I grew up in a small town well before the advent of video games and home computers. I played a lot outdoors in the woods, fields, and snow banks around our house. Kids today have many more electronic distractions and fewer opportunities to explore nature. We have distanced ourselves so much from nature that many people feel they need to drive to a national park or an ocean beach to experience nature. Parents who want to spend quality time with their children enjoying the outdoors need go no further than their front or back yard or to the public park down the street. A space as small as a crack in the sidewalk can be used for learning about plants, bugs, weeds, and other living things. You do not need to be an expert to point out ants, bees, dandelions, and daisies, or to distinguish between a pine tree and a maple. There are many ways to share your love and enthusiasm for the outdoors with children at all ages.
Easy Activities for Everyday Exploration of Nature
- In your garden, involve your kids in the planting process.
- Start seeds in plastic cups on a windowsill. Kids will be thrilled when the seeds sprout. They will take a special ownership when they transplant the seedlings to a place in the garden or to patio planters. They will also be more likely to weed and water the beds that hold “their” plants.
- Take your child on discovery walks. Each new discovery on the walk will take on added meaning - like spotting a squirrel eating a nut, finding a bird’s egg shell, or watching a spider on its web. These walks can be further enhanced by keeping a journal or scrapbook with stories, drawings, photographs, or specimens like pressed leaves. Your kids will enjoy the creative process and will want to share it with family and friends.
Parents and Children Can Learn Together
When you identify things in nature you get to learn alongside your child. There are many excellent field guides on various subjects for different ages, and the Internet is an excellent resource for identification searches and for finding images.
There are great books and book series on how to share nature with children. I recommend the Take a Walk books by Jane Kirkland (www.TakeAWalk.com), whose essay also appears in this Special Edition. These books contain ideas and activities for nature walks in many different environments. The Fun With Nature guides give good information on basic things you are likely to encounter on a walk, like tree bark, bugs, tracks, and common animals.
Tips To Get Kids Of All Ages Outdoors
Very small children:
- Set up a blanket or playpen outside and engage them with things like birdsong, pets, and the wind.
- Keep toys to a minimum.
- Encourage young ones to touch the grass and hold a leaf, stick, or caterpillar. Nature has a way all by itself of capturing the attention of even the youngest children.
Pre-school to primary school age children:
- Create special play spaces – swing sets, tree houses, forts in your yard’s shrubs, or a large cardboard box with windows cut out of it.
- Props spur children’s imaginative play.
- Invite a few playmates from the neighborhood.
Elementary school age children:
- Parks, zoos, and nature centers help broaden their worldview of nature and the environment.
- Trips outdoors to such places might even earn your children extra credit at school.
- Urban kids get turned on to nature through service projects or nature-related paying jobs.
- Recreation departments in cities and suburbs, YMCAs, schools, or churches often have summer programs that hire older teens.
- Teens get engaged in beautifying vacant lots, planting trees, monitoring streams, and improving biking and hiking trails.
- Nature-related jobs teach teens about the environment and offer a weekly paycheck.
- Parents can help teens choose clubs, activities, and projects that help strengthen their college applications and also build connections to nature.
Family Activities For Kids Of All Ages
Kids of all ages can help plant a family tree in your yard or at the home of an older relative. Kids will take pride in seeing the growth and changes in a tree they helped to plant. On special family occasions the tree can be decorated with mementos like ribbons and pictures.
- Create a nature area in your yard, such as the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitats (http://www.nwf.org/gardenforwildlife). Provide native plants to make your backyard butterfly and bird friendly, have a bird bath or a small pond, and use rock or wood piles to make shelters.
- Set up a bird feeding station to provide food for birds in winter. You can even make the bird feeder with your children (http://www.craftybirds.com/birdfeeders.html). Put the feeder where it can be easily seen from the house and provide a variety of bird food.
- Buy your kids nature-themed gifts such as magnifiers, nature guides, binoculars, tickets to the zoo or nature center, or a nature-themed DVD.
Use your imagination, love, and enthusiasm to share nature with your kids. Everyone will benefit from the experiences.
George Ambrose currently teaches in suburban Philadelphia. He is married and the parent of a son and daughter. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Kings College (PA) and the M.Ed. from Temple University. He is a nationally certified environmental educator and has won awards for his innovative programs including using technology to monitor stream quality and an urban environmental summer work program for teens.