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Homeschool Nature Study For The Child Who Loves Reptiles

This homeschool nature study incorporates indoor and outdoor activities, perfect for the child who is fascinated by reptiles.

Sometimes I feel inadequate to teach about something my boys are interested in studying. Reptiles are one subject that I would put in that category! I have a huge aversion to the sight of reptiles, but on closer acquaintance I am not so put off and can see the beauty in their creation and how they fit into the web of life.

Because both of my children are absolutely fascinated by reptiles, I have grown to appreciate their role in our interest-led learning and homeschool nature study.

The process of going from feeling totally disgusted by these sorts of creatures to admiration is by getting to know them better. Here is what the Handbook of Nature Study says about reptiles and nature study.

“But she(the teacher) was equal to the occasion, and surprised them by declaring that there were many interesting things to be studied about snakes, and forthwith sent to the library for books which discussed these reptiles; and this was the beginning of a nature study club of rare efficiency and enterprise.”
Handbook of Nature Study, page 193

What better way to follow your child’s interest than to learn right alongside them? I can’t always start off as excited about things as my children are but I can muster up enthusiasm at learning about it as part of God’s creation. Each animal and plant has a place in the intertwined web of life we have all around us. Snakes, lizards, spiders, rodents, and everything else each are dependent on each other and in the long run so are we. Each creature has a job to do and when I think about that in relation to snakes and reptiles, it encourages me to dig a little deeper with my children.

Outdoor Homeschool Reptile Nature Study

While I do not love the idea of randomly seeking out reptiles in the wild, there are ways to incorporate this interest in our nature study.

Herping is a term used to describe going out into a reptile habitat and look for lizards and snakes. (I know, it can be cringe inducing, but hear me out.) Like any nature study, this is about exploring and getting my kids outdoors. After learning a few safety precautions (namely, we are not picking anything up!) it is actually a beautiful way to explore nature.

We discuss the various habitats and take pictures of any lizards we find. We hike and are always careful to watch out for rattle snakes.

Overall, it’s a brilliant outdoor nature study for our homeschool.

outdoor nature study

Ideas For Indoor Reptile Nature Study

Because it still stresses me out a bit to actually go looking for wild reptiles, we also devote a significant amount of time to indoor reptile study.

Here are some of my boys’ favorite learning activities:

  • Visit the pet store and discuss the various reptiles and their man made habitats.
  • Head to the local reptile zoo.
  • Look up various facts about reptiles online.
  • Check out books from the library.
  • Set-up our own habitat for our new pet lizard (because nature study has a way of creeping into my boys’ birthday wishes)
This homeschool nature study incorporates indoor and outdoor activities, perfect for the child who is fascinated by reptiles.

A Homeschool Nature Study Resource To Help Your Family Learn

Thankfully, our nature study does not end with reptiles. In fact, one of the best ways to continue our learning all year long is with the Homeschool Nature Study Membership.

With it, you will have everything you need to bring the Handbook of Nature Study to life in your homeschool. It provides access to Outdoor Hour Challenges curriculum and tons of resources to enrich your homeschool.

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New Printables for Members – May 2015

Habitat Notebook Pages for Members @handbookofnaturestudy

This month I am adding some habitat research notebook pages for you to use with your family. There are five habitats included: Desert, Prairie, Forest, Seashore, and Wetland. Visit the habitat or use the pages to record information you find while researching a particular habitat. We will be going more deeply into these habitats next year in the free monthly newsletters.

These new printables are free if you are a member of the Ultimate Naturalist or Journey level memberships. You need to log into your account and then check the “Other Releases” section for brand new printables to enjoy along with the Outdoor Hour Challenges in 2015.


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Saguaro National Park – Tips and Images

Saguaro National Park Tips and Images @handbookofnaturestudy

What an amazing place to explore the desert! Saguaro National Park near Tucson, Arizona surprised me with all its secret delights. There isn’t anything that we didn’t enjoy about the two trips we have taken to this part of the world.

If you can plan a trip to Saguaro National Park with your family, you will experience the southwest at its best!


