Kids and the Great Outdoors
5 Ways to Introduce Your Family to Nature
By: Kate Pocock
It was spring and the snow had finally melted. Setting out on the trail with my boys, I paused to look at our map. But the cry of “Ooh, yuck, look, he’s eating it,” made me turn. Dangling from my youngest son’s mouth was the juiciest earthworm I had seen. Before I could get to him, it had completely disappeared. “Yuck” was right. But I will never forget the look of pure joy on that happy little face as he stood munching on one of the first signs of spring.
What’s the best way to introduce children to nature? And how do we keep them hooked on the outdoors? As parents, we tend to fixate on getting from A to B on the trail or in the park and not on the texture of moss, the sounds of the wind and yes, interactions with worms. Here are a few suggestions
Let the children lead the way—you might even learn from them. As one mom I know laughed, “They’re a lot closer to the ground. They’ll show you fungus, moss or insects that you’ve never seen.”
Encourage their natural imagination. Set out on any nature walk with preschoolers and the world becomes an exciting and magical place. Dried-up riverbeds become dinosaur grounds. Ordinary mud becomes quicksand, tree roots turn into crocodiles, and the common garden slug elicits curiosity. “Will it bite? Is it a boy or a girl? Can we touch its skin?” Ask questions where there are no right or wrong answers, like “How many shades of green can you see?”
Kids are hands-on learners, so appeal to sights, sound, scent, touch and taste. Feel the texture of leaves or moss, smell the mud and listen with eyes closed to the sounds of wind. Lie on your back to observe clouds and make pictures from them, or taste the rain. For younger kids, tape together two empty toilet paper rolls and tie a string for first “binoculars.” They help to focus on just one bird in the bush or one fuzzy caterpillar. Older kids might like a scavenger hunt with items such as “Catch a smell. What is it?”
Don’t forget nighttime. Walk with flashlights or lie down to look up at stars. “At night, you hear more and your senses are heightened,” says Sophika Kostyniuk, National Outings Manager for Sierra Club. A good resource for stargazing: The Kids Book of the Night Sky by Anne Love and Jan Drake (KidsCan Press).
Every natural “scientist” needs good equipment. Essential items: a magnifying glass (it should magnify10 times and be strong enough to withstand some falls), a journal to record finds in words or pictures (get the kids to decorate it with feathers and other found objects), a small lightweight butterfly net for examining frogs, bugs or butterflies and field guides for young readers, like the Peterson or Audubon books.
Your kitchen cupboards are a treasure trove for items like large spoons, sieves or colanders for pond studies; baby food jars, wax paper and rubber bands as collecting jars (punch air holes in the paper, observe and release); cardboard egg cartons to classify rocks; ice cube trays as temporary insect zoos.
Take advantage of family programs at zoos, aquariums and botanical gardens. Let kids ask a zillion questions. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay http://www.buschgardens.com/ offers Serengeti Safaris where kids get up close to giraffes and mysterious elands. Try a family sleepover program and bed down overnight by the vast tanks at SeaWorld Orlando http://www.seaworld.com/, or camp out at Toronto Zoo’s Serengeti Bush Camp http://www.torontozoo.com/.
“Kids can make a difference,” says Bill Street, Director of Zoo Education at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, who points to a group of kids who raised money on their own for African conservation. “Give them the knowledge and the tools and they are capable of accomplishing great things.”
Start a collection of kid-friendly field guides on nature and nature activities, tapes and books like Smithsonian Bug Hunter (Dorling Kindersley) that uses water and a paper clip to explain why a pondskater doesn’t sink. Encourage sites like http://www.enature.com/ or http://www.backyardjungle.com/. It’s OK to use technology to further love of nature says Eliza Russell, Director of Educational Programs at Natural Wildlife Federation http://www.nwf.org/. Spend ten minutes in the backyard and then head to the computer for more. “Kids may see a new bird, and go online to learn what this bird eats or where it shelters,” she says.
The most favored book of all, however, will be one your kids make themselves. Russell suggests leaving a journal open by a window where kids can record what is taking place throughout the year or how things change daily. One or two sentences each day will do. Or let them create their own illustrated nature diary with words, images and found objects like nut tops or seeds.