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Nature Passport Parents' Guide

What is Nature Passport?

"When introducing a child to the world of nature it is not so important to know, as to feel, explore, and experience."


Here are some tips for your family on exploring nature as you do your passport tour. They can help you answer questions that come up as you investigate nature, begin a deeper discussion of something that your child finds especially interesting, or spark the imagination. While you may not be able to give answers to all the questions your family raises, you can give them something far more important: an insatiable curiosity to explore and imagine, and the tools to find the answers themselves. Onward!

Using the Nature Passport with Your Child
The Passport is as versatile as your family is creative! There are lots of ways you and your child can have fun with the Passport. Encourage your kids to explore with all their senses and to write or draw about their experiences.  Follow Ringo the Raccoon's advice or accomplish his suggested mission at each location - or explore in your own way!  However you decide, we wish you fun and excitement on your unique journey!

Parents’ Note
Before you set off, please check to see if there are any specific rules and regulations at each site. You can call ahead of time, or drop by the office to talk with someone personally when you get there.

The Three Ideals of a Nature Explorer, to share with your children:

Before you set out on your journey, heed the three tools of the great nature explorers - the three watchwords that lead the humble explorer to great discoveries and great fun. Share them with your budding nature explorer, and together you can unlock the magic of nature and marvel at its wonders.

Patience: if you can stay in one spot, be still and quiet while you look around, you will see, feel, smell, and hear more than if you were to walk around and search for things. Nature will show you its magic - things that you can’t even imagine - if you let it.

Alertness: this means staying wide awake, keeping on your toes, being ready for anything to happen. Keep your senses active! If you can do this, you will be able to notice more of the magic in nature, and be able to show it to other people. It is a marvelous and awesome power!

Respect: this means treating nature as if we want it to stay near us and not run away from us. If you want to explore nature’s magic, you need to look, smell and listen in a way that does not damage or harm nature. So stay on those trails, and if you are patient and alert you will enter the miraculous world of nature. Take only your drawings, writings and photos, and leave only footprints!

Exploring Nature With Your Senses

Colors in Nature

Color is a physical property of light that reflects the characteristics of light waves (wave length). Our eyes allow us to see a small range of light waves as color. The color we see in an object represents the wavelengths of light not absorbed by that object, and therefore reflected for our eyes to see. Other creatures have eyes that can see different wave ranges, and truly see the world in a different light!

Most plants are green because of a chemical inside their leaves, chlorophyll, that reflects green light. Other colors are used mostly as signals to other creatures. Here are some examples:

  • Bright reds and oranges on some animals, such as the Monarch butterfly, serve as warning coloration that says to their predators: "Don’t eat me." But, the same bright color on another animal, like a male cardinal, says to the female cardinals "Notice me!"
  • The beautiful colors of flowers attract pollinators to assist the flower in reproduction.
  • Some critters have camouflage coloration to blend in with their surroundings and go unnoticed by predators.

Touching Nature

The different textures in nature can give clues to form, function and use. Rocks may be rough or smooth due to weathering processes (rain, ice, etc.) The texture of rocks is also a clue to discovering how they were formed (sedimentary, metamorphic or igneous processes) and what minerals they are made of. Animal fur and feathers give clues to function: the soft and downy feel of fur and feathers provide warmth, the hard shell of a turtle affords it great protection, and the smooth feathers enable birds to fly well, and with minimal sound. Compare this with porcupine quills, or the spines on a caterpillar, which are used as a defense! Some plants, like the prickly pear cactus, also have spines. Other plants have a very hard bark to protect them from pests, diseases, and natural events like fire. Soil has a wonderful texture - soil rich in nutrients is soft, while soil poor in nutrients is sandy or gritty.

WARNING! Be careful about touching certain things, like poison ivy, poison oak or poison sumac. Know the plants and animals you need to be cautious about and be able to identify them before you set out on the trail.

Smelling Nature

Like color, smell is most often used as a signal by creatures. A great example of a defense signal is the skunk. Also, many insects - like the infamous stink bug - exude an odor to ward off harm. An example of attraction signal is the sweetness of some flowers, again to attract pollinators. Some flowers, like wild ginger, smell like rotting meat to us, but they smell good to flies which are the pollinators of this plant. So what may be an offensive odor to us may be like a tiptoe through the tulips for another critter! And the smell of a flower may be a clue to what pollinates it! Smell can also signal a process that is occurring right before your eyes. For instance, rich soil often smells sweet - this is evidence of a process occurring in the soil where millions of tiny organisms are decomposing old plant and animal matter and turning it into more soil.

Hearing Nature

Sound, like light, travels in waves. Our ears enable us to distinguish a narrow range of sound waves, but other creatures can hear sounds that we cannot. Different creatures have vastly different anatomical styles of ears that enable them to receive sound waves. Compare the tympanum of a frog, a grasshopper, and the ears of an owl! For many creatures ears are also organs that enable them to keep their balance as they move around.

Sound is a huge clue to the identity of the creature making it and why. And, different sounds are produced in very different ways. Birds communicate with each other all the time by voice - some birds have elaborate communication mechanisms with 100 or more different calls. But crickets make their calls by rubbing their wings together. Woodpeckers call by hitting their beaks against a tree trunk. Creatures communicate with sound to warn others (the growl of a wolf), to attract others (mating calls of frogs), and even unintentionally (a squirrel foraging among leaves). The patterns you notice in a sound can help you identify the creature without seeing it. And remember: some creatures may not want you to hear them. Owls don’t, so that they can sneak up on their pray. Their feathers are structured to minimize flight sound.

A Few Last Words

We hope that this journey gives your family a fun and exciting introduction to the beauty and richness of our local environment. Exploring nature can spark a curiosity and imagination that lasts throughout one’s lifetime. As with all interesting and fun experiences, curiosity about the countless parts of our environment can lead your children to keep asking questions even after the experience is over. There are many great books and on-line (Internet) resources that can help answer their questions and sustain their curiosity, while allowing them to investigate further and answer questions on their own. If you’re not familiar with books on nature for children and families, the following list will give you a good start:

Check out your local library or a bookstore for the Golden Books series. They are wonderful nature guides for kids. The library is a great resource for other books on plants and animals, ecology, and natural history.

Look for The Amateur Naturalist’s Handbook, by Vinson Brown. This is a comprehensive "how-to" book for exploring and learning about nature.


Check out the Nature Net home page for on-line information about Wisconsin’s environments, as well as links to other sites that allow you to explore science and nature on-line:

Nature Passport is a project of:

Nature Net: The Environmental Learning Network, serving Dane County schoolchildren, teachers and families. Nature Net provides free resources and services to educators and parents, and is an ongoing program of the Aldo Leopold Nature Center. For more information, check the Nature Net website or call the Nature Net Hotline at: (608) 221-2575

Nature Passport and Nature Net are supported by a generous grant from the
American Girl’s Fund for Children.

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Nature Net is a proud member of the No Child Left Inside coalition
 to connect kids with outdoor nature experiences

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