you can use books to continue your outdoor explorations.

What about your family? What books do you recommend (specific titles and authors welcomed) for an outdoors education?

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About Renee

Renee is a creative homemaker and homeschooling mama of three. She loves to write, take pretty photos, and be in nature with her family. Her mission is to nourish, encourage, and teach; build relationship and create beauty. FIMBY is where she tells that story. Drawing from her years of experience and training, Renee also offers individual and personalized Homeschool Coaching.


  1. This is a great post.

    My 4-year-old son is happiest when rambling in the woods or exploring the seashore. In addition to the field guide suggestions above, I’d recommend:

    Farley Mowatt, especially Owls in the Family, for living books
    Stokes Guide to Observing Insect Lives (Donald Stokes)
    The Seaside Naturalist (Deborah Coulombe)
    The Amateur Naturalist (Gerald Durrell)
    Any of the laminated Mac’s Field Guides for your region (great for throwing in a backpack)

    And for parents: Rachel Carson’s A Sense of Wonder
    .-= Becky Johnston’s last blog: Finding A Muse =-.

  2. A Winter camping trip sounds so cool !!! And not just literally!!! I wrote a post a while back on stories to inspire young naturalists:

    And non-fiction books to inspire nature notebooks (some of them are local to us (South Africa)) But a couple would apply over in the states…

    Great post – we are just getting ready for a new school year and I am digging up all our nature note booking goodies to get back into the swing!!!

  3. Those are some great suggestions! We like Usborne books as eye-catching references, and many living books as well. Jim Arnosky does great picture books about many aspects of outdoor life, including drawing in the outdoors. The Boy Who Drew Bird is a beautiful picture book/biography of the young John James Audubon. Those are just a few that spring to mind.
    I just finished reading The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, one of this year’s Newbery Honor books — it’s a little too “old” for my eldest reader, but I LOVED it. The 12 year old heroine is a developing naturalist who takes nature walks and studies specimens with her grandfather in turn of the 20th century rural Texas. She’s an absolute delight.
    .-= Hannah’s last blog: Family Games =-.

  4. Renee, I love this. Great suggestions — I absolutely can’t wait to share My Side of the Mountain with my little ones. I love finding an appreciation for nature in books where I wasn’t looking for it — off the top of my head, Charlotte’s Web and the Redwall books are books that celebrate the seasons and natural world in the midst of their engaging stories.

    I also like to make books for my little ones, based on their current natural interests. An example is the custom birdwatching book I just made for my five-year-old:

    • My daughter loves the Redwall series, I myself haven’t read it. But Charlotte’s Web, oh… that is just the best.

  5. great post!

  6. My son loves Bryan Richard’s A Field Guide to the Wildlife of North America.

    Also, we’ve learned a lot about nature from the Little House series.

    A couple nature picture books we like are Where in the Wild? Camouglaged Creatures Concealed…and Revealed by David M. Schwartz and Yael Schy, An Egg is Quiet and A Seed is Sleepy by Dianna Hutts Aston, Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson, Turtle Summer by Mary Alice Monroe, and Butterfly Eyes and Other Secrets of the Meadow by Joyce Sidman.

    For the moms, The Creative Family by Amanda Soule is a must-read. It isn’t necessarily a nature book, but there is a section about Exploring through Nature that is fabulous.

    I’m kind of crazy about books. Can you tell?
    .-= Emily @ Homespun Light’s last blog: First Read-Aloud Chapter Books and Novels =-.

    • Emily,

      Thank you for these great additions. Isn’t the Little House series great on so many levels?
      An Egg is Quiet and a Seed is Sleepy are two of my absolute favs! Love, love, love those books. Also, Butterfly Eyes…

  7. We like the nature study handbook, though I use it more as a teaching guide. I also love Jack’s Insects from Simply Charlotte Mason.
    .-= Angela @ Homegrown Mom’s last blog: Family Fun Night Link-Up! =-.

  8. the link for Stefani’s nature journals is amazing…I am so inspired!!
    .-= Aimee’s last blog: Weary of Stuff =-.

  9. I want to second the recommendation of The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate. We recently read it aloud at bedtime and everyone from my 10yo son to my husband was thrilled with the read.

    I also love My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell–a funny account of a great naturalist’s childhood.

  10. Oh–one more: a lovely “comic strip” version of Walden called Thoreau at Walden by Porcellino.
    .-= The Raven’s last blog: The Unplugged Schoolhouse =-.

  11. Amy Ralls says:

    We love books like this! My son especially loves them, and it has created in him a desire to find things native to our area, and opened his eyes to the world around him.
    I love all the new ideas…..!

  12. What a great post – I think the Narnia books are excellent for starting a talk about nature. C.S. Lewis did a great job of making the animals and trees characters in his books! My six year olds are enthralled.

    Now, down to brass tacks. I have to know where you rented that cabin? How do I do that for my family?

  13. I love this list so much…and Im addicted to nature books too. I have found several field guides lately at the thrift store for less than $1. And we’re looking forward to our first official family camping trip in a few weeks. Woohoo!
    .-= Eren’s last blog: Kickin’ It Old School =-.

  14. I used to just devour George’s books. Another author I really enjoyed was Gary Paulsen (of “Hatchet” fame).

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