“Man’s heart, away from nature, becomes hard.”–– Luther Standing Bear
Kids can’t help but explore when they’re in natural areas. They climb on fallen logs, leap over tiny streams, and wander through tall grasses. Their imaginations are as activated as their senses. These kinds of experiences open new worlds to them.
In Sharing Nature with Children, Joseph Cornell writes,
It is very helpful—almost essential—for people at first to have startling, captivating experiences in nature. This kind of first contact extinguishes for a moment the self-enclosing preoccupations and worries that keep us from feeling our identity with other expressions of life. From that release into expanded awareness and concern, love naturally follows. And memories of moments of love and expansion act as reminders of, and incentives to, a more sensitive way of living.
Cornell suggests expanding on outdoor experiences. For example, he describes a unique game of hide and seek. Hiders try to blend in with natural objects to “feel that they are a natural part of the objects around them, and the searchers can try to sense a foreign presence among the rocks and leaves.”
Although time spent in unspoiled areas is vitally important, children can experience nature in their own way and on their own terms every day, even in the smallest city apartment, as they pay attention to the weather, observe insects, grow plants from seed, and watch birds. Children can notice seasonal changes around them in the constellations, nearby trees, and the changing patterns of light falling on surrounding buildings. We are not separate from the ecosystems enfolding us. Nature is essential for every child’s emotional, physical, and ethical development. (Please, read more about this in Richard Louv’s excellent book, Last Child in the Woods.)
Here are some ways to let our kids experience the lessons generously available to them in every aspect of nature.
~Go hiking. Before leaving, you might decide what each of you will keep your eyes open to see. Your son might decide to look for things that fly. Your daughter might decide to look for what’s blooming. It’s interesting how much more cued all of you will be to your surroundings when really looking. You might enjoy Take a City Nature Walk or any in the series of Take A Walk books by Jane Kirkland.
~ Appoint a child as the hike navigator when setting off on a nature walk. For safety’s sake note the trail taken and the way back, but encourage your child to pay attention along the way so that he or she can guide your return. If the child is confused, assist by pointing out signs found in nature such as the position of the sun and direction of nearby water flow. Note signpost items like rock outcroppings, elevations, and unusually formed trees.
~ Build specific memories that encourage children to identify with nature. Go back to the same wilderness area year after year to check out a certain stream where you saw a beaver dam. Remember to notice the growth of a sapling in a nearby park as it matures into a young tree. Casually name places something unique to your family, such as “shoe-tying rock” or “Dad’s-go-no-further bend in the trail.” And let your children find their own special places in your backyard, in the park, and in the creek at the end of the street. This way natural areas become touchstones for your child and your family. They remain distinctly in memory even if the places themselves may eventually no longer exist.
~Allow time for solitude in nature. A child’s time alone, even when a parent is within hearing, helps them feel grounded and whole as beings in a world teeming with less meaningful distractions. Given enough time, they will see and hear the natural world with more complexity than they ever could through quick observation.
~Draw attention to the sky. Take time to look up each time you go outdoors. Notice how the sunset and sunrise change on the horizon as the seasons turn. Whenever possible, lie on the ground and look at the sky from that perspective. Some children like to lie still, watching the sky long enough to claim they can feel the earth’s rotation. You might take photos, sending your favorite cloud photos to The Cloud Appreciation Society.
~Play outside after dark. Make a habit of taking a walk at dusk. See who can be first to notice the first faint sliver of a new moon. Point out constellations to one another. Look for shooting stars. Play games perfect for dusk and beyond. Sing lullabies to animals you imagine settling down to sleep in nests and burrows. Or just go out, hold hands, and enjoy the darkness.
~Go on micro level explorations. Closely watch what goes on in a small area of a tide pool. Observe sand, rocks, and water. Look for invertebrates, fish, crustaceans. What actions are they taking? Why? Cover a carton with clear plastic over the bottom in order to see more easily. Or sit on the ground in an overgrown area, even a weedy part of the garden, and observe the same tiny section for fifteen minutes or so. Notice plants, rocks, and soil. Check the effect of wind. Listen to nearby sounds. Watch for insects. Use a magnifying glass. Or don’t make an effort to watch at all. Just lie on your stomach in the grass, in a forested area, or near water and just be.
