How to Make Your Own Field Guide with Kids!

How to Make Your Own Field Guide with Kids!

Spring in Montana is an event. Our winters are unpredictable as they are long, and there is never any telling if a late snowstorm will come and dump on early spring blooms.

So when the wildflowers do come out in full force, we want to make as much of it as possible. This year, while doing our favorite hike for wildflowers, we realized how many of the names we had forgotten from last year. So we decided to make our own field guide for wildflowers.

Red Avens (Praire Smoke)
Distinctive features: Almost completely pink with spherical flowers with small petals.
Traits: Turns into soft, hairy tufts like smoke.
Flowers: April to August

Not wildflower season where you live? These steps can be used to make your own field guide for birds, insects, trees, etc.

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Step 1: Find the Flowers for Your DIY Wildflower Field Guide

Sometimes it feels like hikers keep all the best secrets for themselves. But if you want to find a hike with plenty of wildflowers, there are some ways to do a little digging.

  • Join a local Facebook group to ask. Look for hiking groups like Hike it Baby that might be familiar with kid-friendly hikes in the area. Also look for other groups such an Audubon Society that might be familiar with good options.
  • Look for local hiking guides in your favorite book store.
  • Look for wildflower refuges in your state.
  • Check out this iNaturalist webpage for wildflower hot spots.
  • You can try searching local hashtags on Instagram for ideas, but be aware that Insta-worthy locations might be overrun.
  • Check at a website like All-Trails and look for reviews that mention good wildflowers.
  • Don’t forget, wildflowers show up everywhere. In alleyways, in backyards, in public parks, even growing in parking lots. Lifting up these every-day wildflowers will make you appreciate them even more!
A hand points at a silky crazy weed flower, a pale yellow cluster of flowers on top of a stem.

Looking for wildflowers requires a lot slower pace than peak bagging does. Once you slow down, you’ll be amazed at how many different types of flowers there are.

Hiking with kids takes a little extra planning, of course. Don’t forget sunscreen and hats, good shoes, and some snacks that will make the whole experience more pleasant.

Step 2: Document the Flowers to Make Your Own Field Guide

Next you’ll have to decide how you want to document your flowers. You have several options, depending if you want something high-tech and detailed, or something homemade and creative.

Wildflower Photography

After we decided to make our own wildflower guide, I put my son in charge of taking pictures. If you have older kids, giving them a task like hike photographer can help keep them engaged and give them a sense of ownership over the project.

If you’re looking for some iPhone photography tips, check out this article on how to Take Better Photos with your Smartphone.

We went over a few photography basics together like getting close to your subject and making sure the picture is in focus. (Smartphones make it easy just to tap the screen to focus, teaching with a real camera would have been another adventure!) We also practiced taking pictures from different angles and making sure we had multiple options to choose from.

Drawing or Painting Flowers

Another option is to draw or paint flowers you see. While you might not be able to collect as many this way, it can be a great way to get much more familiar with the flower (or leaf, or tree, or whatever the subject of your guide is) you are documenting.

We like these notebooks for their sturdy paper that can be used for sketching, watercolor, or gluing dried flowers onto.

Remember – accuracy isn’t the main goal in these guides. The purpose is to get kids observing what they see in nature, and taking some interest in it and helping to make your own field guide.

Preserving Wildflowers

Pressing flowers can be a great way to preserve them. We love to press flowers in the spring, but we tend to stick to flowers we find in our backyard, growing in alleys, or that we have permission to pick.

You can also dry other things you find in nature, like leaves and grasses. (Have you ever noticed just how many different types of grasses there are? Once you start looking, you’ll notice they’re just as numerous as wildflowers!)

A variety of purple and white flowers on a paper towel

You can press flowers between sheets of wax paper and stick them under a stack of heavy books, or you can use a flower press kit like this one or this one.

Impatient? You can even try microwaving them.

Step 3: Identify the Flowers to Make Your Own Field Guide

The trickiest part when you make your own field guide is identifying what exactly it is you’re seeing. Remember – if you want an accurate nature guide, you can always buy one. The point here is more the process rather than the final product.

Luckily, there are lots of great options for identifying plants.

Look Up Plant Directly From the iPhone Photo App

Did you know that if you take a picture of a flower or plant, your iPhone can help you identify it?

After you take the picture, click the “i” button below the photo. If the camera detects a plant, it will try to identify it. It’s not always 100 percent accurate, but it can help you get started.

Use a Local Field Guide

The National Audubon Society makes guides not only for birds, but also for flowers and other species. You’ll have more luck, however, if you stick with local field guides. Waterford Press makes my favorite local and compact field guides.

Washington State Trees and Flower pocket field guide, unfolded.

With some searching, you might even find a more local field guide. Try searching the name of the location you are heading and “field guide.” State parks, local conservation groups, or extension agencies will put out their own hyper-local field guide. This one, specific to one mountain in Montana, is what inspired us to create our own.

A cover of a book called Mount Helena wildflower with a yellow flower on the cover.

Pay Attention to Details

If you’re like me, you’ll probably just flip through a field guide to see what looks most like the flower in front of you. And then five minutes later, I’m stuck debating between two similar-looking plants.

