A City Kids’ Guide to Collecting Natural Treasures

Bones and fossils

My son loves collecting. As soon as he learned to walk on his own outside, our home began to fill up with leaves, rocks, sticks, seeds and even the occasional “live specimen.” Every trip to the park was like going on an archeological dig.

I starting collecting at an early age as well. To this day, my brother loves to remind me about the time we were walking home from school and I pulled a rusty railroad spike out of my coat pocket. I was about seven years old and I thought it would make a handy little hammer (if I ever needed a hammer).

The Art & Science of Collecting

We consider ourselves lucky. Pokemon cards aside, my son’s collectables are generally free and readily accessible. Mother Nature deposits interesting artifacts on every sidewalk, in every yard and on every beach in every city.

We are constantly learning new things from the items we collect. Like a scientist in a lab, my son can often examine real specimens instead of looking for answers online or in a book. How many legs does a cicada have, you ask? We happen to have several cicadas handy, so lets take a look. What’s heavier, a seagull feather or a maple leaf? We have a few of each, so let’s find out. You get the drift. Even when the deep freeze of winter sets in and everything is covered with snow, we still have real specimens to examine under the microscope.

Organizing the treasures



My son’s spread as he organizes his latest finds.



Some collections help us hold on to memories. I still have a little glass jar of rocks and driftwood I collected on a trip with my sister and her two kids more than 15 years ago. It sits on my kitchen window sill and reminds me of the lovely time we had that summer.

13 pounds of beach glass



I’ve been collecting beach glass—from the same beach—for 10 years. At last count, my collection weighed 13 pounds.

Collection Tools

We never specifically told our son to start collecting rocks and seashells, he just started doing it on his own, and we went along with it. Eventually, we caught on that this was going to be a regular thing, so we started to leave the house prepared. It doesn’t take much, but it helps a budding collector to have someone around who always remembers to grab a few key items on the way out the door.

Collection containers

  • Plastic bags – These are essential. We pretty much don’t leave home without a few snack-sized and sandwich-sized plastic bags. (Tip: Reuse bags from lunch.)
  • Small plastic containers – Not essential, but small containers can be helpful for delicate things like flowers, bugs and seeds. (Tip: Reuse those yogurt, cottage cheese and butter containers that are piling up in your corner cabinet.)
  • Tiny bags – These are a nice-to-have. Tiny bags – the kind used to hold earrings, spices and parts to just about every piece of furniture at Ikea – are handy if you’re collecting a lot of little items that could get mixed up or damaged in a larger bag. (We like: 50 Clear Plastic Ziplock Bags – Assorted Small Sizes)
  • Test tubes – Stepping it up a notch, plastic test tubes are great for collecting liquid  (e.g., for a pond water vs. tap water experiment) or delicate things. (We like: C&A Scientific Plastic Test Tubes With Caps)
  • Tweezers – At least once a year, I drop my tweezers and dent the point, rendering them useless for plucking anything smaller than a toothpick. That’s when I pass them off to my son. Sometimes you don’t want to pick up something with your bare hands (Like the time we found a bird skull and had to carry it home on a stick.), so tweezers can come in handy. (We like: Learning Resources Primary Science Magnifier & Tweezers)
  • Magnifying glass – I usually chalk it up to my aging eyes, but there are times when even the youngest eyes can’t see the detail on a flower or a tiny bug. (We like: Backyard Safari Magnifying Glass Science Kit for younger kids and Carson LED Lighted Slide-Out Magnifier with Protective Sleeve for older kid collectors)

Getting Started

There’s really no magic formula here, just follow your child’s natural interests. If he seems interested in sticks, let him take them home and make a frame or build a little house (Sticks from trees and bushes are way more interesting than popsicle sticks. See what I mean?) If she’s interested in snail shells, take them home and try to find out what sort of snail lived in the shell.

Snail shell

A few words of encouragement: Try to keep an open mind. Sure, I’ve said, “Put that down!” on more than one occasion, but I try not to discourage my son’s collecting, even when he picks up something that grosses me out. When I find myself turning up my nose at something, I ask myself these questions:

  • Is it dangerous? Can he cut himself? Is it poisonous? Will he get a rash from touching it? Is the snail shell loaded with stagnant water that would kill an elephant if ingested?
  • Does it stink (e.g., dead and / or rotten things)? No need to explain here. If it stinks, I don’t want it in the house.

If you answer no to these questions, step aside, because it’s fair game. One more rule of thumb, if it belongs to someone or something else, it’s off limits. Bird nests are to be looked at from afar and as nice as those roses smell, we’re not going to take them from Mr. Lee’s garden.

Ask Questions

When you collect fine crystal or vintage jewelry, you want to preserve it as long as possible. Toss that thinking aside. Encourage kids to crack open those chestnuts and see what’s inside. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to put on your curiosity cap and wonder out loud.

One of my son’s most endearing qualities is his tendency to offer up unsolicited facts, statistics and other, “Did you know…” information. People often ask, “How does he know that?” The answer is simple: He asks questions. He is genuinely curious about the world around him and we take his questions seriously. If we don’t know the answer, we do some research together and find out.

These are just a few questions to get you started. Once you get rolling, you’ll come up with plenty of your own.

Rock collectionRocks

  • Is it an igneous rock or a sedimentary rock?
  • On a scale of 1 – 10 how would you describe the hardness of this rock?

FossilsFossils & Imprints

  • Is this a fossil or an imprint?
  • What animal or plant left this fossil/imprint?
  • How old do you think it is?

Collection of seashellsShells

  • What kind of animal do you think lived in this shell?
  • Is this shell from a land animal or a water animal?
  • Did this shell come from salt water or fresh water?

Beach glassBeach glass

  • What do you think this glass was used for originally?
  • How did it get so smooth?
  • How did it get here?


  • What kind of tree shed this leaf?
  • Is it a native tree?
  • (If you found the leaf near a tree) How old is this tree?


  • What is it?
  • What do you think it eats?
  • What sort of home do you think it lives in?

Items collected on a walkSeeds & Flowers

  • What kind of flower/seed is it?
  • Is it a native plant?
  • What sort of growing conditions does it need?

Storing Your Treasures 

You can store most items in collection bags and containers, but some collectibles are worth putting on display. We like to store specimens we find so we can look at them later. (Tip: Collectibles make great last-minute school science projects or show-and-tell items.)

Here are just a few potential storage and display containers you might already have around the house:

Now It’s Your Turn

I hope this post has inspired you to look at the world around you from a different perspective and encourage the kids in your life to explore their environment close up. Observation and inquiry are the keys to learning, and learning is much more fun when it’s integrated into your everyday routine.

Books About Collecting

Check out these great books for ideas about what to collect, questions to ask the kiddos, and at-home projects

What do you collect? Send a photo of your collectibles to urbanmom@urbankidsinnature.com and we might post it on this blog.