By Richard Louv
Now that the weather is cooling down, it’s time to head outdoors, so we’ve collected great tips on how to reclaim nature for your children. Many of the activities presented here are adult-supervised, but it’s important to remember that one of the most important goals is for our children to experience joy and wonder every day, and for them to be encouraged to create their own nature experiences.
No list of nature activities and community actions can be complete, but here are a few suggestions that may stimulate your own creativity:
• Invite native flora and fauna into your life. Maintain a birdbath. Replace part of your lawn with native plants. For backyard suggestions, plus links to information about attracting wildlife to apartments and townhouses, see the National Audubon Society’s Invitation to a Healthy Yard. Make your yard a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat.
• View nature as an antidote to stress. All the health benefits that come to a child come to the adult who takes that child into nature. Children and parents feel better after spending time in the natural world, even if it’s in their own backyard.
• Help your child discover a hidden universe. Find a scrap board and place it on bare dirt. Come back in a day or two, lift the board, and see how many species have found shelter there. Identify these creatures with the help of a field guide. Return to this universe once a month, lift the board and discover who’s new.
• Revive old traditions. Make a leaf collection. Keep a terrarium or aquarium.
• Encourage your kids to go camping in the backyard. Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up.
• Be a cloudspotter; build a backyard weather station. No special shoes or drive to the soccer field is required for “clouding.” A young person just needs a view of the sky (even if it’s from a bedroom window) and a guidebook. Cirrostratus, cumulonimbus, or lenticularis, shaped like flying saucers, “come to remind us that the clouds are Nature’s poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag,” writes Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his wonderful book The Cloudspotter’s Guide. To build a backyard weather station, read The Kid’s Book of Weather Forecasting, by Mark Breen, Kathleen Friestad and Michael Kline.
• Take a hike. With younger children, choose easier, shorter routes and prepare to stop often. Or be a stroller explorer. “If you have an infant or toddler, consider organizing a neighborhood stroller group that meets for weekly nature walks,” suggests the National Audubon Society. The American Hiking Society offers good tips on how to hike with teenagers. Involve your teen in planning hikes; prepare yourselves physically for hikes, and stay within your limits (start with short day hikes); keep pack weight down. For more information, consult the American Hiking Society or a good hiking guide, such as John McKinney’s Joy of Hiking.
• Invent your own nature game. One mother’s suggestion: “We help our kids pay attention during longer hikes by playing ‘find ten critters’—mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, snails, other creatures. Finding a critter can also mean discovering footprints, mole holes, and other signs that an animal has passed by or lives there.”
• Plant a garden. If your children are little, choose seeds large enough for them to handle and that mature quickly, including vegetables. Whether teenagers or toddlers, young gardeners can help feed the family, and if your community has a farmers’ market, encourage them to sell their extra produce. Alternatively, share it with the neighbors or donate it to a food bank. If you live in an urban neighborhood, create a high-rise garden. A landing, deck, terrace, or flat roof typically can accommodate several large pots, and even trees can thrive in containers if given proper care.
• Raise butterflies from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to emerging monarch.
• Collect stones. Even the youngest children love gathering rocks, shells and fossils. To polish stones, use an inexpensive lapidary machine–a rock tumbler. See Rock and Fossil Hunter by Ben Morgan for more info on this.
For more information, see solutions presented throughout Last Child in the Woods. Also, visit the nonprofit Children & Nature Network for more ideas for your family and community, including an action guide for change.
Good Books for Kids and Families
Best Hikes with Children series, guides by geographic region (The Mountaineers)
Camp Out!: The Ultimate Kids’ Guide, Lynn Brunelle (Workman, 2007)
A Child’s Introduction to the Night Sky: The Story of the Stars, Planets, and Constellations-and How You Can Find Them in the Sky, Michael Driscoll (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2004)
The Cloudspotter’s Guide: The Science, History, and Culture of Clouds, Gavin Pretor-Pinney (Perigee, 2007)
Coyote’s Guide to Connecting Kids with Nature, Jon Young, Ellen Haas, Evan McGown (Wilderness Awareness School, 2008)
Creating a Family Garden: Magical Outdoor Spaces for All Ages, Bunny Guinness (Abbeville Press, 1996)
Go Outside: Over 130 Activities for Outdoor Adventures, Nancy Blakey (Tricycle Press, 2002)
I Love Dirt!, Jennifer Ward (Trumpeter, 2008)
The Joy of Hiking: Hiking the Trailmaster Way, John McKinney (Wilderness Press, 2005)
Rock and Fossil Hunter, Ben Morgan (DK Publishing, 2005)
Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots: Gardening Together with Children, Sharon Lovejoy (Workman, 1999)
Sharing Nature with Children, Joseph Cornell (Dawn Publications, 1998 Unplugged Play, Bobbi Conner Workman, 2007)