Don’t forget to pay attention to the tiny details – is the stem covered in leaves, or bare? How many petals are there per flower? Does the flower grow in clusters? Is it found in the same type of landscape you are in?

Ask for Help

Facebook groups dedicated to wildflowers can be great places to ask for help. Try joining a national or statewide one to ask for help identifying what you found.

Step 4: How to Make a Field Guide

This is the fun part, its time to actually make your own field guide! Now that you have all of your flowers and information ready, it’s time to put it together.

Think about what information you want to include

Because this is your guide, you can put in whatever you want. My 9 year-old dictated the information he wanted in the guide to me, and I typed it. He included information about what it looked like, where on the trail we found it, and how to tell it apart from other similar-looking flowers. I suggested we look up the months they bloomed.

Meadow Death Camas
Distinctive features: Cone shaped bunch of creamy-white flowers
Traits: Poisonous!
Flowers: June to August
This text is beside a picture of the described flower.

The best part is we only included the information we wanted and found interesting or useful. Because we were doing a guide for just one specific trail, we included info about where to find certain flowers that we new bloomed in the same spot year to year.

Forget me not
Distinctive features: Grows in small buh-like formations and is blue with small yellow center.
Traits: On west side of Rocky Road loop, 1-10 feet off the trail.

Don’t forget to think about how you want to organize your guide – by color, by family, or by location. We did ours by color so that it would be easy to find what we are looking at.

A boy smiles and holds homemade book open to a page that says "helpful hints."

We also included “helpful hints” that the kids thought would be helpful for them to know, and a map.

TMM Team Member Kristin uses Rite in the Rain paper to make durable mud kitchen recipe cards. You can try to make your own field guide on this paper as well.

Use Powerpoint for an easy, professional look

After I helped my kid put together a folder of all our best wildflower photos and labeled them, he put them together in a Powerpoint presentation. Powerpoint made it easy to make the pages look professional, and he had fun playing around with the different designs.

Sure, it’s screen time. But I’d rather have him working on a project on the computer than watching YouTube, so I didn’t mind. You can also print your PowerPoint presentation.

Get creative with your layout

Instead of a whole book, you can also make a one-page sheet with all the flowers and their labels. This option would be easy to laminate, print on cardstock, or slip into a page protecter, making it easy to bring with you on future hikes.

Collect your dried flowers

If you dried flowers, you can make a homemade field guide by lightly painting them with Mod Podge onto heavy-duty water color paper. Label your pictures before you glue the flowers onto them.

A girl looks at dried flowers glued to pieces of paper.
We don’t know the name of this flower growing in our backyard, so my daughter named it herself.

Tip: Paint away from the center of the flower. If you try to go over the petals in a different direction, they might crumple.

My daughter decorated the front cover herself, which was probably her favorite part of the project.

A girl smiles and holds homemade book that says "Backyard flower guide" with a child's drawing of a rainbow and a fairy on it.

Step 5: Assemble Your DIY Wildflower Field Guide

Now it’s time to put it all together! You have some options depending on how you want your final book to look like.

Print your book

We printed our book on regular paper (we printed off two power point slides per page) cut the pages down, and stapled it together.

It was so fun to see it come to life!

A book is open to a page that says "Spotted Mountain Bell" (leopard lily). Distinctive features: Usually facing down with bright yellow flower color and brown spots.
Traits: Hard to see features if you are looking from above.
Flowers: April to June

We cut and stapled ours, but you could also bind it with a printing service like Staples or put it in a three-ringed binder.

You can also use a hole punch and yarn to assemble your book. While this might not be one that you want to put into your backpack for hikes, it will make a beautiful keepsake.

Put together a book with a service like Shutterfly

While we haven’t tried it yet, we plan on making a book version of our wildflower guide. Photo services like Shutterfly offer templates to put together photo books that could be perfect for field guides. While you have to spend a bit of money, keep an eye out for coupon codes.

A girl holds a hand made book with violets.

Conclusion

Remember, you don’t have to use flowers. You can make your own field guide by collecting leaves (try documenting leaves from the same tree in summer and in fall), snapping pictures of insects or rocks, or even try drawing and labeling mountains around town.

A make your own field guide book is open to a page with a flower. It says "Little Larkspur"
Distinctive features: Very deep purple. Long, hairless stem.
Traits: Very separate petals, with pointed rear spur.
Flowers: May to July.

Maybe next time we will try making our own trail guide with all the information kids want (aka where are the best snack stops and is there water to play in).

We have loved this project, mostly because it got us really thinking about and looking at what we see. And because it got the kids taking ownership of what they were doing, not just being told they had to go on yet another hike. They have loved sharing the final products with their family and friends, and have learned plenty in the process.

Have you ever made something similar? How are you going to make your own field guide? Let us know!

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How to Make Your Own Field Guide with Kids!

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  • Jackie is a coffee-lover, writer and a mom of three young children living in Helena, MT. She thought that hiking might help tame her children’s wild spirits, and co-leads a Hike it Baby branch. All that hiking only made her crew wilder, but in a good way. Before kids she enjoyed reading, knitting and baking, but now she enjoys making it to bedtime.

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