We all recognize early adolescence as a special challenge.  We know that spurts in physical, social, emotional, and mental development come with the onset of puberty and that one of the challenges for kids at this age is developing their own sense of self. They are continually developing, testing, and changing themselves and their perceptions of self.

Middle school girls are less family-oriented and seek out their peers. Talking on the phone and changing from one best friend is normal, as it's a natural tendency at this age to want to band together. We see that middle school girls are more concerned about their social networks than about experiencing a dose of nature. Activities they enjoyed when younger are now "BORING!"

Middle school calls for strategies beyond the "make it fun" and "let them use their imagination." It's about relationships. To my twelve year-old daughter, friends are the center of her universe (for my son, this happened at thirteen). Here are some techniques that I have been using to help my daughter establish an enduring, positive relationship with nature.

Make Nature the Backdrop, the Set for the Social Scene

Your daughter may not want to do a family activity with you, but you're the driver, so invite a friend or two to go with you. When friends come over to your house, have the snacks and meals outside.

Remember their purpose for going out is to be with their friends, not "commune with nature." I try to give them some space and sometimes even some cash. A visit to a park always includes a stop at the gift shop for my daughter.

Take Lots of Pictures

As they search for their identities, I want my kids to picture themselves outside having fun with their friends. They may want to go back inside to post pictures on YouTube, but this way I know they have healthy, positive images to work with.  

Vary the Activities

While some kids have found a passion or a special hobby, many seem to have multiplying and fleeting interests. Now is the time to capitalize on their energy and introduce them to lots of new things. Something is bound to stick and haven't you always want to learn how to rock climb?

Appeal to Self-Interests

Our family has a new dog and therefore another reason to be outdoors. A school assignment on the topic of chocolate evolved into a field trip to the botanical garden (and a visit to a candy shop). Money requested for new clothes required extra chores outside and then evolved into working at a monthly booth at the farmer's market.

Be a Facilitator (Not Just The Chauffeur)

Give your children choices. Let them plan and take ownership of some of their family and peer activities. A request for a sleepover turned into a stargazing party with the simple prompt, "Hey, isn't there a meteor shower that weekend?"

Slow Down and Reflect

Any activity can become more meaningful when paired with preparation and evaluation. Simple questions can help kids observe and assess their actions and feelings.

  • "What went well?"
  • "What you would change?" 
  • "What if 'so and so' was there? "
  • "How did you feel when. . .?"

Many girls start keeping journals during adolescence, so practice with these questions will encourage critical thinking and self-awareness.

Let Girls Use Nature

If you can find a place that will allow active use of the land, try activities like picking flowers, digging in the soil, or building tree forts. Making useful and creative things with real tools gives a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for the resources from the earth.

More Fun Activities

  • Besides the typical outdoor activities, we have had success with:
  • Going with a good friend to a nature-based summer camp.
  • Doing a river clean up as part of Virginia Clean Waterways month. 
  • Participating in World Water Monitoring Day. 
  • Planting herbs and nature crafts for the local farmers market. Some programs allow 4H clubs to participate for free.
  • Making a video "nature tour" to send to cousins.
  • Backyard campouts.

Be Patient

After years of saying "go outside, it's pretty," I see my daughter walking around the yard and playing catch with the dog with a phone glued to her ear.
I like to think that meaningful exposure to nature when kids are young is "money in the bank," a reservoir of feeling and awareness for future self-knowledge and decision-making.  So go put the phone out on the porch and grill some pizzas. Tell her to call her friends-isn't there a full moon tonight?

Additional Resources

Amaze! The Twists and Turns of Getting Along by Girls Scouts of America. 2008 The guide for Grades 6-8 for the new GSA leadership "journey" program. www.girlscouts.org

Little Big Minds, Sharing Philosophy with Kids by Marietta McCarty. Marietta teaches philosophy and has wonderful suggestions for books, poems, music, and movies to use when romping in the world of nature, friendship, humanity, courage, freedom, compassion and other universal ideas.

Mother-Daughter Project.  How Mothers and Daughters Can Band Together, Beat the Odds, and Thrive Through Adolescence. By Sue Ellen Hamkins and Rennee Schultz.

Teaching Green, The Middle Years. Hands-on Learning in Grades 6-8. Edited by Tim Grant and Gail Littlejohn.  

This We Believe. The 14 Characteristics. National Middle Schools Association.

Ann Regn is the Director of the Virginia Office of Environmental Education coordinating the state's environmental education Virginia Naturally program. She holds a B.S. in Environmental Resource Management from Penn State University and a M.Ed. from Vanderbilt University. She has more than 25 years of experience working with youth and adult volunteers in camp and nature settings. Her awards include Environmental Educator of the Year from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation; the Presidential Award from Virginia Association of Science Teachers, and Virginia Environmental Education Leadership. She serves on the boards for the Flora of Virginia, Wintergreen Nature Center, and the National Environmental Education Advisory Board.