nature-cat-insectsMany children have a fear of insects – and that fear can hold them back from playing outdoors and experiencing the world around them. At Nature Cat, we think our dear bug friends are getting a bad reputation. We want children (and adults!) to see these tiny creatures as critical players on this planet — as pollinators, helpers in the garden, and important links in the food web.

Developing a better understanding of insects, spiders, and other bugs goes a long way toward helping make them less scary. Here are some ideas for helping your child along:

Start with safety. Explain which bugs are harmless and which to avoid. In general, wasps, bees, ants and spiders are best observed from a distance, whereas bugs like beetles, butterflies, crickets, daddy longlegs, and dragonflies are safe and wonderful to observe. Talk to your child about how bugs are very likely more afraid of him than he is of them. If one should land on him, the most important thing is to stay calm and quiet! Gently brush it off if he is too nervous to observe it. Explain that if he screams and slaps she could frighten the bug, and possibly put himself in danger of being bitten or stung.

Think about your own reactions when you encounter a bug. Most of us are guilty of flinching or jumping (…maybe even shrieking!) when startled by an unwanted bug indoors. These reactions reinforce the idea that bugs are scary. If your child sees you reacting in a calm, deliberate way, then she will be able to copy your behavior when she is ready.

For example, say you spot a spider in your kitchen. Show your child how to calmly place a small clear jar on top of it, and then slide a stiff piece of paper under the jar. The spider sits on top of the paper. Now you can safely slide your hand under the paper and lift the jar. Carry it out of the room and release the spider outdoors. Handling its removal this way allows your child to see that you are not afraid, and that you have compassion for it—even if it is unwanted where it is!

Talk about bugs when there aren’t any around. During a quiet time, ask your child to describe what it is about bugs that make him feel scared. Are there any experiences he’s had with a particular bug he can tell you about? What does he know about bugs in general? Once you have a sense of his understanding, you can provide new information to help him better relate to bugs and the roles they play in nature, including helping produce much of what we eat (honey, apples, blueberries and oranges, just to name a few). A world without bugs would not be a happy place!

Try reading a friendly children’s book with an insect as the main character, like The Very Hungry Caterpillar or Charlotte’s Web. Books like the Children’s Guide to Insects and Spiders or 1001 Bugs to Spot give kids an opportunity to “look” for bugs in the comfort of their own home before trying it outside.

Empower your child. When your child is ready, visit a museum or nature center where live butterflies and other bugs are in an enclosed area you can enter. This gives her an opportunity to interact with real bugs in the company of other children. Or, in your backyard or neighborhood, see how many different bugs you can find. Make a bug catcher and a bughouse in which to keep and get to know a bug for a brief period of time. Your bughouse can be as simple as a clear cup covered with a paper towel. Punch a few holes in the paper with a pencil and secure on top of the cup with a rubber band. This puts your child in charge of the bug’s wellbeing while she observes it. Add some leaf litter, twigs and a moist cotton ball or tiny piece of fruit for water. You can also repurpose Nature Cat’s DIY composter as a temporary bug hotel.

Be patient. Let your child set the pace. They are likely inundated with cues and misinformation from media and other adults that bugs are “gross” and “scary.” But with direct, constructive bug interactions your child’s fears should ease over time.

About Frances Nankin and Jesse McMahon

Frances Nankin is Content Producer for Nature Cat, the PBS KIDS series designed to encourage children ages 4 to 7 to explore and develop connections with the natural world. With more than thirty years experience producing, writing and researching educational media for elementary-age children, her credits include Emmy-Award winning Executive Producer, Editorial Director, Cyberchase (Thirteen/WNET, NY), Co-Director, Science Content, The Magic School Bus (Scholastic Inc., NY) and Founder/ Editor, Cobblestone Magazine, a history magazine for children (Cobblestone Publishing, Peterborough, NH).

Jesse McMahon is the associate content producer of Nature Cat. She has been with the show since the first season, bringing with her experience in journalism, environmental advocacy and educational publishing. Jesse lives in Maine with her husband, two dogs and five chickens.

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