Saguaro National Park 1

Of course, we came to see the saguaro cactus and we were not disappointed. These magnificent cactus actually are like a whole habitat in themselves with the way they provide food, shelter, and beauty for the inhabitants of this southwestern desert. We learned about the Sonora desert and its unique place in the web of life…creating a place for migrating and resident animals to take refuge.

Saguaro National Park 2

Our first trip to Saguaro was in 2009 and we flew into Tucson, Arizona and rented a car. We spent days exploring the desert together with our two boys. At first glance you wonder what lives out in the desert but after hiking out by ourselves and seeing with our own eyes the many creatures and plants that are thriving in this dry sandy/rocky place, we realized the magnitude of life in this special national park. I am personally grateful that this refuge is protected for generations to come.

Saguaro National Park 3

Our second trip was in 2010 when we drove from California to Tucson to visit the park again in the spring (April). This was the perfect time to experience the burst of life from the wildflowers and flowering shrubs, a bit early for the saguaro themselves to be blooming but we saw big flower buds up on the top.


Saguaro National Park 2

One day we parked along the edge of the park and went in at the Broadway Trailhead to hike the trails from there. It is hard to describe the many, many things we found to observe. Saguaro National Park 5

The cactus and  brightly color flowers were each a work of art…what a blessing to time our visit to see them.

saguaro National Park 6

Birds…so many birds! I spent lots of time with my binoculars and field guide on both trips, making lists of birds each night when we returned to our hotel.

Saguaro National Park Gambel Quail

Our favorite bird of the desert is the Gambel’s quail. They have such beautiful feathers, jaunty little top-notch, and sweet song.

Saguaro National Park 7

Wildflowers to make your heart sing.

Saguaro National Park tarantula hawk

Insects like this tarantula hawk eek out a life in this part of the world. (read it’s life story…creeps me out!)

Mica View Trail Saguaro

Saguaro National Park actually has two sections that are located on opposite sides of Tucson, Arizona. Find more information here at the Plan Your Visit page.

The photos above are from the eastern section of the park called Saguaro East-Rincon Mountain District. This section of the park has a large visitor center that we enjoyed on both of our visits. The Cactus Forest Drive is a must do for everyone to get their feet wet with this national park. There are several spots to stop and view the landscape and a short nature trail that features the desert habitat. You can reach the Mica View trailhead and picnic area off the Cactus Forest Drive.

Saguaro National Park 11

Also along this drive, we stopped at Javelina rocks and hiked. There is a trail out to an old homestead that was interesting and on this trip was lined with colorful wildflowers.

Saguaro national Park 8

One of our favorite moments during our trip was the day we were driving through on the road and there was a sudden downpour where the rain came down in buckets. Shortly, the rain stopped and the sun came out….I cannot describe the scent of the air. It was magnificent and I hope someday to experience that fragrance again. The wet earth, the damp vegetation, the creosote bushes, something else…amazing!

Saguaro National Park 9

The other section of the park is on the western side of Tucson and is called: Saguaro West-Tucson Mountain District. There is a visitor center at Red Hills and is a wonderful source of information and you will find displays and helpful rangers to make the most of your trip. Here is a wonderful printable list and map for hikes in this section of the park: Trails in the Tucson Mountain District. 

Saguaro National Park 10
The western section is a little more rugged and has some fantastic aspects that make it worth the effort to visit it as well. One trail has petroglyphs to view along the way.

Saguaro National Park 12

Keep your eyes open and hike along quietly and you never know who you will see! We saw evidence of pack rats and coyotes. One day we heard coyotes howling in the distance.

Saguaro National Park 13

We saw more birds in the desert than we have ever seen in any other habitat. The many ways they have found to survive in this harsh environment are a wonder. Here is a nest that we found with the opening on the side.

Saguaro National Park 14

I spy a dove!

Saguaro National Park 16

If you time your trip just right, you are going to see a display of wildflowers so colorful you can’t believe it. I love this place!

