2009 Hands-On Explorer Challenge

Check out excerpts of the winning entries in the Hands-On Explorer Challenge and photographs of the winners and winning teachers below. The six boys and nine girls were chosen from thousands of entries nationwide. Kids were asked to write an original essay of no more than 300 words telling National Geographic Kids magazine how they actively explore their world and the most interesting things they found in it. They were also asked to submit a photograph to illustrate their essay. A panel of National Geographic experts selected 15 kids whose essays and photographs expressed the most interest in and passion for exploring, while adhering to the judging criteria.

Lucy A., Massachusetts

Photo: A girl wearing a hat

My woods appear to be such a simple thing on a summer day at first look. But there is so much more…. Chickadees play tag across the sky, and red tailed squirrels chase each other through the brush. … Birches have always been my favorite. The almost soft white bark is smooth, but rough, strong, but elegant. They let the jays and cardinals make their homes upon their leafy arms….


Laura Beth A., South Dakota

Photo: A girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt

During the summer, Falls Park is a busy place. ... The observation decks are so crowded with tourists that a moment of peace in this should-be-peaceful place is impossible. No, the time to explore Falls Park is during the winter. … Picking up my camera, I aim it at the wonder that has left me breathless. I see shapes under the ice, shapes only my imagination can reveal. Mother Nature has made a sculpture just for me. I snap the photo and lower my camera, momentarily paralyzed by the sight: the main tourist attraction of my town, frosted in diamonds.


Ian B., Washington

Photo: A boy wearing glasses

… Because of all the snow, we went snowshoeing on Fish Lake Trail where we also ride our mountain bikes. … About a mile into the trek we recognized a cave we passed many times on our bikes, but in the snow it stuck out. We decided to climb up and explore. We dug in the cave for an hour with our hands and sharp shards of basalt and discovered layers of flaky rock. Between the layers we found what we believe to be fossils of leaves and seeds. … I think you can find adventure pretty much anywhere if you look hard enough. We passed that cave many times before but never stopped to explore it. I am glad we did this time.


Rebecca B., Pennsylvania

Photo: A girl standing against a white wall

… If we knew more about other ethnic groups, maybe we could understand each other better, learning that we have things in common. … When I explore a culture's food, I'm learning about that ethnic group's way of life, rich history, and customs. … This summer, I explored more by planting edamame, soybeans from East Asia, in our garden. … Isn't it exciting that the food we eat today that is part of our culture like bananas, rice pudding, and pasta have a history that our country shares with other nations near and far?


Rachel D., Arizona

Photo: A girl outside

… Giant boulders and 70-foot cliffs surrounded me with splotches of green brush and cacti. There was a little lizard on the rock that scrambled from place to place, going down headfirst as I progressed up. I wonder if he knew that I was trying to climb the same thing he was, but wasn't nearly as skilled or equipped. In times like that, you start to get frustrated. But then if you look out at the calming beauty of the earth, you start to relax and feel good. When I am in places like those, I always seem to focus more on the scenery than the rock—which is why I enjoy rock climbing so much.


Lijah H., Georgia

Photo: A boy sitting in the grass

The field sits only steps out my back door, yet miles away in my imagination, a new exploration awaits every day. The heavenly grass becomes my African Safari, my little brother's battlefield, my dog's freedom, my freedom. It is my thinking place. … I spot the coyote that silently shadows my cat. I enjoy running through the golden grass letting go of reality to explore nature's wonders. I often sit quietly and patiently for another adventure to stroll by. … I have found so many wonders in this field, but soon it will be gone, and cement foundations will take its place.


Wyatt J., Colorado

Photo: A boy wearing glasses

… I said "Mom stop the car!" When I jumped out, the buck looked at me as if judging whether I was friend or foe. Then as quick as lightning, the herd bolted. The prairie silence was broken by the sound of hoofs. Three does split off and dashed across the road. … I yearn to see more than the short-grass prairie, where I live. It is a wonderful place but I want to see more of the world. I've discovered the total awesomeness of nature and wildlife and it's inspired me to become a biologist.


