The ecological gift

Searching for children’s STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) based gifts isn’t hard. A google search will turn up items like building blocks, Lego, electronic/snap circuit sets, robotic kits, electronic toys, K’NEX, telescope, test-tube kits, science in a box kits etc. etc.

While these choices are great, why not instead buy something different – like the younger versions of the toys – tools, I mean tools- that ecologists use?

Despite much searching I couldn’t find any useful lists on the web to refer you to. So I’ve made my own based on my childhood, presents we have been given, suggestions given to me and from the experience of having four children of my own.

This list is sorted from least to more expensive; these gifts will keep on giving and fuel the ecologist in any child.

A whistle

whistleA sports whistle is great and the shriller the better. Why? We let our kids roam up the back yard – our immediate backyard is 8 acres of eucalypt woodland and beyond that it’s hectares of the same but with gullies and hills. The kids each have a whistle, or pair up with someone who has one, and of they become misplaced, they can blow loud and long.

20160710_140809Torch/headlight (and batteries!)

My This can be a simple $5-$10 cost that is worth gold when you go spotlighting at night with the kids. Every man, woman and child should have one. After all, the children had a torch in Narnia… enough said.

A journal

This doesn’t have to be a fancy pancy book with lock and colour photos and prompt pages. A simple lined book will do or one with blank pages, or a combination of both. It depends on the child as to how much prompting they will need to write or draw on the page. Remember, it can be anything they want it to be. My 4-year-old drew a fish, seahorse, butterfly and clouds. What a lovely ecosystem.


Sketchbook/colouring book and pencils

I remember walking over the school crossing to near the tennis courts and sitting down to sketch a large Eucalyptus tree. My first tree drawing; I was in primary school. I still have my sketch books from third year zoology, full of skulls and sketches. A sketchbook is a simple gift that will become a keepsake.  With the colouring craze has arrived ecological based books for the young and old (or young at heart). Paperbarkwriter has this gem Not only do you get to bring your image to life with colour but you learn all about the Bimblebox Nature Refuge whilst you are doing it.Be sure to check out Paperbarkwriters other gifts while you are there.

Dantoy bucket and spade

Dantoy Bucket

Bucket and spade

Really? Yes, really. A walk along the beach delivers so many different treasures both in kind and in experiences, so a good quality bucket and spade are a must. Invest in a clear bucket if you can, as that allows you to pick up crabs and water and rocks and make mini terrarium, ready to tip back into the sea when you leave.

using a handlens_bioblitz

Here I’m using a 20X handlens to observe a Psuedocrossidium crinitum (a moss). Image copyright: Fiona Walsh ‘Gumboots Photography’

A handlens and/or magnifying glass

I bought my first 10X handlens for $10 and it’s still going strong. A handlens is something for the older child, whereas a magnifying glass suits a younger child. Get a backpack and add a couple of things in it like a journal, pencils, sharpener, waterproof markers, pencil case, magnifying glass/handlens, snaplock bags, tweezers and you have an easy outdoor kit ready to play biodiversity detective.



Animal and plant guide books

There are numerous guide books to choose from: seeds, birds, shells, fungi, mosses, plants, mammals, fish, butterflies, beetles, weeds, etc. With SO many different books on offer there is really no excuse for not having at least one. Yes, there are apps these days, but nothing quite beats having a book to flip through and find the pic of the bird or shell you have found. Speaking of flipping, here in Australia there are quick ‘flips’ such as FungiFlip, TreeFlip and EucaFlip – pocket sized, waterproof fold out guides to native taxa. Also for Australia, pocket sized guide books exist for mosses, birds* (click here for a synopsis), even shells. Steve Parish has a field guide to delight any child. Remember, a book never runs out of batteries.

