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Steph Wear is the lead scientist for the coral reef conservation and a mother of two. She discussing the importance of kids spending time in nature from her perspective as a conservation professional and scientist as well as from her personal experience as a mother. Read and Comment »
Jennifer Klepper is an ex-corporate attorney turned PTO president, volunteer child advocate and stay-at-home mom of her two kids. She is the author of the Monday Morning Math CWISTs on www.Cwist.com. Read more »
Sorry, Jennifer Klepper is no longer taking questions.
On a family vacation to the ocean this summer, my daughter gleefully reached down into the dark water and down to the sea floor to pull up the goopiest, slimiest sea creature I've ever seen. It filled her two hands, its gelatinous body spilling through the gaps between her fingers. My daughter looked at me with a bright smile, beaming as though she had pulled up a sunken chest full of gold bullion. I looked at her and thought, "This girl isn't going to be afraid of anything."
I marveled at my daughter's spirit of discovery, especially when she went back to the room to research the creature and then included that research in a science project at camp later in the summer. But I knew her confidence and initiative didn't happen by accident.
Helping a child explore, expand and nurture her interest in nature and the outdoors is as simple as harnessing their natural desire to explore (and putting aside your own desire to keep dirt out of the house). Taking the next step—encouraging your child to expand from exploration into research and application—will help build confidence, self-discipline and academic readiness. Here are some tips for getting your daughter outside and exploring.
Bring nature to you. Install a birdbath, bird feeder, plantings or other attraction to invite nature to visit your home. Place binoculars on the windowsill overlooking your garden or bird feeder, and your daughter will be prepared when that new bird or butterfly visits. Add an element of engineering by building a birdhouse together.
Think small. Exploring nature doesn't have to be on the scale of hiking the Grand Canyon. There are plenty of creepy-crawlies in the dirt underneath a large rock or log to keep any child learning and entertained for an afternoon.
Never say "Ewww." Your daughter will model your behavior, so when she picks up that slimy, goopy sea creature during your summer vacation (or finds a pile of slugs in the garden), don't grimace and say "Ewwww!" Instead, say, "Wow, that's interesting! What do you think it is?" Your response turns what could otherwise be considered "gross" into a fabulous creature worth investigating.
Have guidebooks on hand. There are countless nature books, websites and mobile phone apps that can be used by a child. Encourage your daughter to use these resources to identify the things she observes in nature. Then, challenge her to learn more. What kind of leaf does that caterpillar eat? Why are there so many slugs in the garden this morning? How long does it take that tadpole to grow into a frog? Armed with this knowledge, your child will start to make scientific connections and be ready to do her own experiments and long-term observations.
Keep a nature journal. Get your daughter a journal (or, better yet, encourage her to make her own personalized journal) to draw pictures of her nature finds. Not only will this reinforce learning by focusing on the details of nature through art, it also will be a beautiful memento of her childhood.
Nature walks as rewards. A nature walk with a parent is a great reward for academic achievement or doing chores. Incentivize your child to work hard at school or on a project at home by promising to take her on a tadpole hunt at your local park or on a nature hike in a nearby state or national forest.
Let your child take the lead. When you join your child outside, provide minimal guidance. Let her take the lead. Let her walk in front on hikes and encourage her to tell you what she sees around her. She will be a more active observer, gain confidence from being "in charge" and have a sense of accomplishment and responsibility with her discoveries.
Be prepared! In any nature exploration, a child is bound to find something she wants to investigate further. This means you need to be prepared to take photos or carry home the "find." Don't forget to bring along a camera and a bucket. There are some great nature apps for mobile phones that allow you to do on-site identification and research—sometimes you don't want to have to wait until you get home!
Encourage experiments. Equipped with the knowledge of exploration and research, your daughter is ready to experiment. Now that she knows what kind of caterpillar she found and what sort of leaves it eats to survive, let her create a home for the caterpillar, adding fresh leaves daily, until that caterpillar spins a cocoon and turns into a moth. Still can't figure out what kind of seed your daughter found? Plant it, water it and see what grows!
Let nature come inside. Your child is less likely to be afraid of dirt and creepy crawlies if you aren't afraid, so don't banish nature to the outdoors. Bringing nature and experiments indoors will allow her to do more research, maintain interest in her experiments and share her discoveries with family members.
Research shows that exposure to nature can improve self-confidence, concentration and physical and mental health. But we don't need research to tell us that having our daughters playing outside, exploring the world around them and taking the initiative to learn more is beneficial in countless ways. The freedom and opportunity to explore nature, and the model of this behavior in yourself, are gifts she will have with her forever.
What are some ways that your family embraces nature?
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