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Alan Fortescue is the Director of Education for Earthwatch Institute. Read more »
In my last blog post, I discussed how getting kids outdoors will go a long way in nurturing their environmental consciousness. (If you posted a question, be sure to see my response.) I ended by asking, "Should just let your kids loose in the wild?" Certainly, just getting kids outside will have its own positive impact. But there are considerations that will help augment the experience, especially if you are a nature novice yourself...
If you are new to being outdoors:
One of the hardest things to overcome if you are not used to being outdoors is a fear of what may be lurking there. Fear may lead you to try and over control the situation, to try and prevent any harm from happening to your child. This may ultimately have the opposite effect on your child that is intended by the excursion to begin with. It may confirm unreal conceptions about nature that may make them fear it rather than love it. To be sure there are things that bite (mostly mosquitoes) and stuff that may sting, or burn (like poison ivy), but these are easily mitigated, and in many ways are part of the beauty of the experience. The natural world is not Disneyland, encountering and mastering its challenges while enjoying its beauty, its wildness, is the part that makes it something much more profound.
Don't be scared:
If you are a novice to the outdoors, start by finding a place that you and your child can feel safe exploring, or that you could feel safe letting your child explore alone--or some combination of the two. You might start by planting a garden. You could talk to your kids about how plants grow and then go to the farmers market and buy seedlings that you plant and harvest together. If you can't garden, then try taking a walk in the city park, or town common, or the local nature reserve.
Letting your kids play:
In a world where childhood time is highly structured, full of pre-determined rules, regulations and outcomes, children often do not get the chance to explore on their own, in their own way and in their own time. Being able to make sense of their world for themselves is crucial for the development of critical thinking skills. The goal is not to show nature to children, but for them to show it to themselves. Let your kids set the pace, maybe even choose the place. Try not to be over-protective, try not to be directive. I recall when my son was two years old I would take him to the middle of a local forest and just let him wander, at his own pace and in his own direction. It was an incredible bonding experience as I wandered with him, watching him pick things up and try to figure out what they were, splash in a stream or dig in the mud. For hours we wandered, rarely talking, just experiencing.
Camping is also a wonderful way for you both to explore the natural world. From setting a tent up in your yard to hiking miles into the forest and roasting marshmallows over a fire, spending significant time outdoors will change your child's life.
Be a role model:
While children can and will develop a love of nature when allowed to explore it on their own, role modeling and the experience with nature can also be powerful. For younger children you can demonstrate curiosity by stopping to look at things you see. You could bring a magnifying glass, for example, and stop to look at how varied the colors of leaves are on trees. You could ponder out loud, "Wow! I never knew there was such a difference between leaves, did you?" The "did you?" question is an important part of experiencing nature for me when I am out with kids. Asking for their opinions or ideas in this inclusive way allows them to feel an important part of the discovery. In this same vein, after demonstrating how to look at leaves you might ask, "Hmmm, I wonder what we should look at next." Again, allow your child to engage in the wonder with his or her ideas. Then try to let free play take over.
What if my child has no interest:
Until they get their feet wet, perhaps literally, kids who have spent most of their lives inside may show little interest in a nature walk, much less camping. In these cases it will take some parental intervention to bring them into the wild. One way I like to get kids engaged is by introducing the idea of a challenge related to their imagination.
For kids into video games, I might inspire them to tell me what kind of fort we would need to defend ourselves from some character in the video world. Once I get the description, I would then say, "yeah, but, looking at the forest," where would we put such a fort if we had to build it here." Then I would set the challenge of making the fort together. I can remember hundred of hours spent playing harry potter in the woods outside Charlottesville, Virginia with my daughter and her friends.
Nature treasure hunts are also a lot of fun (and this is the beauty of exploring nature, it is instructional and fun at the same time). For example, I might tie different colored ribbons around trees or hide them beside rocks, and direct the kids to find the ribbons in a certain order. Or, for older kids I might say I really need help counting the number of maple saplings in a certain space (say a 100 yard square). I then show kids what maple saplings look like. I then say I am also interested, when they find the sapling, to know if there are any interesting bugs or animals on or near them. If you want some structure, you might visit the library and find out about the local birds or plants, and then go on a treasure hunt for these. Once they are engaged, they will begin to notice much more around them.
So, to sum it all up:
Here are two great books by David Sobel for parents to read about nature play: Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education and Mapmaking with Children. And this is a great resource for the importance of play and how to unlock your own playful exploring capacity.
I know many parents reading this excel at engaging their kids in the outdoors. Would you be willing to share your ideas, experiences, strategies and stories so we can learn from you?