Most parents know that nature study is healthy.
Even if you’ve never read or heard about Nature Deficit Disorder, it’s just common sense, isn’t it? Being outside is good for your kids.
But knowing what is healthy and living it are two different things. Perhaps one of the most common complaints I hear is this:
I don’t know how to get my kids interested in nature. I don’t know how to make it enjoyable.
Sure. You can imagine an idyllic scene where your kids are engrossed in looking at a flower or watching a bug crawling across the sidewalk, but somehow that dream is shattered when you can also hear the complaining and feel the resistance about when it’s time to get outside and get dirty.
So, here’s some practical advice to help your kids enjoy nature. When you start incorporating some of these principles, you’ll win important ground in building a love of nature in your kids. Once they fall in love with the outdoors, your kids will reap all those wonderful benefits that come from spending time outside.
#1: Start Quick and Easy
One of the biggest mistakes parents can make in trying to get kids to enjoy nature is to have high expectations of their experiences.
You may get inspired by some nature study writer and decide that nature study is something you’re going to do.
So, you gear up, get in the car, and head-out into the wilderness for a big expedition. Once you’re there, the kids are tired and whiney. They don’t like the snacks. They’re cold or hot. And it’s boring!
You end up feeling defeated and it will take awhile for you to get motivated again.
How can you experience those magical moments that are supposed to catch your breath? Where is that heron pushing itself in the air through the mist? Or that lovely flower nodding its head along the pathway?
Nature tends to delight us on its own terms, much like that proverbial butterfly of happiness that decides to land on your shoulder as soon as you stop trying to catch it.
So, if you want to engage your children in nature, try to find nature everywhere. Look for it in the cracks of the sidewalk as you’re getting into the car. Swing by the city park and take a quick walk around. Invite your children into the backyard to look at a spider or, as Paul did for me today, to see a house sparrow with unusual white wings.
If you study nature in small, unassuming ways, you’re paving the path for those big moments when a thousand snow geese alight into the air.
Stop seeing nature study as something to do and start living it as a way of life. Then those big moments you were searching for seem to happen all the time — effortlessly.
#2: Stop Before They’re Tired
One of the key things I learned about reading aloud is to stop at an exciting place. In a good book, this is easy to do because that exciting place usually lands at the end of chapter.
In nature, stopping isn’t so easy. So often, when you’ve taken the time to get outside, you hope to get as much out of the experience as possible. You don’t want all that effort of preparing for an excursion to be wasted.
But I’m telling you that waiting too long can be damaging. If you wait until the complaints have started, you’ve waited too long. But if you say it’s time to go and then hear cries of “No” and “I want to stay!” then you’re in a great spot. The key is not to listen to them. You know that nap time is drawing near. You know that the switch is about ready to be flipped when, instead of crying for more, they’re crying out of hunger. Be proactive and wrap things up before that happens.
When you show some restraint and stop before your kids get too tired, you’ll be more ready to study nature the next time you have an opportunity.
#3: Give Them Something to Think About
When you decide to go out on a nature walk, or you’re going to spend some time in a specific place, do a little research about where you’re going to visit. Bird alerts will often clue you in on what’s been seen recently in that area. If you take the time to show your children pictures of these birds, they’ll be looking for them when they arrive.
You can even offer a prize if they are the first to spot it.
In education, we call this “pre-teaching” or an “anticipatory set”. You’re wanting to pique their interest before they engage in nature.
If you get your kids excited about what they might see, they’re more likely to study nature intently and get a huge thrill when a species turns up to delight them.
#4: Explore with All the Senses
Have you ever sniffed the bark of a mature Ponderosa Pine?
It smells like vanilla.
Try it sometime, and you’ll see!
Being in nature is a treat for the eyes, but sometimes we forget to experience nature with the other senses.
Have your children close their eyes and start by listening. Encourage them to describe what they hear.
Then, move to smelling things. Lead your child to a flower or the bark of a tree and have them experience it with their nose.
Finally, with eyes still closed, hand your child natural objects they can feel. Have them describe the shape and texture.
Another idea might be to teach some sensory words before going outside. For instance, teach the meanings of four descriptive words about smell such as pungent, sharp, piney and musky. Then, as you go, smell different things and classify them into one of those four categories.
By experiencing nature with all the senses, you develop their vocabulary, their language and make their interaction
#5: Give Them Something to Do
Tell children to run around a corner and find something to describe. Next, have them come back and tell you everything about it without naming it. Then, you walk into the area and try to find the thing they described.
Not only is this is a vocabulary building exercise, but it’s also fun. Kids get so excited when you get close to what they told you about.
Another activity to see who can sneak nearest something living without scaring it off.
Young children also love to count things. When you find mushrooms, ask how many are there (teach them not to touch!) How many petals are on a flower? How many hawks will they find? How many needles per bunch on a coniferous tree?
#6: Record Your Time Outside
Take pictures to commemorate the experience. Post them and tag your kids! Brag about your experiences in nature.
When you’re in the car or arrive home, pull out a journal and list all the things you saw and experienced. Describe them and draw sketches too. I always remind students that it’s not important how their drawings turn out, but that they’re trying to recreate it. When they sketch, they’re doing important work for their brains, training it to note important characteristics.
When you follow some of these tips for studying nature with kids, you’ll build a love of nature in your children. Soon, they’ll be the ones dragging you outdoors to discover more magical moments.
Take some time to discover something new outside today. When you’re done, share with me what you saw. I’m excited to hear about it — especially if you’ve managed to get outdoors with your little ones!