Saguaro National Park 18

We made sure to plan a sunrise walk one of the days we were there. It took some effort and it was COLD but well worth it to us. It was awe inspiring to watch the sunrise as it transformed the desert from a shadowland to a blaze of daylight. We saw deer and rabbits and flocks of quail. My boys loved it and we hope to do this again someday.


Other Tips for Saguaro National Park:

  • There are six picnic areas in the park with tables and shelters. We found the shelters were helpful to keep off the sun but we got wet in the rain! There are no restaurants in the national park so pack a lunch or several snacks.
  • There are trails for all ages, some that are wheelchair accessible.
  • Make sure to bring along a camera to record the numerous plants, birds, flowers, rocks, and landscapes you are going to come across.
  • Bring your binoculars and a good bird field guide for the Arizona Sonora Desert region. You are going to see and hear lots of birds if you get out and hike even a short distance.
  • There is a Jr. Ranger program and a Not So Junior Ranger Program.
  • Carry water, wear a hat and sturdy shoes.
  • No camping within the national park but hotels galore of all sorts in Tucson, Arizona. We stayed at a condo for a steal of a deal…look online at places like Expedia.
  • At the very least, plan a long day in the park, visiting one section if you are limited on time. If you can stay two days, explore one section each day.
  • If you can, plan a sunrise or sunset hike to experience the changing light and creatures that come out during those times of day.
  • Distance from Las Vegas – 400 miles or 6.5 hours, Phoenix, Arizona – 110 miles or 2 hours, Albuquerque, New Mexic0 – 445 miles or 6.5 hours.

Check out this really well done YouTube video: Saguaro National Park.

Other Things I Suggest Doing While in Tucson, Arizona

You can read more of my national park tips in these entries:


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Joshua Tree National Park – Tips and Images

Joshua Tree National Park tips and images @handbookofnaturest

National parks give us the opportunity to experience things that are out of the ordinary. National parks give us some space to breath in the wilderness and take a break from the same old routines of modern life.  Joshua Tree National Park is just such a place with its unique rock formations, fascinating plant life, and creatures of the desert. What is a Joshua Tree? Well, it is not really a tree at all but a species of yucca. They can grow to be over 40 feet tall and they bloom sometime between February and April. They are part of a fascinating desert habitat in southeastern California.

Joshuar Tree

This national park is only about 2.5 hours from Los Angeles, 2.75 hours from San Diego, 3 hours from Las Vegas, and 3 hours from Phoenix. It is reachable for many of my readers as a weekend trip or even tacked onto another destination as a bonus. The park is easily experienced in a day but I highly recommend giving this special place two days to explore (suggested itineraries here). The hiking here is not difficult so families with even young children can enjoy getting outside in the sunshine together.

Joshua Tree scene

Tip:We purchased the Road Guide To Joshua Tree National Park at the Visitor Center and I highly recommend this as a guide through the park. The book starts with stop at the Oasis Visitor Center and Nature Trail and then continues along the park drive, giving you mileage points and this to view and experience. We did the trip in one day and stopped at various spots to hike, picnic, and take photos. I always love knowing what we are looking at so this book was a huge help.

visitor center joshua tree

We started as usual at the Oasis Visitor Center near 29 Palms (trip taken in 2009 when my boys were teenagers). This was a simple way to introduce the park and to get our bearings. (There are 3 different visitor centers for you to visit.) There is a Junior Ranger program for children to complete at Joshua Tree.

joshua tree national park map

Joshua Tree National Park is situated in a unique place within parts of both the Mojave and the Colorado Deserts. It is the only place on earth where the Joshua trees grow in large numbers in the wild.

arch rock

Arch Rock was a great place to stop and stretch our legs in the warm California sunshine. This is a wonderful place to talk about the geology of the park and share a bit about the granite arch and how it was formed.

desert scene

The beauty of this place can not be truly appreciated unless you get out of your car and walk out into the landscape. The harsh environment creates plants that are strong and rocks that are carved out in interesting formations. We spent a lot of time giving names to our favorite rocks.

not blooming yet

The Cholla Cactus Garden trail was lined with menacing cactus. There are many other nature trails within the park for you to choose from.

lizard joshua tree

There were lizards, birds, and spiders to distract us from the cactus. This lizard posed for us on the top of a rock!


