Each month, you'll be able to get answers directly from experts covering a wide range of parenting topics. You'll also have a chance to share your own expert tips with other parents. Join the conversation!
Richard Louv is the author of seven books about family, nature, and community. Read more »
Leopoldo from Falls Church, VA, writes:
In your opinion, what should be the role of voluntary wildlife habitat restoration programs in exposing children to nature?
We need to remember that a generation of young parents is coming up right now who may not have enjoyed the experiences of previous generations, in nature. Once they recognize the health and learning benefits of nature play, they often want to make sure their kids have that experience - but they don't know where to start. This is why the organizations and institutions that help parents make that connection - the voluntary wildlife habitat restoration programs, the Scouts, nature centers, schools with outdoor class rooms - will increasingly be seen as vital to the development of well-rounded children. One benefit that wildlife restoration offers children is that it encourages them to associate nature not only with play, but with the restorative quality of work itself. Increasingly, this will be the great work of coming generations.
Nancy from Brightwood, OR, writes:
I am helping to coordinate a bird festival at a local city park. This year, to more explicitly address connecting children with nature, we are adding a "Wild Things" nature walk for kids. Do you have suggestions for ways to conduct a guided walk that will allow for the feeling of exhilarated freedom and personal discovery that comes from playing outdoors?
Try the nature walk with the children in pairs. Give each pair something to write with and on to record their observations. Give them each a list of things to find and record "sightings" of--birds, a bird nest, and elements of the birds' habitat. The elements of habitat needed for all of wildlife--birds included--are food, water, shelter and space, all suitably arranged to meet the animals' needs. And, by the way, check out Amy Pertschuck's answer to the question following this one.
Sophia from Norton, VA, writes:
I am planning a nature-themed birthday party for my twins, a son and a daughter, who will be turning five next month. Can you suggest some good outdoor activates for a group of children?
With adult supervision near by, five-year-olds can do a variety of things--like taking chalk rubbings (rock, tree bark, animal tracks). Making things from natural materials is always fun--twigs, leaves, seeds and glue go a long way. Just handing out spoons for digging in the dirt offers a chance to discover another world. My sons are grown now, so we don't dig in the dirt together much anymore - at least not with spoons. So I passed your question along to Amy Pertschuck, managing director of the Children & Nature Network. Amy is the mother of small children, and therefore closer to the source. Here's what she said: "We've helped our kids pay attention during longer hikes by playing 'find ten critters' (animals, insects, butterflies)." She doesn't necessarily mean the live critters, in every case. She continues: "Finding a critter can mean discovering footprints, mole holes, and other signs that a critter has passed by or lives there. This is great way to get kids to really look around, and it keeps them engaged. You can also collect ten different leaves." Most of the collected flowers, shells or other treasures can be returned to nature. And, Amy reminds parents, "Watch out for poison oak or ivy."
Anita from Arlington, VA, asks:
What do you recommend to parents who are concerned about both perceived and real risks in allowing a child more flexibility to explore nature and wild places on their own?
Certainly there are risks. However, I think, as a society, we have--with the best of intentions--grown overly cautious. We need to think more in terms of comparative risk. In limiting children's flexibility to explore nature on their own, we are inadvertently narrowing their opportunities to develop problem-solving abilities, self-esteem, cognitive flexibility, physical health and mental well-being. In truth, the risk to a child's health from early obesity is enormous. Parents can begin at home. My colleague Cheryl Charles suggests: "Make sure there are opportunities near and around the house for unsupervised natural play. Start with making sure you can see your child, but find ways that create opportunities in which he or she--alone and with friends--can play outside in unstructured ways."
Georgia from Shepherdstown, WV, asks:
What current research best describes how positive interactions of kids with the environment help to lead them to conservation careers. And what research best describes the importance of an interested adult being with the kids to share the joy and experience?