Nellie K., Kansas

Photo: A girl standing against a brick wall

Things in nature are like gems. They're truly beautiful. Being a hands-on explorer means you get to find those gems, document them, and share them with others. You get to feel things and see things in a different way. Finding these gems is like a present on Christmas morning. When I'm behind the lens, I have so much fun! … I found this grasshopper and crouched down to get a shot or two. It let me stay there for at least five minutes and the longer I stayed, the more vivid the detail in its face became. … My little lime green friend that I met that day imprinted on my mind and made me really think about the treasures in nature and how they are everywhere in all shapes and sizes.


Grace K., Colorado

Photo: A girl in front of bricks

Winter in Colorado is unique. One day it is a snowy wonderland and the next day sunny and warm. When days like this happen I get a camera, my Wildlife Identification Pocket Guide and head outside to find animal tracks in the snow. … Tracks in the snow have taught me that several kinds of birds stay near the scrub oak trees. Rabbits stick near our empty pond. The deer and coyote have no fear. They walk across our property in a straight line. … I live in a big neighborhood and rarely see wildlife. However, when I spot animal tracks after a snowstorm, it proves there is an entire ecosystem alive and well around me.


Peter M., Maryland

Photo: A boy standing against a white wall

… Recently one of our trees fell in a storm. As I investigated the fallen debris, I found a frail bowl of twigs and grass. Nestled inside was an egg and two live baby robins. … I couldn't imagine the helpless creatures outside the safety of a tree. So I delicately picked up the nest and placed it in an adjacent tree. … After securing the nest in every way, I left the tree hoping the parents would find it, and praying the nest wouldn't fall. Two days later I found an adult robin in the nest nurturing the chicks. … This experience overwhelmed me with the feeling that I made a difference and inspired me to find more significant ways to assist animals.


Elliot S., California

Photo: A boy with curly hair

… The high walls of the canyon tower around me and before me is a mossy waterfall. Iridescent hummingbirds drink from the trickling falls and swoop overhead. … On this day in the canyon, my mother and I have an extraordinary experience. While sitting by the creek, we notice a yellow-belly racer come out of a hole. A nearby sound makes us look up and we see two racers together in a tree and three more below. … The photo here is of the first snake we saw. It is my favorite shot in the series because of the snake's alertness as it searches the air with its tongue for scents. Whenever I see it, I remember this amazing day.


Dewey S., Maine

Photo: A boy wearing a windbreaker

… Pembroke is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and has large beaches covered with rocks made from shale. The ocean is about 100 yards from my house and I explore it often! … I found 490 million year old fossils. I was overjoyed by the discovery because I had never seen fossils before. The fossils I had discovered were marine snails and bivalve shells. It was awesome to see their imprints in the shale. The shells were arranged in different ways. Some were upside down (I call these “impression shells”), and some were right side up (these I call “pop outs”).


Grace T., Pennsylvania

Photo: A girl in front of water

… Near my home is a lake that spills out into a stream. … where I have had many inspiring experiences. The ice divides two worlds, the surface is barren, frozen and seemingly lifeless, but underneath it is teeming with microscopic organisms, algae and non-vascular plants. The landscape reminds me of how the simplest things in nature can also be the most beautiful—all that is needed is to look beneath. I have seen ice columns and stalactites separate the sun's light into a rainbow of colors, and I have walked through waist-high ferns, looking at the green canopy above me, trying to soak it all in.


McKenna T., Tennessee

Photo: A girl standing in front of trees

I explore this great, big, beautiful world through sound. I have discovered that Earth, like humanity, has a voice. … When I am outdoors, I close my eyes tight and open my heart to the sounds and soul of Mother Nature. … Do you hear the musical notes—the beautiful and earthy ballad—Mother Nature’s voice? It is the splendor sound of nature, alluring and free. Earth’s voice and call to me is how I explore my world and how I explore and discover more about myself. For like nature, I have a voice.


Cady V., Virginia

Photo: A girl wearing glasses

A burst of crimson shoots into the sky as a cardinal bursts into flight. Not long afterwards, a trio of chickadees explodes into chirps of joy and happiness. The soft hum of a downy woodpecker hammering an oak tree can be heard. I have discovered all these sights and sounds in the exploration of my own backyard. I have identified twenty-three birds in our yard, including mourning doves, hummingbirds, and woodpeckers. … I share my love of birds through art and photography. Last year, I illustrated a field guide with all of the birds I had seen in my yard and shared it with my class.


The Teachers

 Sharon Andrews

Photo: A woman standing in front of trees

Carissa Lloyd

Photo: A blonde woman