This is an amazing place that we hope to visit again someday, hopefully camping to experience the night sky and to slow down to take in more of the parks plants and animals…and birds too! Don’t be fooled by thinking that the desert landscape is barren and empty. It is a rich habitat with much to learn about along with your children.

Other things you might like to know

  • Entrance Fee is $15
  • Camping is available in the park.
  • Palm Springs is a short distance for hotel rooms of all kinds. We stayed at the Embassy Suites in Palm Desert.
  • There are three visitor centers at each of the entrances to the park: Joshua Tree Visitor Center, Oasis Visitor Center, and Cottonwood Visitor Center.
  • Visiting in the spring and fall are recommended. We were there in February and the weather was perfect and there were many wildflowers and blooming cactus to view.
  • There are places to picnic but you will need to purchase your meal before you enter the park.
  • Educational materials to download before your trip are available.


You can read more of my national park tips in these entries:


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Death Valley National Park – Tips and Images

Death Valley National Park tips and images

Death Valley National Park is a surprising place! I had lived in California all my life but until 2006 had never visited this amazing place. Our family took a trip during the first week of April 2006, escaping to the warm temperatures and dry landscape for a few days. My boys had a blast in this vast and awe-inspiring place.

Hottest, Driest, Lowest…all describe this unique place on earth called Death Valley.

We stayed two nights at Furnace Creek Ranch, making that our home base for the three days we were there. The hotel and rooms were nice but the highlight was the swimming pool! My boys enjoyed swimming in February and I relished the time to have bare feet as I watched them splash around mid-February. There was a diner type of restaurant, a small store, and a the Visitor’s Center. It was super expensive so if we ever go back, we are going to go camping!

Furnace Creek Visitors Cente

We started our visit with the Visitor’s Center to get our bearings and to learn more about his unique habitat. We talked to the rangers about hikes to take with our boys to give us the flavor of Death Valley. I purchased Hiking in Death Valley and Mohave Desert Wildflowers to have as references during our stay.

Death Valley Wildflowers

Yes, wildflowers! Can you believe wildflowers in the desert? This was our first experience with this kind of habitat and right away I knew I had been wrong about what we would find to observe and study there in the desert. I had expected only rocks but found a whole array of wildflowers and plants to learn about as we hiked and explored.

Death Valley scrambling up rocks

These are affiliate links to books I own and love!

I highly recommend both books we purchased because I think we did get more out of the experience knowing where and what to look for during our stay. Several of the hikes that were listed in the guide book are not clearly marked from the road and we would have driven right past them.We concentrated on the Furnace Creek region of the park and there was plenty to do just exploring this part of the vast desert.

Death Valley hike at second dip on Artists Drive

Our favorite was “Canyon at second dip” along the Artists Drive. Sure enough, the canyon at the “second dip” was just as described and a favorite of the boys because the start of the trail is a scramble up a “short pink fall 50 yards from the road”.

Death Valley Natural Bridge

We experienced natural bridges.

Death Valley dead end canyon

Hiked to the end of box canyons.

Death Valley Mosaic Canyon

Explored places carved by flash floods.

Death Valley Artist Pallete

Marveled at the stunning colors we observed.

Death Valley Zebra Lizard

Found surprising creatures.

Death Valley Wildflowers Yellow

Wondered at the way plants could grow right out of the rocky, sandy, graveling floor of Death Valley.

Death Valley chocolate chip mountain

This is an amazing place to explore a study of botany, geology, ornithology, and zoology.

Death Valley amazing sky

Look at that incredible sky!

Death Valley hiking

Death Valley as 3.4 million acres to explore…be prepared! Water is a necessity at all times of the year and we also carried a good map, wore sturdy shoes and hats, and made sure to gas up the car. You can see this page for a list of places within the park to fuel up.

You will need a car to explore Death Valley National Park. It is reachable from just about any of the major cities in California. Please note that many of the highway passes going west-east in California are closed in winter. Check with Cal Trans information before planning a drive over

Also, your cell phone will not work in Death Valley National Park so be prepared for that if you need to make a call.