In recent years, numerous studies have demonstrated that early experience in the out-of-doors, often with an adult mentor, leads to careers in conservation. One of the reasons we are so concerned about children's increasing disconnect from nature is that we worry about who will be the next generation of leaders in all conservation and environment-related fields. A 2006 Cornell University study, published in the most recent issue of the journal Children, Youth and Environments revealed the best way to raise children who actively care about nature is to give them lots of time for nature play before they're 11 years old. Science Daily quotes environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell: "Although domesticated nature activities -- caring for plants and gardens -- also have a positive relationship to adult environment attitudes, their effects aren't as strong as participating in such wild nature activities as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, walking, fishing and hunting."
As to the importance of an interested adult being with the kids to share the joy and experience, one of the most highly regarded and eloquent researchers on this topic is Dr. Louise Chawla of the University of Colorado. She recently updated landmark research she conducted in the 1990s. As Dr. Chawla states, "The very fact that a parent or grandparent chose to take the child with them to a place where they themselves found fascination and pleasure, to share what engaged them there, suggests not only care for the natural world, but, equally, care for the child." To learn more about this work, please see the excellent bibliography and abstracts assembled by Cheryl Charles, president of the Children & Nature Network. Cheryl explains: "Given the important role of adults in taking children into the out-of-doors, Dr. Chawla is specific about the attributes of the experiences those adult mentors provide. She states, the 'adults gave attention to their surroundings in four ways -- care for the land as a limited resource essential for family identity and well-being; a disapproval of destructive practices; simple pleasure at being out in nature; and a fascination with the details of other living things and elements of the earth and sky.' Modeling those attributes while in the presence of the child does even more."
Silvia from Alexandria, VA, writes:
Among other reasons why kids don't spend enough time outdoors today, two stand out to me: Kids are overscheduled and taking all kinds of lessons from an early age. Parents feel like they have to make the best of their children's time in order to help them succeed. Secondly, because of safety concerns, kids are not allowed to play outside by themselves or with friends, and busy parents have little time to spend in the park with them. How do you suggest families get around these obstacles?
It's true that parents feel pressured by society to fill their children's time with lessons, organized sports and structured activities of every kind. I would argue that, while such activities are often positive, they can be overdone - and that there is a point of diminishing returns, when over-scheduling begins to cut into a child's full use of the senses, or creativity and curiosity. Let me make a case here, as I do in "Last Child in the Woods," for boredom: "Boredom is fear's dull cousin. Passive, full of excuses, it can keep children from nature -- or drive them to it.... At its best, boredom forces creativity. Today, kids pack the malls, pour into the video archives and line up for the scariest, goriest summer movies they can find. Yet, they still complain, 'I'm borrrred.' Like a sugared drink on a hot day, such entertainment leaves kids thirsting for more -- for faster, bigger, more violent stimuli...We need to draw an important distinction between a constructively bored mind and a negatively numbed mind. Constructively bored kids eventually turn to a book, or build a fort, or pull out the paints (or the computer art program) and create, or come home sweaty from a game of neighborhood basketball. Parents can nurture constructive boredom, and their child's openness to nature."
Katie from Coweta, OK, writes:
In science class my teacher asked us if we could hear butterflies when they fly. I answered yes because when we sit in our flower garden we can hear them. The teacher said no we can't. Can you help? Our whole family has heard them and needs you response.
I've never heard a butterfly, but that may be because I haven't listened closely enough. Insects International reports: "Butterflies communicate mostly through chemical signals. Males produce 'pheromones' to attract females. A few species communicate with sound. For example, the male Cracker Butterfly can produce noises with its wings."( For more information see The Butterfly Website. This question brings up an additional issue: how well human beings use their senses. Research shows that we have much more ability to use all of our senses at the same time than we believe. For example, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley suggest that "buried in each person's olfactory lobe lurks enough tracking skill to make a bloodhound bay with resentment," as the Chicago Tribune reported in 2005. "If the results are surprising, that may be because no one ever tried putting a bunch of college undergraduates in a field wearing blindfolds and sound-muffling headphones, then had them crawl in the grass after a scent." When researchers "did just that, they found that most of the students could follow a 30-foot trail of chocolate perfume and even changed direction precisely where the invisible path took a turn. The subjects also were able to smell in stereo; when researchers blocked their ability to smell independently with each nostril, the students' scent-tracking accuracy dropped dramatically." What else can we do that we have forgotten; what do we miss seeing, hearing, knowing because we allow that tangle of electrical wire to tighten a little more each day?