~Consider macro viewpoints. Go from the close-up to farther away. Step away from the tide pool to a pier or hill. Get up off the grass and climb a tree. Observe from that vantage point. What conditions might affect the soil, water, and creatures you were watching so intently? Consider a more distant perspective of the habitat you’re in.
~Bike, canoe, walk the dog, swim, sail, surf, climb, go horseback riding, skate, kayak — share with your kids whatever you love to do outside.
~Take indoor activities outside. Read books on a swing, play board games or cards on the grass, play with dolls and trucks under a tree, paint plein air, play an instrument. We can’t expect kids to do this unless we eagerly do as well. It’s becoming common for people to meditate, do tai chi, and work on laptops in parks. Simply being outside changes the experience.
~Learn wilderness survival skills. It’s entirely satisfying to know how to start a fire, follow animal tracks, forage for edible plants, and find shelter. The resonance of these ancestral skills haven’t diminished in our today’s world. It’s best to learn directly from others, but if that’s not an option check out these wonderful handbooks: Willy Whitefeather’s Outdoor Survival Handbook for Kids and Tom Brown’s Field Guide to Nature and Survival for Children.
~Leave room for silence. Make it a tradition to quiet yourselves, even for a few minutes. Really listen to the wind in the trees, chittering insects, rustling leaves, moving water, and other auditory feasts.
~Get involved in bird science. Audubon Society has local chapters that host bird walks, advocacy campaigns, nature outings, and educational programs. Audubon teamed up with the Cornell Ornithology Lab for citizen science programs including the Great Backyard Bird Count.
~Welcome dirt. It’s not simply something to scrub off, it is integral to the nourishment we take in every day. Certain bacteria found in soil are even linked to positive mood and enhanced learning. Let kids play in the mud, run outside in the rain, climb trees, play with sticks, and otherwise indulge in direct sensory experiences outdoors. Perhaps you can designate an area of the yard where kids can play right in the dirt. They might want to use it to build mountains and valleys for their toy dinosaurs, cars, or action figures. They might want to dig holes, perhaps looking for archaeological finds using Hands-On Archaeology: Real-Life Activities for Kids as a guide. For a real mess, give them enough water to make a mud pit. Your status as an epic parent will linger (so will the stains).
~Get involved as a family in pursuits upholding the importance of natural systems. Volunteer with a group to restore a wetlands area or to pull invasive plant species. In your own backyard make sure to leave wild areas so native pollinators, birds and other creatures have access to diverse materials for forage and nesting. You might create wildlife habitat in your backyard, schoolyard, or church property with tips from the National Wildlife Federation and the Xerces Society. If you get really involved, check out the President’s Environmental Youth Awards, recognizing youth for environmental projects.
Keep lists. For those who like to log their activities, lists are a great motivator. You might list species you’ve seen or paths you’ve hiked or nature areas you’ve visited. More on keeping unusual lists, check here.
Eat outside. Take your dinner to the park or the beach or far in the back yard. If at all possible, cook some of it outside over a flame. Everything tastes better whether cooked on a grill, over a fire pit, or over a real campfire. Slice a few inches open on an unpeeled banana, stuff in a dollop of peanut butter and a few chocolate chips, then grill till it becomes a warm pudding in its own banana container. Bake brownies or cake inside hollowed out oranges over a fire pit. Bury baking potatoes in the coals till they’re cooked to roasty goodness. For more ideas check out Campfire Cooking, Scout’s Outdoor Cookbook and Easy Campfire Cooking.
Sleep outside. It’s great if you can get away, especially to state or national parks, but you can also say yes to sleeping on an open porch or in a hammock slung between trees or in a backyard tent. If your kids are young, sleep out there with them, maybe just one kid at a time for some special adult-child togetherness. When kids get older, let them do it on their own. My oldest liked to haul a little tent to the back of our yard and settle in. By the time he was 11 he managed to stay out all night!
Create a seasonal table. Many of us enjoy setting a space aside for a nature table. In our home it has always been a simple display of seasonal items, but you can get more elaborate. Some feature folktale scenes with felted figures and wood turnings. It’s a celebratory way of bringing inside a few things from the natural world. More on this here.
~Garden together. Let each child plant one “crop” in the garden that’s his or hers to tend. Fast-growing plants like sugar snap peas, radishes, and green beans are ideal. Let the kid farmer in charge be the one to check regularly for weeds, watering needs, and harvest times. For more ideas check out Gardening Projects for Kids and for those of you without yards or community garden plots, try Kids’ Container Gardening. Growing their own foods has been found to inspire children to be more adventurous eaters.
