Why a Nature Cabinet?
If you spend any time in nature with your children, you will know what it’s like to have them come home with pockets and hands full of treasures. So, what do you do with all those rocks and sticks and shells? Perhaps your child has a little tin or box where they keep their favorites, or maybe these things end up on your kitchen counter only to be forgotten about a day later. The good news is: if you make time in nature a priority, you likely already have a collection going … AND, it really is not to difficult or costly to work on curating a simple Nature Cabinet in your own home.
A curated Nature Cabinet is a nice way to organize and display your own family’s personalized collection of nature treasures and curiosities. The idea is that this cabinet and collection fits with your specific family and space, and is organized in a way that appeals to you. It’s your very own mini museum! There are many ways to go about creating such a space in your home, and I’m here to share ours as just one example. There are no specific requirements on the size of the collection or what you keep in it. Think about what makes sense to you.
Let’s discuss how exactly to go about collecting and curating your family’s nature cabinet…
Know What Is Legal
Protected properties have specific rules on taking from the land. Most collecting and foraging is illegal on federal or state owned lands. That said, I’m not going to pretend like I’ve never walked out of a protected area with a few rocks. Generally speaking, we have collected most of our items from private property. Even then, there are laws in place. It would be helpful to read up on the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and similar regulations. You may have localized rules to follow that people in other areas do not. It’s worth a little reading up because these rules are in place for a reason.
I know there is debate on this idea when it comes to parenting — letting kids be kids versus raising responsible citizens. Personally I do not feel the two are in opposition. For me it is generally important that I communicate in advance to my kids what the rules are of a specific place we are in and they can follow my lead. If they see me hunting for fossils to take home, they know it’s fine. If I say in advance: this is a special area and we will not be picking flowers or collecting anything of any kind, then we might take extra care to take photos along the way of things we find that are special and we keep those in our memories.
I do take time to explain to my kids WHY we don’t just pick whatever flower we want and why protected areas have the rules they have. This happened recently when we were in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and spotted a morel mushroom. My kids were so trained to absolutely freak out with excitement and pick a morel should we spot one on our property, that it took a nice teaching moment to say, “We aren’t going to pick that one. It’s for everyone.” Obviously I’m not collecting a morel mushroom to put in my nature cabinet, but you get the point!
I don’t want the idea of a building a nature collection to seem like I am in support of a free-for-all where we just take and grab whatever we want. With that in mind, I’ll introduce my second point…
In her incredible book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer presents the following ideas behind an “honorable harvest,” which is intended for harvesting plants or nature’s bounty to use for food, shelter, home remedies, etc. but I think these concepts also still apply to collecting nature items for an at-home nature cabinet:
- Ask permission of the ones whose lives you seek. Abide by the answer.
- Never take the first. Never take the last.
- Harvest in a way that minimizes harm.
- Take only what you need and leave some for others.
- Use everything that you take.
- Take only that which is given to you.
- Share it, as the Earth has shared with you.
- Be grateful.
- Reciprocate the gift.
- Sustain the ones who sustain you, and the Earth will last forever.
I also live with a Leave No Trace educator so generally we follow those principles. There are great educational materials for kids on that site if you are interested.
Be Safe, Sanitize, Debug
WARNING: Skip this section if you’re squeamish.
Okay, so let’s talk about the nitty-gritty of bring nature INDOORS.
There’s nothing charming about bringing indoors a collection of pine cones and acorns only to find they’ve been run over by spiders and maggots in a day or two. Someone once mailed us some large acorns from their yard in a zip-loc bag and it was full of maggots by the time it reached us!
If you are wanting to keep small nature items like acorns or pinecones regularly indoors for play, math manipulatives, or crafts/decorations, then make sure you take the necessary steps to debug them. But also remember the honorable harvest. The spiders in those pine cones have a right to live too. I often will give items like that a week or so “buffer” time in my screened-in porch or let them sit in the sun for awhile. Then, depending on the material and its purpose, I might put them in my oven at its lowest temp for an hour or so (cover your cookie sheets with foil!). For pine cones, this also helps solidify the sap so you don’t have that stickiness to deal with anymore.
The oven also works to sanitize things from animals that might carry diseases like birds nests or turtle shells. Cover a cookie sheet with foil, then place items in the 325 degree oven for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.
Hand sanitizer is a helpful thing to bring on hikes in case you or your kids end up handling a nature item that might carry some bad germs. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that it is safe to handle feathers, as long as you are not in an area where there have been cases of the avian flu virus. That said, it’s really always a good idea to wash hands with soap and water after being out in nature.
For collecting bones, I generally do not let my young kids touch those things while out on the trail. If you are really prepared and have gloves and/or tweezers, then that’s an option for safe handling. Once we have collected bones home we figure out various ways to sanitize them. How we sanitize and clean bones depends on the state of the specimen. We had found a Heron skull that needed quite a bit of work, so we put it in our compost bin for awhile and let the beetles do their work. Then, we boiled the skull in a pot of water over an outdoor fire (don’t bring that stink indoors!), then I put some gloves on to de-meat the bones by hand. Yes, by hand. Then I did a rotation of (1) a overnight soak of dish soap + peroxide plus a gentle scrub, then (2) some time in the sun. Finally, I gave it about an hour bake in the oven at a low temp. This ensured it was clean and free of germs, plus there was nothing left on it that would invite anything else to grow on it.
I know that seems like a lot of work and it’s honestly not pretty. If you are interested in having some animal skulls or bones in your collection but don’t want to go through that process you can always find sellers (who have proper licenses!!) that sell that sort of thing and they have done all the dirty work for you! We actually bought a beaver skull from someone on Etsy because I really wanted one in our collection and after years of searching never found one. Beavers hold a special place in our hearts and the skull is a treasured nature curiosity in our collection even though we did not specifically find it.
