How to do a nature scavenger hunt for kids
Both adults and children have an instinct for collecting natural treasures. Here are 10 beautiful natural objects to try and find in the UK this year.
If you're looking for a holiday activity that brings extra elements to a walk, a natural treasure hunt is a fantastic way to fire up the imagination of children and adults alike.
Children are hard-wired to notice and play with natural things. Even soil. They can't help it. Magpie-like, if left to their own devices, they soon have pockets full of feathers, seeds, flowers, stones, bones, shells or whatever else takes their fancy. It doesn't matter if the stuff is dirty or in pieces: in it all goes.
"It seems there is something deeply human about gathering and collecting," says journalist Lucy Jones. Her book The Nature Seed: How to Raise Adventurous and Nurturing Kids, co-authored with forest-school leader Kenneth Greenway, is all about hands-on appreciation of the wild world. "Nature is so tactile," she writes. "There are always things for children to stroke, hold, touch or run between fingers and smell."
Like foraging, when collecting natural objects of any kind, it's important to use common sense and not take too much. Wild flowers and plants on nature reserves should be left well alone – Jones recommends stroking instead to cultivate a sense of gratitude and a "care ethic for the land." If in doubt, consider photos or drawings. And of course, birds nests and eggs should be left well alone.
10 most amazing natural objects to find in Britain
1. Jay wing feather
This small feather, a greater covert covering the base of flight feathers, is from a Eurasian jay’s wing. Incredibly, its fabulous blue is an optical illusion created by the feather structure, not by pigment.
2. Spider silk
There are seven different types of silk produced by spiders, used for all sorts of purposes, from transportation to nesting or trapping prey. Some spider silk is five times stronger than steel of the same diameter.
3. Cuttlefish bone
Not really a bone, but the skeleton-like internal structure of this cephalopod. The marine treasures wash up on beaches around the UK, looking like tiny white surfboards.
Everyone’s favourite autumn game, conkers was first recorded being played on the Isle of Wight in 1848. The spiky green case is the fruit of the horse chestnut tree and the shiny brown ball inside is the seed.
5. Oak marble gall
Like a miniature cratered planet, this weird growth appears on oak trees when a gall wasp injects them with chemicals. The galls were ground up to make ink, used to sign the Magna Carta in 1215.
6. Puffin skull
It is rare to find a whole puffin skull and beak, but in autumn, at the end of the breeding season, the colourful keratin panels that make up the outer covering of the beak fall off and occasionally turn up on beaches.
7. Cuckoo egg shells
The Eurasian cuckoo lays a beautiful – but ultimately deadly – copy of the egg laid by the host bird. Each female cuckoo specialises in copying the species she grew up with. The image featured here is a lookalike robin egg.
Birds nests and eggs should of course be left well alone as it is against the law to disturb birds nests or collect eggs, however it's common to find broken pieces of shell after eggs have hatched, and empty nests that have been blown down from trees after a storm or during winter when they are no longer in use.
8. Mermaid’s purse
The egg cases of dogfish, catsharks, skates and rays are dark and leathery when found empty on land. If you soak them in water, they magically recover their original colour and texture.
9. Caddisfly case
Caddisfly larvae live in streams and look like underwater caterpillars. They build exquisitely beautiful cases to pupate in, spinning together grains of sand, shells, stones, leaves and other tiny bits of debris.
10. Long-tailed tit nest
Made by both the male and female, this oval nest is amazingly stretchy because it contains so much soft moss and spider silk. It can expand to accommodate the growing brood inside.
It is against the law to disturb birds nests during the breeding season, but you may find empty nests during winter, or blown down from trees.
Main image credit: Acorns, pine cones, colourful dried oak leaves, little apples and chrysanthemum flowers are all natural treasures./© Alamy
Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and editor, and proud to be an all-round ‘nature nerd’. He was features editor at BBC Wildlife magazine from 2008 to 2018, and after that its editorial consultant. Ben writes about seasonal natural-history highlights in every issue of the magazine, and also contributes longer conservation stories. His latest children’s book is 'Wild City', published in October 2020.