“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” I’m not sure whether it’s the cozy, colorful beauty of autumn or the knowledge that winter’s cold will be blowing in soon, but I could happily spend the whole month of October outside.
Fall hides little surprises at every turn – from the corners of the backyard to the pond & park at the end of the street, or the marshy woods around the block. Inspired by the fun we’ve been having investigating the neighborhood, we decided to make this marvelous nature explorer’s trunk for outdoor escapades!
Indiana Jones meets Rachel Carson in our special little explorer’s kit. Open the lid to reveal a neatly-packed collection of nature observation tools – stowed securely for organization and safe travel! Like a minified pop-up science lab, this kit opens and stands on its own to create an on-the-go nook for nature investigation.
Whether your little outdoor-lover is more adventurer or naturalist, this cardboard case opens the door to imaginative STEAM-based learning & research.
And here’s my favorite part…look closely, and you’ll see we managed to make the whole thing out of common household supplies and some cleverly recycled items from the trash bin. From start to finish this project is an adventure in sustainable learning.
Per the usual, I became slightly obsessed with making our trunk look like a proper mini replica of the real thing. As you can imagine, it turned into a bit more than your average 5-minute DIY. If you love the idea of this but don’t want to put in tons of time, don’t let my full process scare you away. There are so many ways to simplify the project, and you can take so many of these ideas and create a variation on ours.
For your own shoebox nature explorer kit you’ll need:
Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains a few Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*
NATURE KIT ACCESSORIES:
DIY Upcycled Shoebox Nature Explorer Kit Instructions:
- Prepare your trunk’s main cardboard pieces
Use a shoebox and two pieces of scrap cardboard for the base of your explorer trunk. Measure the inside of your shoebox, subtract a half-inch from all sides, then cut 2 pieces of scrap cardboard to those dimesions.
Cut one long side of your shoebox lid at the top & bottom to create a flap (as shown at middle). This will create the “hinge” for your trunk lid.
- Cover your shoebox with brown paper
Cover your shoebox with a brown paper bag or brown butcher paper (like you’re wrapping a school book!)
I wanted our explorer trunk to look like aged, worn leather, so I folded and crumpled up the grocery bag we used. When covering your box, use the glue gun liberally on all the flat sides and along the edges – this will hold the paper flat to your box.
- Optional: Cover your inner cardboard pieces with paper
Cover your cardboard squares with colorful paper.
This isn’t a necessary step, but it adds a bit of bright color and makes your trunk look a bit more finished.
- Prep your inner cardboard pieces for rubber band holders
Determine the placement of your nature explorer supplies. What would you like to hold in your explorer’s trunk? On your inner cardboard pieces, make small dots with a black pencil or marker where each of your rubber band holders will be.
Use the point of scissors or a large blunt needle to poke holes for each rubber band holder.
- Secure your elastic holders
Cut each of your rubber hands so they make long elastic lines. Thread your cut rubber bands through a wide-eyed needle, then push the needle through the holes you made for each rubber band holder.
Secure the rubber bands to the cardboard with small knots at the back – leaving enough slack at the front that you’ll be able to slip your supplies in the elastic holders.
- Glue the inner cardboard pieces into the shoebox
Put your supplies in the elastic holders to make sure they fit the way you’re expecting.
Once you’re happy with your setup, use a hot glue gun to attach the large cardboard squares to the inside of your shoebox as shown. Center on the top lid, and on the bottom of your shoebox (this will allow you to close your box completely, without extra cardboard getting in the way).
- Add a simple handle to your explorer’s trunk
Use braided leather cording, rope, or similar to create a simple handle. We make two holes on the side of our box, then threaded leather cording through the first hole.
Make a knot on the inside, braid, then push through the other hole and knot to finish.
- Decorate your explorer trunk!
Every explorer trunk needs some interesting explorer flair, right?! We used our nature explorer trunk sticker set, leather cording, and paper trunk corners.
Our nature explorer trunk sticker set includes full-color and outline-only templates for the trunk corners. Cut out, wrap around the corners (folding over at the edges as you would when wrapping a gift). Secure with hot glue.