Nature-History-Books-2-300x152Natural history or local history books

In a little shop along Victoria’s shipwreck coast my parents picked up an historical book, all about the ships that had wrecked along that treacherous Victorian coastline. Stories about places we had visited always fascinated me. The author, Don Charlwood, also wrote one of my favourite Grade 9 novels (All the green year) so his name really stuck. Visit a National Park visitor centre and you will find many books such as this for any age. The Queensland Museum shop and Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne shop stock a number of interesting books and gifts that you can order online, or call or drop into your local museum or botanical gardens, which will have a large variety of books and gifts for all ages (for the older person you can find the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales’ excellent publications at the Australian Museum). Australian Geographic stocks some great magazines that we have given as gift subscriptions to children.

Plant press

I still have my first plant press. It is an Australian Geographic one but you don’t need to buy a pre-made one. All you need is two 20 X 20 cm piceces of wood with holes bored in each corner, four bolts and four wingnuts. Ta da!  Good plants to start with are ferns, grasses, violets and daisies.

An instruction or ‘how to’ book

In our local Scholastic Book catalogue I found a knot tying book that came with a few small ropes and clear instructions. It’s proven to be a fantastic find. You never know, soon your kids will be tying down the trailer load!

A long rope

I was rather amazed when a few years back my then 5-year-old son asked for a rope for Christmas. That rope now travels and when out it is used more than the playground. Find a bridge and you have hours of fun lowering the rope and tying bundles of sticks on the end and pulling each load up. The kids explore using the bridge rails as pulleys, taking turns hoisting the load and varying weights. So much fun!

Invest in a Vest

Nothing is more fun than having somewhere to pocket all your treasures as you walk. A high viz vest is a necessary item for forestry field work and I invested in a good one 16 years ago, imported from Canada, and it’s still going strong. If you search at a fishing store you should find a child size one. Or find a bum/waist bag with multiple pockets and stuff a handlens, tweezers and snaplock bags inside for a handy invertebrate collection kit.

A set of walkie talkies

While young children aged between 3 and 5 yrs can press the buttons and talk, generally walkie talkies are for the older children say aged 6 yrs and over, as only then does the concept of depressing a button to talk into receiver and letting the button go so the message can be received sink in. Split into two bush walking groups, or two bike riding groups and take a walkie talkie each. It’s a fun way to communicate and have fun.

Pocket knife

My first pocket knife was given to me when I was 9. I took it to school and happily sharpened my pencils with it, until my Gr3 teacher thought perhaps it wasn’t the thing one brought to school and perhaps I should take it home! A popular choice, the swiss army knife, is always handy and there are many more like it now on offer, catering to different needs such as fishing, hunting, or general camping use.

Membership to a local zoo or wildlife park

How wrong can you go with this one? Yes, it’s more expensive than the other gifts I’ve listed but this one benefits the whole family time and time again. Melbourne offers some great deals on their three zoos, Melbourne Zoo, Werribee Park Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary – the best being children are FREE (conditions apply). Other smaller zoos like Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary offer annual memberships making it great gift for parents of young families. You can’t see everything in a day at the larger zoo’s and there are always different activities on at different times of the year so you get your monies worth. The BIGGEST plus is your dollars are going towards some much needed conservation work which is always a win in my book.


A variety of dome tents. By Dan Kamminga from Haarlem, Netherlands – Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

A tent

Gone are the huge hunking canvas tents we used to need a trailer to cart, to be replaced by small and snazzy dome tents that are as cheap as chips. I picked up a three-man tent for AU$30 that now serves as a perfect ‘camp in the house’ tent.  We own 6 tents of different shapes and sizes ranging from large family to beach size. Whether you aim to camp in the backyard or the outback, a tent is a perfect and long lasting gift (25 yrs on and I still have and use my first tent!).

A small fish tank

– not for fish (although that is a good idea too) but for displaying all those things they collect at the beach: shells; crabs; seaweed; bones; rocks; sponges. A friend of mine had a large tank and in it she put her beach collections. It’s a great way to display what you have found, be it from the beach, forest, woodland or mountains.