Death Valley Badwater

I found these links helpful:

When to Visit Death Valley – seasonal information to help you plan your visit

Directions – Routes to getting to Death Valley, including directions from Las Vegas, Nevada

Wildflowers and the 2014 Update

List of Hikes We Did and Loved:


Scotty's Castle

We also visited Scotty’s Castle on the way out of the park, heading towards home. This is a lot of fun to tour with the kids and we enjoyed seeing this unusual place and hearing the story of how it was built.

You may be interested in reading more in my national parks series:

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Desert Nature Study-Joshua Tree National Park and More

I wanted to share some more of the photos from our trip to the desert that we took a few weeks ago. The photo above is from Joshua Tree National Park. The scene is typical of what you will find as you hike along the trails of the park. It has taken me three trips to the desert to begin to develop a love for the animals and plants that live here. In this strange and wonderful landscape, you can find the most beautiful of things if you look carefully enough.

There really are blooming plants here and if you get the chance to get up close, you realize that there are bees and other insects as well as birds that are attracted to the color and fragrance.

I will admit that there are sections of the park that are more rock than anything else. My two boys couldn’t resist a good climb when they saw it.

When you get up close you see all the intricate patterns and designs of the desert plants. I believe this is some kind of cholla cactus.

Now here was something that surprised me and I examined it carefully for some time. Can you see all the different colors of lichen on this rock? There is a moss green, a grey-green, an orange and a soft yellow-green all living right here on the side of this rock. Beautiful.

Many times as we hike along we name the rock formations we see. The boys named this one “Whale Head”.

Not to be confused with “Whale’s Mouth”.

They keep me smiling…..and thinking.

We came across a wash on our hike and the wildflowers were already blooming. There are three different flowers blooming in this photo…two white and the desert sand verbena.

How about a video? (Why does it take so looooong for the videos to load onto Blogger anyway?)
This squirrel was entertaining us with his acrobatics…trying to get that certain pod to eat.

Here is what the squirrel was gathering to eat. This is a palo verde tree.

I took a lot of photos at the Living Desert Museum and I shared a lot of the butterfly and hummingbird photos already but here are a few more of the larger animals we saw that the boys spent a lot of time observing.

The giraffes…there were four of them.

The cheetahs..there were two of them. I love this photo….look at that face!

For some reason I threw our nature journals in my backpack and we took the opportunity in the afternoon to slow down and do some sketching at the museum. It was a great way to remember our time there.

What a great memory.

It was great way to end our stay at the museum. The desert holds so many interesting and surprising creations for us to learn about….a life time of learning just one plant and one bird and one animal at a time.

So whether you venture out in the national park or you stay in town and visit the Living Desert Museum….there is so much to enjoy as a family. Pick your adventure.

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Birds Up Close

One thing that frustrates this bird lover is that it is nearly impossible to get up close to live birds in the wild. So when the opportunity presents itself to get a really good look, even at a zoo or museum…I grab it. We were able to observe quite a few beautiful birds at the Living Desert Museum. If you live in California or even in Nevada, you might want to check this museum out and include it on your next roadtrip.

This Burrowing owl was so gorgeous and he impressed me very much with his wide eyes and his colorful pattern on his wings and body.

They had a hummingbird and butterfly aviary that I could have spent all day wandering around. We spotted this hummer on the littlest nest around. Click the photo to see the texture of his feathers. I will post photos of some of the butterflies soon.

I am amazed at the way the birds are so different from each other. They may all have feathers, wings, and legs but the variety of how those pieces are put together is an amazing testimony to our Creator.

Most of the birds at this museum are not able to be released into the wild. Some have lost a leg or a wing and the owl in the first photo of this entry is blind. This bird is a kind of heron and I forgot to write down his exact name but he was so pretty…and sleepy. 🙂

I encourage you to take advantage of any opportunity that comes along for nature study. I was surprised to see that this particular museum had a badger exhibit so we were able to observe a real live badger as part of our Outdoor Hour Challenge…..more on that in another post.

