Image: Hands-On Explorer Challenge

Check out excerpts of the winning entries in the Hands-On Explorer Challenge below. The nine boys and six 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, incorporating water in a creative way. 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. Read excerpts from their essays, and check out the gallery of their winning photos.

Kobie B., 13, New Mexico

Photo: A girl

I live in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and my home is less than a mile away from the magnificent Sandia Mountains. Their name means "watermelon" in Spanish, because when the sun sets, their rounded granite cliffs are cast into a marvelous rosy glow. ... I love to hike up to our favorite camping spot in one of the canyons: a laughing brook surrounded by young oaks and pines, with a perfect clearing just the right size for a tent. ... The majesty of the mountains overwhelms me as I search for caddisfly larvae beneath the pebbles in the stream, and it saddens me to think of all the water going to waste in my city while I splash around to my heart's content.

Kamryn B., 14, California

Photo: A girl

...I set out to find a piece of nature out of its ordinary place. I barely set foot out of my house when there it was; a piece of glittering ocean looking out across the suburbs. what I was actually seeing was a window, artistically crafted with glass shards of greens, browns, and blues. ... Gazing into my little piece of the ocean, I realized something. Sure, water quenches our thirst and is home to many creatures; but it is also all around us in different shapes and forms. Looking for more evidence, I walked along the town searching. Water fell from the sky as raindrops, people's eyes were tinted with the unmistakable color of the sea, and mirrors reflected images like the ocean would catch the light on a sunny day.

Diego G., 9, Virginia

Photo: A boy

When I step onto the trail that borders Rocky Run Stream, the civilized world quickly disappears. ... I think the only one who likes exploring these waters more than I do is my big brown dog, Paisa. He eagerly splashes around, and lets the water come up to his neck. ... Sometimes the stream is calm and peaceful. Other times, after a heavy rain, it seems angry, hurrying on its way downstream like it was late for some important appointment. The stream has its own personality, and I think I've learned to read its moods.

Emmie H., 12, Illinois

Photo: A girl

What excites me is sailing on Lake Michigan. ... When I sail far out, it makes me feel like I can go anywhere—Africa, Asia, or Europe. ... It's really cool to look back and see the shore, as well as to look out and stare at the horizon, wondering what might be out there. Is it really just Michigan, or another world? When we sail, we can sometimes see the bottom and all the minnows and seaweed. I also love seeing the lake in winter, when the shore is covered with snow. It makes me think of places like the mountains of Nepal.

James K., 12, Colorado

Photo: A boy

There is a cliff I explore near my house. The white, dusty rocks are a good place to spot rabbits, lizards, and snakes on a hot day. ... Rain washes dust off the rocks and rehydrates electric green lichen. ... When owls finish digesting a meal, they spit out an owl pellet. The pellets are grey, matted lumps in the water and are easy to pull apart with toothpicks and tweezers. Using the internet and my microscope I've identified skulls and bones from voles, mice, and birds. ... Summer rains bring life to the dry, dusty cliff. My microscope lets me examine this interesting, miniature world up close.

Sha'anan L., 12, California

Photo: A boy

Croak, croak.
The mating song of a frog. I start in pursuit of the call.
Green.
I reach to look under a log. As I see the frog hopping away, I hear the melodious tune of the finches in the old willow tree.
Flutter.
A Scrub Jay lands in a nearby puddle to bathe.
Staring at the shattered puddle, it reminds me of a pond's expanse of glassy surface when interrupted by a sudden gust of wind.
Pond.
The Great Blue Heron flies as I approach; crawdads scuttle back into the water with a flick of their tail. There is a steady ripple on the water as a school of mosquito fish pursue a new direction.

Madeline L., 9, Texas

Photo: A girl

While exploring the Redwoods last summer, my family walked down to the Eel River. We couldn't swim in the river because of blue green algae warnings, so we made water peepers to help us see down further into the water without going all the way in. We saw water insects, fish, and a snake swimming by. We scooped up water into cups to see what living things would be in it and then let the creatures go. Our exploring made me think of how one drop of water could be a whole microscopic world.