~Eat local. Go to pick-your-own farms. Your kids will happily to dig into baskets of blueberries and bags of apples for a taste, but they’re just as likely to be eager to try radishes, endive, broccoli, pecans, and other treats they pick themselves. Join a CSA that encourages members to donate time on the farm. Find nearby farms through Local Harvest; some have open houses or welcome visitors.
~Cook with the sun. Use a solar oven to cook at home or on campouts using nature’s free energy supply. Assemble your own solar cooker and make lunch using only the sun’s rays for heat, you can find all sorts of plans here.
~Pay attention to subtext. Look behind a promotional campaign or news story to discover more about the situation. How do efforts to control or “help” nature overlook interdependent natural systems? How do corporate and media messages shape our view of nature? There are lots of ways to help kids of all ages become media aware.
~Explore recycling. Buying easily recyclable items aids the process of reclamation, but buying less in the first place leads to fewer items requiring disposal. Find out what happens to recyclable products. Visit an artist who relies on used materials. Call your local recycling, solid waste, or public works department for information, tours, or speakers. If there are items you cannot easily recycle (furniture, batteries, paint) locate organizations that will take them from the resources from Earth911. Save worn-out sneakers to donate to a recycling program. Heck, start a Stinky Shoe Drive so your family can work toward a goal of 25 pounds of shoes or more. Here are organizations that recycle them. Enjoy recyclable products too. Toys from Trash provides instructions for making a variety of playthings from repurposed items.
~Bring useful information. Along with water and snacks in your backpacks, you can bring field guides and take-along science ideas. Instructions to measure a slope using a string and jar of water, the methods of testing for rock hardness, charts of constellations are all great to have on hand when the timing is right. Sure, you can look these things up on your phone but kids running off clutching a dust-darkened field guide somehow feels right. There are plenty of guides for kids but my family likes standards like Peterson guides and Audubon field guides. (Smithsonian guides are appealing, but not durable.)
~Set off on a search. Brainstorm indications of animal life or other areas of interest, then set out with your list and check off what can be found Another time, try a nature scavenger hunt. You might have to make tree rubbings, spot a certain bird, collect rocks, and so on. For toddlers, try a color hunt.
~Pay close attention to weather. Notice how the air feels different before the storm and how you can “smell” snow coming. Put together a DIY weather station. Find out if you really predict weather using pinecones. Go out and experience windy days, rainy days, snowy days, all of weather’s moods where you live.
~Ignore inclement weather. There are all sort of things to be learned when you’re snowed in!
~Allow kids the allure of hidden places. Explore to find little hideaways or even an afternoon’s hideout made from a sheet draped over a branch. This gives kids a sense of their own place outdoors.
~Let fiction build a love of nature. When I was a kid I loved books told from the perspective of an animal, giving me a compelling glimpse of the lives of other creatures. I still remember reading dusty old library copies of An Otter’s Story, Rabbit Hill, and White Fang. The most popular from-an-animal’s perspective these days is the delightful book, The Tale of Despereaux. Here’s a list for younger children and here’s one more appropriate for older kids.
~Keep a nature journal. This doesn’t have to be anything more than a blank book. Take it along when you go outdoors and set aside time to draw, write observations, or make up stories. Don’t expect kids to use their nature journals if you aren’t avidly using one yourself!
~Emphasize hands-on fun. Run, climb, roll, and revel in being outdoors. Kids, especially the youngest among us, are great models for our own fun. You can find more ideas in books like Nature’s Playground: Activities, Crafts, and Games to Encourage Children to Get Outdoors and Go Wild!: 101 Things to Do Outdoors Before You Grow Up.
~Focus on one thing over time. Pick out a tree right past your window or a stream nearby. Describe it fully to yourself, perhaps writing about it or drawing it. Spend time regularly observing it. Notice changes in different seasons. Pay attention to everything that’s beautiful, distressing, and hard to understand. As questions arise, look for the answers.
~Stay positive. Simply enjoy and observe. Don’t allow yourself to make dire observations no matter how much you worry about issues affecting our lovely planet. The first step for children is love of the natural world, from that flows the desire to save it. When choosing resources, focus on those which help young people become informed and active in positive ways. Emphasize joy.
“If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then let us allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it. Perhaps this is what Thoreau had in mind when he said, “the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”
What activities and resources do you suggest?