Diana from Kamloops, British Columbia, writes:
My son is 22 months old and has issues with getting his hands dirty. He does not like to touch dirt to plant a flower, but he likes to help by handing the flower in the pot to me. Do most children go through this stage?
As I've spoken around the country, I've often heard from parents and teachers about children of all ages who are increasingly hesitant to get dirty. For many children, this may be a predictable response, but when resistance to playing in dirt, sand or water becomes obsessive, it can not only indicate a deeper problem, but can also be bad for physical health. Studies have shown that some of our society's obsession with cleanliness can actually threaten children's immune systems. True, it's good to teach a child to wash his or her hands after playing in dirt - or especially after handling a turtle or other wild critter. But a life without a little dirt is a more sterile life. By the way, some experts in child play encourage the creation of play areas that offer more, not less, dirt. For example, the concept of so-called adventure playgrounds originated in Europe after World War II, when a playground designer studied children playing in "normal" asphalt and cement playgrounds and found they preferred playing in the dirt and lumber from the post-war rubble. An adventure playground (the concept is more popular in Europe but a few do exist in the United States) is usually created from a previously empty lot where kids create their own play environment; children can play in the mud and build forts, or play in a small pond with rafts. The Irvine, California, Adventure Playground also offers organized outdoor and nature activities such as campfire building and outdoor cooking, astronomy and gardening. At Irvine's Adventure Playground, new kids must complete a safety course before they can take up hammer and nails and build a fort; an adult must accompany kids under age 6. These playgrounds may not offer much solitude, but they do emphasize direct experience with natural elements - including dirt!
Jennifer from Washington, DC, writes:
We live in an urban neighborhood, one that has a lot of trees and small parks but not much "wilderness." We try to look for nature in the city and we have a small garden with vegetables and flowers. What else can we do to increase our kids' connection to nature? (They're three and four-and-a-half years old.) How important is it for them to spend time outside the city at this stage?
At that age -- three and four-and-a-half years -- every patch of trees or grass, every vacant lot, even cracks in the sidewalk with weeds emerging -- all of these places can be the entire universe. Grow a roof or window box garden; plant seeds for the plants that provide nectar and roosting and nesting sites for animals. Take walks, feel the fresh air, look for changes with the seasons, and dress for all weather. We love this saying: "There is no such thing as bad weather; there are bad clothes." And work with other parents to take neighborhood field trips to local or regional parks. At that age, introducing children to true wilderness is a wonderful gift, but a child's senses are enlivened by even the smallest pieces of nature. As a parent introducing your child to nature, what you do is less important than how you do it. One of the most important gifts a parent can give a young person is an infectious enthusiasm for the outdoors. This gift will last for the rest of a child¹s life long after the video games have disappeared; it will stimulate your child's imagination, cognitive skills, creativity and most of all, his or her sense of wonder.
Kyla from Florence, KY, writes:
How could I effectively bring the outdoors indoors for my two-year-old son and three-month-old daughter? I would like them to gain an appreciation for the earth year round.
Starting indoors, make sure there is natural light and windows to the out-of-doors world; research shows that children are helped both psychologically and cognitively by natural light -- they feel better and they learn better. Bring in natural elements like rocks, twigs and sea shells as natural parts of the home environment throughout the seasons. Make them part of a natural play space. Make sure play areas have a view of the outdoors -- especially natural landscapes, if possible. And do take them outdoors--whether to sit in the sunshine or simply to feel the fresh air.
My colleague, Cheryl Charles, President of the Children & Nature Network, adds this: "While we are huge advocates for direct contact with the out-of-doors for natural play, both of your children are young. The three month old needs to be outside in a back pack, stroller or--of course--in your arms, on a regular basis. The two year old can do more--so make sure there is easy time every day with access to sunlight and the opportunity to play with simple things, whether pine cones or a sand pile, to connect with nature. The benefits will be abundant." To explore some of the health benefits of nature play to children, see Cheryl's review of recent studies.