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Plant Identification with Kids

A child closely studies a plant with a magnifying glass

Kids tend to be curious and ask questions about the world around them. Spending time outside in natural spaces is a great way to help youth hone that curiosity and gain the skills they need to ask good questions, explore safely, and learn how to find answer for themselves. One way to encourage youth to explore nature is to start teaching them about plant identification. While learning how to identify plants might feel overwhelming at first, it can be fun and help kids stay safe outdoors if you start with age-appropriate skills.

A group of children stand surrounded by trees

Although kids can observe and identify plants all year, spring is a fun season to dive into learning more about plants as vegetation explodes in warmer temperatures. The abundance of flowers in spring and summer also helps kids differentiate species amongst a sea of green foliage. Younger kids can start with the basics of identifying trees, flowers, bushes, and other groupings of plants as well as parts of a plant like roots, leaves, stems, and petals. Older kids might be ready for more specifics like learning to identify trees by their different parts such as twig arrangements, leaves, or seeds. For kids of all ages, learning more about plant identification builds an ability to pay attention to detail and notice patterns, which are skills that are essential to all different kinds of learning.

A girl points while being held by an adult

Starting with plants that might cause harm such as poison ivy, stinging nettle, poison oak, or cacti can be a good place to start. Kids should learn to recognize plants that will hurt them so they can avoid them and warn their friends about the dangers. It’s also good for kids to learn about why plants might hurt them and the wide range of strategies plants use to survive in their native environments. On the flip side, it can also be fun to show kids plants that they can eat, turn into tea, or use to help them feel better. It’s healthy for youth to learn about ways that plants can both help and harm them.

A child examines orange flowers

There are also lots of apps out there to support kids as they learn about plant identification. At the most basic, Google lens or Apple camera apps will identify species when you snap a picture. While those identifications are not always the most accurate, they don’t usually require you to download anything new and are compatible with most phones or tablets. There are lots of other apps, however, that are specifically designed for nature observation. These include iNaturalist, PlantSnap, NatureID, and many others. Whether you use field guides or choose to integrate technology into the process, external information sources can help kids expand their plant vocabulary and challenge themselves to go through the full identification process more independently from adults. The identifications youth make using apps can also feed into citizen science databases and help scientists track different plant species across the country.

Three children lay on the grass drawing

As the young people you work with or care for start to build their plant identification skills and knowledge, it can be fun to keep adding challenges. Kids can map the plants in their backyard, along their block, or in a local park. They can even collect fallen parts of a plant like leaves or seed pods to tape directly onto the maps they draw. It’s also fun to revisit the same locations at different times of the year to see how plants change over time and which kinds of plants are thriving in different conditions. However you choose to engage youth in plant identification, don’t let it intimidate you. Start simple and use tools like apps and photo field guides to help you. Before long, you and the kids around you will be noticing familiar plants everywhere you go. Familiarity with local plants can build a sense of belonging within the local ecosystem and promote a sense of agency and accomplishment as you and the kids build new skills.