Preserve Items in Resin
Preserving items in resin works well for live insects but there are lots of options. Here are the supplies I use:
I recommend reading all of the instructions of whatever resin kit you purchase and follow it. There are lots of safety precautions to take and it is important to follow them. I would not consider this a kid-friendly project.
Curate What Actually Enters Your Home
Nature items like rocks and shells don’t generally need extra effort to clean, but maybe you need to manage the AMOUNT of these things coming into your house. One of my kids in particular seems to have no limit to the amount of little rocks she likes to bring home.
My kids each have their own nature treasure box to manage. If they run out of room then they need to make decisions on what to get rid of. I also tend to use our screened in porch as a buffer zone for nature collections. The kids are often convinced that the stick or rock they found is the best thing EVER. But let it sit for a few days on the porch and they usually forget about it. The real treasures are usually the ones that are tied to specific memories.
I also limit my kids’ take-home selections in person because obviously I don’t want a ton of random rocks on my porch that I have to then turn around and get rid of! I might say “pick one of your favorites” or ask them if they would like to take photos of the items they really love that way we can leave the item but not feel like we need to bring it all home.
Choose Which Items Are Hands-Off
I imagine in every nature collection there are some pretty special items that you have discovered along the way. It is always good to be clear about what is off-limits in terms of handling by the kids on their own, that way they are clear about what they can just explore as they wish. Obviously if you have toddlers and younger children, you are going to have to set up some actual physical limitations with your collection.
My main goal for our nature collection, now that my kids are old enough to be careful, is that they feel freedom to explore the items as they wish. That said, I do still communicate which items I would like them to be extra careful with.
It is also okay to put things up high or displayed on the wall where they can’t reach it!
Create an Inviting and Beautiful Display
I specifically use the words “inviting” and “beautiful” because building a nature collection at home does not have to be a specific size or type or look like someone else’s. Decide what looks beautiful to you and what makes sense both for your space and family culture. I chose to go with a larger sideboard for our cabinet because I feel like this is a core part of our family culture and wanted to celebrate it as much as possible. We needed lots of space, but your nature collection need not be this sizeable!
The nature cabinet display should be inviting–meaning, that the kids are interested and want to explore the items. This is special and valuable, but it’s a hands-on kind of museum where we are including the children. I like to always have a magnifying glass available. If you have a microscope or field guides it might be nice to keep those things nearby. Again, do what makes sense to you. I know many people like putting up nature identification posters or prints alongside their nature cabinet. You might even include your own nature photography or illustrations your children create to make it special.
Also, when I say “beautiful” I mean beautiful to you. Do not get hung up on all the items needing to be a certain aesthetic or style, though! Budgets matter. Plastic bins work just fine! Not everything needs to be vintage or wood or even look like a museum.
Your nature display might also have a bookshelf nearby. I do think having nature field guides nearby or storage in the cabinet is a great way to invite exploration, but even some kid-friendly nature nonfiction books work. You can view a lot of my favorite nature-based children’s books here.
You might also try rotating items regularly and changing the theme based on seasons or what is happening in the natural world around you. Or, maybe the theme could fit your child’s particular interests! There are lots of possibilities.
Try to Stay Organized
One main goal I have is to make sure the collection is not out of control. Here are a couple of storage solution ideas I have come up with:
- ANYTHING works in terms of actual display and storage! Thrift shops are a great place to start. You do not need to spend a lot of money. Hunt for baskets or small wood bins in a variety of sizes. Try to even look around your house and make do with what you already have.
- Divided trays or divided storage boxes work well for children’s personal collections or for separating similar items in a themed collection. This wood tray pictured below is actually a utensil divider that came with a cutlery set we got as a wedding gift.
- Jars in a variety of sizes work well as “vases” for taller items like feathers or interesting sticks or dried plants. Glass jars also make a nice way to store small items but you can also see and appreciate them. You can use simple Ball jars found everywhere, hunt in thrift shops, or sometimes there are interesting shaped ones at places like the Target Dollar Spot. We found some mini glass jars with wood lids that way. I also use small vials with cork lids for collecting sand or dirt or making a little apothecary set of dried flowers/plants.
- Vintage printer’s trays are also great for a unique wall display. These can be hard to find, though, so please don’t get too hung up on having something like this immediately! If you really want one, be patient and search online and in nearby antique shops.
- Have fun with a simple label maker! I personally don’t feel I need to have absolutely everything catalogued and labeled but there are times when it’s both helpful and fun.
For more longer-term storage, I keep items separate in zip-loc bags and in a plastic storage bin. Sometimes we use items like acorns for crafts so I might have a bag of excess in a separate bin like that.
Having a separate bin helps me rotate some display items as well, just to change it up occasionally.
I also wanted to share this separate coffee table we have that was made from a printer’s tray (the same display I have hung on the wall above our cabinet). This coffee table was a lovely heirloom from my grandparents but I know there are lots of you with skilled woodworker family members and friends that could totally make something like this! It has a glass on top you can simply slide off to add items. My grandparents had every rock neatly labeled when they had it, but I’m not that detailed.
A Video Tour of our Nature Cabinet
Below is a video tour of the nature cabinet the kids and I put together in our home. Enjoy!
For Additional Exploration
Thank you for reading. I hope you have fun in your nature-collecting endeavors! And, feel free to ask my any questions below.
If you are a homeschooler interested in adding nature studies to your learning, I recommend any of the following resources:
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