Once a pricey item, a compass now is a reasonable buy. Your budget will dictate what quality you want. I had a Sunto brand (with matching clinometer) but both were damaged and are unrepairable so choose carefully. The good news is it’s a present for life. Whether used on a bushwalk, to plot out a treasure hunt with instructions, or for orienteering, a compass will be worth its weight. Buy one for that wayward teenager to help them find better direction.


Camping inside the house is so much fun!

Sleeping bag and camping mat

We all know a sleeping bag is a must for camping, but even if you don’t go camping everyone knows – when it comes to sleep overs, a sleeping bag is soooo much fun.  Invest in a decent one. We never bothered about getting the shorter children sized ones (and ours were bought for us anyway). We have never had a child disappear inside the extra length of the adult size. But if you are worried, shorter length child sized ones are available and work just as well. There are a variety of camping mats out there from blow up airbeds to self inflating hiking mats. We invested in the hiking variety for their size and weight.


Every child should learn how to use these and the younger the better. Invest in a cheaper set for the younger child and a good set for the family. Combine with a bird guide book and you have the perfect gift that keeps on giving. Best of all it gets the kids and you outside loving nature, together.

A Wildlife motion detecting Camera

NERP_motion camera1

Using motion detector cameras to detect wildlife in Australia’s top end. See

A more pricey present, but you can get a reasonable one at a fairly good price these days. My 7 year old can set up the one my father bought me. The kids love deciding where to put it and eagerly scan the photos guessing the animal. Whilst in Australia you cannot bait and trap the protected native wildlife without a permit, you can easily use a camera without bait and a permit and see what you can get. Stock up on rechargeable batteries and you are set.



A Trangia. By No machine-readable author provided. Argus fin assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0,

Trangia/fuel stove

Something for the older child and even then adult supervision is highly recommended if only at first (a good stove will have recommendations for appropriate age use). It’s a good investment and something they will keep for life. My husband’s Trangia is still going strong. I have an MSR Dragonfly and it’s also still used but is expensive and specialised. Being a more expensive item, buy a fuel stove for yourself or the family, then hand it onto a child when they are ready. Nothing beats the excitement from a child when Mum or Dad recognises that they are ready to be in charge of the camping stove and better still, the realisation that one is ready for the responsibility of handling a treasured item is more than the action of receiving the item itself.


In Australia a ‘swag’ is a term used to describe travelling with your personal belongings in a bundle. Most Aussies associate the term Swag with a waterproof portable bedroll.  Probably not the present for everyone so think before buying this one as they are generally over $130 AU. Keep in mind that the novelty may also wear off and children often like the communal nature of being in a tent. One advantage is that it’s a good wearing, versatile gift that can be resold or passed down.


Whatever you choose from this list, your child, and the child in you, will never regret it.



*  There are a few bird field guides in Australia and the following are a popular choice:
  1. Pizzey and Knight’sA Field Guide to the Birds of Australia 8th edition. Not a field friendly waterproof cover. Descriptive text dictates page length, not how many illustrations can fit. Large maps, and a heavy/large volume so quite big to lug around in the field.
  2. Simpson and Day Field Guide to the Birds of Australia 8th edition. It has a field friendly plastic cover under the dust jacket. This is my favourite – it has good illustrations, decent text, range maps and notes on identification and bird watching, and I find it easy to take in the field.
  3. Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds 2nd edition. Has a field friendly plastic cover. Of the four mentioned, this is the smallest and lightest, is waterproof and the text is good. Maps are not as good as the other three mentioned guides.
  4. Morcombe Field Guide to Australian Birds 1st edition. Not a field friendly waterproof cover. Newer than the three above. Criticised for its weight and illustrations perhaps because they are simple, but identifying features are marked on these illustrations help and descriptions are good.








1 thought on “The ecological gift

  1. Pingback: ‘Tis the season for Christmas blogs: but what about the archives? – Ecology is not a dirty word

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