Image: Hands-On Explorer Challenge

Check out excerpts of the winning entries in the Hands-On Explorer Challenge 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. 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.

Mariah A., 12, Texas
Photo: Mariah A

Feeding our chickens worms, cooked oatmeal, and wheat grass seeds make them very happy. I have discovered that the happier they are the more eggs they lay. ... Gathering the eggs from the chickens is an adventure in itself. I discovered it's easier if you pet them first before slowly reaching under their soft feathers to get their eggs.

Arabella C., 12, Maryland
Photo: Arabella C

Piaffes, snaffle bits, overs, and eventing. Foreign words to most, but not to me. My name is Arabella and I'm a horseback rider. The way I explore and get away from the world is different than the rest. Most people picture rock climbing or perhaps hiking as exploring. I do coross country and trail riding. My car is my favorite pony, Angel. Every chance I get, I hop on her and head for the fields. With my binoculars in one hand and reins in the other, we look for creatures.

Amelia D., 10, New York
Photo: Amelia D

No one can own the mountains, but they are part of me. My dad carried me until I was strong enough to climb on my own. I climbed a little mountain called Belfry when I was three years old. … Climbing mountains is a great way to learn about nature and about yourself. It takes a lot of energy and determination.

Ellie D., 14, Massachusetts
Photo: Ellie D

Where some may simply see a meadow, I see an ecosystem, filled with the sweet chirr of crickets and waves of whispering grass and wildflowers. Upon closer inspection, I find a tiny katydid, perfectly disguised within its environment. Each time I venture to a destination, I am rewarded with discovering the secrets awaiting me.

Jordan D., 12, New York
Photo: Jordan D

I love to explore nature with my dog, Tiki. With his amazing sense of smell, he can detect things that a human can't. When he is on a walk, he will randomly run over to the woods and start sniffing around like crazy. He can also smell different animals from either where they were, or their droppings. He can tell where they go and can even follow the scent of a squirrel up a tree.

Lena H., 14, North Carolina
Photo: Lena H

I practically lived within the woods. I loved exploring, the rush of discovering new creatures, even tiny bugs. I remember seeing a black water snake gliding in the pool that the waterfall flowed into. While my sister shrieked and ran, I laughed in excitement, and had to be pulled away. I loved the heightened sense of awareness about everything around you that came with exploration I admired the hollow trees, the murals of soil colors.

Edward J., 11, New York
Photo: Edward J

When I go camping in the Adirondacks, I set up a camp next to a lake or stream. I sit by the water and watch the sunset and stars at night. It gives me a special feeling that is hard to explain… At night I look into the water and stare at the reflections of the stars on the water surface, it's just beautiful and wondrous. I feel like I'm on another planet or something.

Jackson J., 9, Tennessee
Photo: Jackson J

I like to use my imagination while exploring to create fun scenarios. Sometimes I like to pretend I am an archaeologist while wading through the creek looking for fossils. Other times I imagine I'm a survivalist who must use the resources around me to find my way home. I never know what adventures await me when I step outside.

Caitlin L., 12, Florida
Photo: Caitlin L

When fossil hunting, I never know what I will find. I might uncover a Megalodon tooth, a Dugong rive, or whale vertebrae. Imagine my excitement when I pulled part of a mammoth jaw out of the Peace River. In exposed hillsides in Tennessee, I found brachiopods and sponge fossils. In Ocala, Florida, I looked down to see the star of an echinoid.

Emily M., 9, Virginia
Photo: Emily M

The thought of picking up a rock or finding a fossil that no one has ever seen before is just a great feeling. It makes me feel special to find something amazing. Who knows, if I keep exploring, learning, and most of all, having fun. I could possibly find a new dinosaur species. I believe if you put your mind to something, work hard, and have fun, you can do anything!

Michael M., 9, Washington

Photo: Michael M

Picking up logs and finding interesting plants and insects under them is fun, but exploring can be more. Climbing towers of rocks and keeping special ones for a collection is great, but exploring is more. Running up and down trails in the forest and seeing deer up close is fun, but exploring is more. Exploring is when you find something new and ask questions about it. From a cool rock to a new plant, exploring inspires me to learn.

Dillian S., 10, California
Photo: Dillian S

We live at about 2,000 ft elevation, and get about three and a half feet of snow in the winter. ... My favorite hobby is to hike. …I bring a backpack, water, food, rope, pocket knife and my walkie-talkie (my parents have the other one). I also include a nature book, so when I am walking I can identify what I see.

Katherine W., 11, Ohio
Photo: Katherine W

Stepping outside, I was greeted by terrifying shrieks. I could almost hear my heart break, when I realized the shrieks were coming from an "injured" female bird. How could I help? Actually, this bird didn't need help. I'd just seen a hero in action. Killdeers are great actresses. They draw attention away from their eggs by pretending thy are injured. Like the killdeer, I stand up for what I believe in, like the time I told some boys to stop throwing mulch at a duck.

Benjamin Z., 11, North Carolina
Photo: Benjamin Z

It was a quiet, peaceful night. I asked my parents if I could go outside to look for animals. They said yes, thinking I wouldn't find anything. I went out, hoping for the best, when something on the edge of the woods caught my eye. I crept slowly and quietly through the grass, so that I didn't scare away my new discovery. Then holding up my camera and switching on my flashlight, I saw something I definitely wasn't expecting--a skunk!

Hannah Z., 14, South Carolina

Photo: Hannah Z

For me, exploration means connecting with nature from different angles. When I explore, I lie under a tree and look up to see the world as a squirrel may, or close my eyes and smell the dirt, flowers, and other wind-carried scents to understand a mole's life. Nothing is too small to explore. I enjoy analyzing leaves of a native oak tree just as much as I enjoy analyzing the oak tree itself; I believe all nature is essential, small and large.

What do you like to explore?