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Diane MacEachern is the author of Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World Read more »
Kids have never been so plugged in to electronics, nor so out of touch with Mother Nature. And that’s a shame, because studies show that children who explore the outdoors are happier, more alert and curious. Kids who are out chasing butterflies and making mud pies even have more complex brain structures than those who spend hours in front of a computer screen, since experiencing new smells, sounds, sights, textures and terrains actually promotes brain development.
There’s another advantage to living a more nature-oriented life: tromping around woods, making backyard forts, even picnicking in the park promotes better health. According to several research reports, spending at least a couple of hours each week outdoors relieves stress and encourages exercise, all the while helping children develop a sense of wonder while they learn how they fit into the world around them.
Despite these many benefits, keeping kids in touch with Mother Nature can fall to the bottom of our priorities, given everything else on our “to do” lists. Here are a few ways to make it easier for everyone in the family to unplug:
Help kids see that nature is all around them. Post a chart within easy reach so everyone in the family can record the birds and animals they see in their yard or neighborhood. (You can get an inexpensive bird guide from your local nature center or a free one from the library.) Have your kids pick an animal, plant, cloud, star or even weather event that they’d like to be. Whatever it is, observe it together outdoors, then listen as he tells you about it during special “wild” times you create for sharing these stories. Look for animal homes in your neighborhood, like birds’ nests or rabbit warrens. Maybe you’ll come upon them in time to see bird chicks hatch, or bunnies hopping through the grass. Set up a backyard bird feeder or birdbath high enough off the ground to keep birds safe from cats, but within easy sight of a child who wants to observe and wonder.
Take advantage of the changing seasons. Most of us live in climates that experience significant seasonal changes. The transitions from spring to summer to fall to winter create a perfect opportunity to experience the world’s natural rhythms and understand the cycles of life. Use the first day of spring each year to compare your child’s growth to a tree or bush, perhaps one your family planted. Collect and press spring buds, summer flowers and autumn leaves. Create a photo montage of your child in the same place in the yard during all four seasons. Have your child draw the same scene on the first day of every new season, then compare the four seasons to note how they’re alike, and how they’re different.
Be intentional. Make it a goal to spend at least an hour a week on some family outing that connects kids and parents alike to Nature. Rainy day? As long as it’s not stormy, get out the boots, raincoats and umbrellas and go for a walk (you’ll be amazed at how many worms scurry above ground when it’s too wet below!). Don’t like the idea of getting wet? Visit a nearby natural history museum or nature center. Take advantage of your state and county parks and our wonderful national park and wildlife refuge system to get to know the natural history where you live. Get your kids into clubs, scouting, and summer camps whose focus is nature-based outdoor activities. Even if you don’t have time to spend with your kids outside, there are many organizations that can help.
I’d love to hear what other ideas you have for inspiring your kids to experience nature. Earth Day will be officially celebrated on April 22. That’s another perfect opportunity to get outside and explore!
If you’d like to learn more about ways you and your kids can “go green,” look for a copy of Big Green Purse at your library or local bookstore.