Note: we glued our stickers onto the trunk for extra durability.
- Optional: Finish by adding a wrap-around belt for travel
Recycle an old belt and wrap it around your explorer trunk for safe-carrying. In addition to making your trunk look authentic, the belt will hold the trunk closed when headed out on nature excursions.
With a pointed-end, sharp pair of scissors we had no trouble poking a hole through the belt where needed and cutting off the edge. As always, use exercise great caution if cutting with extra-sharp tools.
- Pack your case and head outside!
Nature adventure awaits! The beauty of this flexible trunk is that you can change up the supplies you take every time you use it. What will you need for your first adventure?
Note: I avoided putting breakable glass tools in our trunk, opting instead for plastic versions that will withstand some rough & tumble outdoor play. There’s nothing worse than opening a box and finding broken glass!
To be honest, I can’t even BELEIVE how cute our trunk turned out in the end. It was one of those rare projects that came out exactly as I had pictured it and it has been the most fun accessory for afternoon excursions. After many trips around the backyard, our trunk and elastic holders have held up to heavy use well!
STEAM-based nature lessons to use with your nature explorer’s kit:
- LEAF-THEMED: Download our free printable leaf activity kit and use it in tandem with this wonderful leaf-rubbings lesson from Our Family Code. Learn about leaf color with Steam Powered Family’s fall color leaf lab or go for a nature-math mash-up with one of these hole-punched leaf activities from Chalk Academy
- TREE-THEMED: Recreate this easy tree rings science project from Edventures with Kids. Science Sparks has a wonderful collection of Autumn STEM challenges that includes a super cool trick for determining the size of a tree! Do you have a fruit tree? Collect a few pieces and use this fruit exploration series from Crafty Moms Share to learn a little of the science behind what we eat.
- FLOWER-THEMED: Take your explorer kit out to the garden for some flower sorting science (from Chalk Academy). Before you head in, toss a few cuttings into a collection jar for a frozen flower sensory experiment (from Mombrite).
- WATER-THEMED: Collect local pond, lake, river, or ocean water and create a tabletop aquatic ecosystem with a tutorial from Instructables. As a cool example of how to do this easily and ethically visit this mesmerizing video series from Atomic Shrimp.
- INSECT-THEMED: Hoping to use your explorers kit for bug observation? Check out these wonderful insect investigation tips for kids from the California Academy of Sciences first (safe and ethical!). The American Bee Federation has a great collection of kid-specific resources for pollinator learning. Or for little ones who prefer their bugs stinger-free, combine observation with one of these butterfly STEAM activities from Team Cartwright.
- ROCK-THEMED: Try one of these cool rock science experiments from Edventures with Kids.
Another benefit of this little trunk is that it can hold just about anything – let your imagination run wild with variations on the trunk theme and other ways to play with this cool case…
More ways to play with Your DIY shoebox explorer trunk
- Poke holes in the tops of your recycled containers and fill your trunk with bug hotel-making supplies for an insect-themed kit.
- Turn this into an art-on-the-go box by swapping your nature-collecting containers and test tubes for art materials.
- Create an opportunity for dramatic play by creating a box fit for a doctor or veterinarian. You can wrap your shoebox with white butcher paper and add a medical symbol instead of stickers.
- Trade exploration supplies for detective accessories or magic tricks!
Looking for a mini activity book like ours that you can pack into your trunk? Good news – that’s part of our Nature Explorer Printable Pack! Filled with pages of outdoor observation and exploration prompts, it’s perfect for hours of self-led nature learning and play. Or toss a good read into your kit with one of our favorite nature-themed picture books.
For another way to enjoy collected nature with your littles, try making an incredibly simple (but stunning!) gradient leaf banner. Or try a very unique art-making process with our photocopied fall leaf collages using a totally unique and unexpected process.
Have more shoeboxes? Try another STEAM-powered shoebox upcycle with our MCM-inspired shoebox house tutorial – young designers and future architects will love this one!
*A note about Amazon affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Amazon. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click-through to make a purchase, we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!