Clara M., 13, Wisconsin

Photo: A girl

Everything about nature excites me; being outside helps me focus. ...My favorite thing to do outside is hunt in tide pools on the beach. We go to New Castle beach, NH. We look at crabs and starfish. I've never seen a shark in the wild, but I hope to. Also, we go to Short Sands Beach, Maine. There are huge crabs, but we found the best things in Puget Sound: two king crabs, tons of colorful starfish, and a cool ten-legged orange and gray starfish. Nature is my favorite place to be. Everything about it inspires me, from the Atlantic Ocean to tiny drops of water on a spider web.

Kennan N., 13, Florida

Photo: A boy

I monitor the water level of my pond to discover the effects of heavy rains and drought. This lets me know when I need to water my plants and when there has been sufficient rainfall. I also like to study the water quality in the pond. Unfortunately, people dump waste into the pond, so its water quality is low. This could cause fish and plants to die, as well as poison the eggs of birds and alligators around the pond's bank. I remove debris to ensure that doesn't happen. ... Exploring water has become my passion and one day it will be my career.

Michael P., 14, New York

Photo: A boy

The timid, green, Asian Shore Crab froze when confronted with my towering metallic camera lens. I held my breath and, focusing on the animal in front of me, I clicked, capturing the moment forever. My camera grants me the opportunity to see our world in different ways and capture miniature miracles that I come upon. Photography permits me to discover our planet and myself at the same time. By taking this picture, I can share my excitement for exploration with others.

Zane R., 14, New Hampshire

Photo: A boy

Water. The thought immediately brings to mind a picture of huge waves crashing over each other in a desperate attempt to reach as far up the shore as possible. Hard packed sand stretching up to the breakwater wall with the ever-present seagulls and sand pipers dotted here and there along the beach. And, to complete the picture, all the way to the right, just before the sand gives way to rocky cliffs, are piles of large, sharp barnacle encrusted rocks that catch the water like a basin as the tide is going out.

Brody S., 11, Montana

Photo: A boy

This was my first visit to Bighorn Canyon Lake. I couldn't wait! However, I started to really worry about seeing much wildlife on this trip since we had been driving through complete red rocky desert for over an hour. Everything seemed to be dead. Nothing was moving, not even air. Last turn and what a big difference! Sparkling blue water, green shores and small islands, made my heart beat faster in anticipation of new explorations.

Michaela S., 14, Virginia

Photo: A girl

Photography isn't easy, but I love it. As I investigate the world, I have discovered just how much life water supports. Images involving water have become some of my favorite things to capture. ... One skill that's proved helpful is slowing the shutter speed for water pictures to create a soft effect. ... I like to experiment with different shots, such as changing the angle. ... Photography has inspired me to get out of the house and explore the world.

Jonathan S., 13, Massachusetts

Photo: A boy

Making my descent, I can't help feeling claustrophobic and anxious. I've waited for this moment forever and now I'm so nervous. Since my twelfth birthday, I've read, studied and prepared. Full of knowledge, with a scuba license and lots of gear weighing me down, I sink into the warm Caribbean Ocean—a place I've only imagine about visiting. ... There are various species of fish all around me... At first I feel like an outsider in their world but then they get used to me and realize I won't harm them. ... As I ascend towards the sun's rays above, I take a picture of a school of fish passing by as a reminder of my visit.

Harrison T., 14, Alabama

Photo: A boy

Most people in my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama like to spend their recreation time on Mobile Bay. But far more interesting to me is a place further inland, created by rain, in one of Fairhope's natural gullies. ... I love exploring the vast system of gullies, which seem to be growing "underground" due to the extremely thick canopy of pine trees and kudzu growing overhead. It's amazing to think that the same raindrops that carve out my favorite place to explore, trickle down to Mobile Bay, then out to ultimately benefit the Gulf of Mexico.

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