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Desert Walking Again….Just a Glimpse

I can always tell when I am ready for a road trip. It is a very good thing that we live in a place in the world that with some driving we can totally change our environment. From snow to the desert sunshine…I feel so much better.

The desert is getting really close to bursting out in blossoms. This is a cholla cactus putting out its buds.

Here is what the cactus looks like as we hike along in the desert.

I added this photo for those that know how much my husband is into alternative energy. He was amazed at the wind turbines out here in the desert.

A little rock climbing went on. Well, maybe A LOT of rock climbing. How about this natural arch?

Here is one critter that we saw while we were out hiking in the desert…he sat still for a very long time while I took a few photos. If you click on the photo you should be able to see his blue spots.

My husband spotted the desert cottontails in this area of the trail. Very, very cute little mammals to observe!

One last photo….here is the star of our desert hike. The Joshua tree is a unique plant that we are just now starting to get to know.

Winter will soon change to spring. Sigh.

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More Reptiles to Identify: Arizona Style

I am still struggling with my disgust of reptiles. Lizards are becoming a bit more palatable but as far as snakes go, I’m still struggling.

Good thing for me that we saw mostly lizards on our trip to Arizona.

On pages 210 to 213 of the Handbook of Nature Study there are many lizards and their descriptions listed. I think on page 213 that number 7 looks surprisingly like the lizards we saw in the photo below.

I did recognize this reptile but only was able to capture his hind end as he scurried under a rock. He was definitely some kind of iguana.

These two photos were taken while we were at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. They had an enclosure where they used to have a bear but the bear has since been retired to a more comfortable place on the grounds. The enclosure did have these interesting, if not rather large, reptiles inhabiting it.

Climbing up the rocks

This guy was also at the museum and was making his way across the riparian habitat.

Now for something pretty to look at. I can only take reptiles for so long and then I need something colorful and beautiful to enjoy.

Close up of the spines

Are you proud of me? We are still working on identifying the reptiles for their nature journals but we are learning a lot along the way.

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Desert Study: Outdoor Hour Challenge #8

Here is our family’s Outdoor Hour Challenge #8. 

We just returned from our week long adventure in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. It was so surprising to find so much life and color and activity in this part of our world. If anyone says there is nothing to do for nature study in the desert, I can now whole-heartedly disagree. We spent every waking minute in the great outdoors exploring the fascinating world of the desert, even in a sudden desert rainstorm and at sunrise. We were hiking in Saguaro National Park just about everyday and found that we grew to love this place.

If you have been reading my blog this week, you will have seen some of the more interesting plants and birds that we have encountered. I will be posting more over there in the weeks to come.

Before we left for our adventure, the boys and I read several books to prepare us for what we would be seeing up close and personal. The most interesting and recognizable plant in the Sonoran Desert is the saguaro cactus. (pronounced sa wah ro) This cactus is a whole ecosystem in itself and we were able to observe the many phases of its growth while on our trip.


Here is a landscape with the saguaro sticking up prominently.
The saguaro grows very tall and provides shade for itself with its spines and grooves.

tall saguaro
It also provides homes for birds like the cactus wren and the gila woodpecker. They make their nests inside the saguaro. Here is a photo where you can see the nest holes.

saguaro with bird nest holes
Here is a gila woodpecker sitting on the saguaro and if you look closely, you will see a sparrow in a nest hole near the top of the saguaro.

saguaro and woodpecker
Here is a close up of the cactus itself.

close up saguaro
We enjoyed a sunrise walk in the desert and the colors and sounds are not soon to be forgotten.

saguaro at sunrise
There are so many things to tell you about from this trip but I will narrow this entry down to the saguaro cactus. Maybe later this week I will share all the many other birds that we encountered. I have some awesome hummingbird photos to share and some others that will surprise you that we found in our desert wanderings.

We did some close up work last week at home for this challenge with our hand lens. The most interesting thing we found was looking at the bark of our cedar tree…..there is so many interesting things in there like spider webs and egg sacs. If you didn’t get a chance to use your hand lens last week, I encourage you to take a few minutes this week to give it a try.