The child is curious […] He does not shut himself off from the strange, complicated world around him […] but tastes it, touches it, hefts it, bends it, breaks it. To find out how reality works, he works on it. He is bold.
-- John Holt, How Children Learn
The imaginative and informative world of books can be a great resource for fostering a culture of appreciation for nature when coupled with regular opportunities to explore the outdoors through hands-on experiences. Books can help bring moments of wonder about the natural environment into all early childhood learning spaces, especially for children with limited access to natural areas. As educators, we can use books and storytelling to explore the world side by side with children, gaining a deeper understanding and appreciation for nature, together. As children investigate the strange and complicated world that surrounds them, books can drive their curiosity and instill a sense of gratitude for the natural world, inspiring a generation of earth stewards. This article highlights the benefits books can provide to nature-based early learning environments and outlines tips for incorporating a wide range of texts into your program.
Narrative books and informational texts are both valuable resources when exploring the world with children. While narrative books tell a fictional story, complete with characters, themes, a central conflict and a resolution, informative texts provide factual content on a specific topic and are often full of helpful vocabulary, diagrams and photographs. Using these two types of texts in tandem during group and individual reading time expands children’s understanding of and connection to the natural world, while engaging both their imaginations and interests. As children build confidence with an array of genres, they may become motivated to “listen and think more attentively” and become better communicators in a variety of settings.
Despite their noted value, children have limited exposure to informational texts.
Informational texts play an important role as children expand their knowledge of how things work; they teach important skills for research, provide answers to children’s burning questions and should be used to expand children’s curiosity and understanding. When utilizing an informational text with children, facilitate discussions and ask open-ended questions to gauge their comprehension and further their literacy and language development. Allow children to respond to and ask questions, study pictures, comment on the content and analyze the text. As you come across vocabulary or topics that may be difficult for children to comprehend, spend extra time on those ideas and keep in mind that these books do not need to be read from cover-to-cover in one sitting.
Some narrative books you could consider bringing into your program are:
- Lola Plants a Garden by Anna McQuinn
- And then Comes Summer by Tom Brenner
- Round is a Tortilla by Roseanne Thong
- The Crocodile Who Didn't Like Water by Gemma Merino
- There is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems
- Thank You, Earth by April Pulley Sayre
- What a Wonderful World by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss
Some recommendations for informational texts are:
- How Does My Garden Grow? by DK
- Southwest Colors by Andrea Helman
- Water is Water by Miranda Paul
- A Drop of Water by Walter Wick
- What Makes it Rain by Katie Daynes
- A Nest is Noisy by Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long
- How do Flowers Grow by Katie Daynes
As you explore the natural world through books, keep these strategies in mind:
- Children are naturally curious, so give them opportunities to explore. As they experiment with the world, connect with their reality by reflecting on what attracts your attention or what you were curious about as a child. Observe and document children’s interests and burning questions.
- Provide children with books that will spark their interest in a variety of topics, expand their learning and allow them to make connections. Use both narrative books and informational texts.
- Select books based on age, interests, language and needs of the children. Try to identify books that connect to children’s real environments and lives.
- Share books in a variety of settings, including whole group, small groups and one-on-one.
- Ensure children have access to books. Books should be used and loved. Take books outside with you and have them in different areas of the learning environment for children to practice using as a reference tool.
- Combine hands-on experiences outdoors with the use of books and early writing opportunities to support the expansion of content knowledge, vocabulary and comprehension. Before children have the mechanics to write letters, encourage children to draw ideas, make predictions and create charts with symbols or stickers. You can also allow children to scribble in a journal while dictating their ideas to an adult.
As early literacy educators, we believe that books build brains. Sharing a variety of books not only develops children’s literacy and language development, but also provides opportunities to expand children’s understanding of their world. We invite you to join children as co-explorers in their playful quest to investigate and understand the world. You have the opportunity to foster a culture of curiosity and develop children’s love of learning and nature. Children are whole-body scientists, ready to explore and understand the world with all their senses and we encourage you to use books to go on a journey of discovery together.
About the Authors
Monica Farmer is Impact Director and Tania Hinojosa is Education Director at Make Way for Books, an early literacy nonprofit organization based in Tucson Arizona. The organization’s mission is to provide all children with the opportunity to read and succeed. Visit Make Way for Books at www.makewayforbooks.org
 Jennifer Soalt, “Bringing together fictional and informational texts to improve comprehension.” The Reading Teacher 58 no. 7 (2005): 680-683.
 Ruth Helen Yopp and Hallie Kay Yopp, “Young children's limited and narrow exposure to informational text.” The Reading Teacher 65 no. 7 (2012): 480-490