Contemplative Outdoor Activities for Children

Richard Louv states in his book, Last Child in the Woods, “The shift in our relationship to the natural world is startling, even in settings that one would assume are devoted to nature. Not that long ago, summer camp was a place where you camped, hiked in the woods, learned about plants and animals, or told firelight stories about ghosts or mountain lions. As likely as not today, “summer camp” is a weight-loss camp, or a computer camp. For a new generation, nature is more abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear —to ignore. A recent television ad depicts a four-wheel-drive SUV racing along a breathtakingly beautiful mountain stream—while in the backseat two children watch a movie on a flip-down video screen, oblivious to the landscape and water beyond the windows.”

If children don’t feel a connection to nature, and don’t see the importance of conserving the integrity of the natural world, where will the Earth’s future environmental stewards come from?

Teaching children that all life is connected is important, so that when they become adults they understand the importance of careful research and planning when it comes to technology and development, so that we don’t lose species. They’ll know that we cannot survive without a thriving and healthy ecosystem, and that an ecosystem consists of everything from clean water to healthy soil to insects and birds. Many critics of conservation and proponents of things like drilling ANWAR and the Gulf of Mexico say that environmentalists care more about polar bears and reindeer than they do about people.

That statement implies that we don’t need polar bears, or caribou, or any other animal for our survival on Earth. What these critics don’t consider is that when you lose a keystone species such as the caribou, or you obliterate pests in agriculture you also threaten needed pollinators, you are directly affecting what happens to humans.

We need to teach children how to enjoy and respect nature, so they’ll be able to make the right decisions for their future.

These are a few no-cost or low-cost ways of enjoying time outdoors with children.

What Animal Are You?

This is an activity for children ages 6-10 that can be done while walking in a wilderness area or trail. This activity will help a child realize that animals need hiding areas and appropriate habitat to live.

Talk to the child about the kind of animals that may live in the area you’re walking. Ask them to describe what animals they imagine might live there. Then ask them to pick an animal they like the most out of the list you came up with together, or the animal that’s most like them. Ask them to imagine what they would do to find food. Where would they go? What would they eat? What would it taste like? Then ask them where they might go to rest and sleep when they felt tired. Help the child by pointing out possible places—rock outcroppings, under logs, burrows, in a thicket. Have the child tell you what they would be looking for if they were that animal and needed to find a place to rest or sleep so they weren’t disturbed by humans and predators.

Smell a Tree, Touch a Flower

This is an activity for younger children, perhaps 2-6 years old, as well as for older kids up to age 11. It can be done in the backyard, in a park, or along a trail. This expands the child’s awareness of it’s surroundings beyond the cliché or the obvious.

Ask the child to smell a nearby tree bark. Some trees, like ponderosa pine, smell like vanilla. Ask the child to tell you what they think of the smell. Then ask them to touch some flowers and tell you which one feels softest, or the most delicate.

Ask the child to look closely at the leaves of a tree and see if they can find evidence that an animal or insect visited that leaf.

Draw What You Feel

This is an activity for children ages 4-11. It can be done anywhere outdoors, including a backyard or a park, especially where there are a lot of trees, flowers or animals. You’ll need some paper and crayons or drawing tools to give to the child. This activity builds an empathetic connection between the child’s emotions and what they observe in nature.

Ask the child to look around and draw what they see that makes them feel three different ways: 1) peaceful or happy, 2) worried or unhappy, and 3) curious or confused. They may end up drawing such things as flowers for happiness, or maybe a piece of trash or a dead plant for the unhappy emotion. Give the child ample time to complete the exericise. Then ask them to talk about what they drew and why.

Field Guide Trip

This is an activity for children ages 6-12. It can be done anywhere outdoors, but is best done in a park, open space or wilderness where there are many birds, insects or wildflowers present. You will need a field guide from your region, which you can check out of your local library. Pick any of the following types of guides: wildflowers, trees, animals, birds, or weeds.

Bring the field guide along on a walk or hike and challenge the child to find as many plants or animals as possible that match what they see in the field guide. Read the descriptions of the animal and plant and why what they’re observing is what they see in the book (does it have the same colors? Does it live in the area where it is described?). Ask the following questions about the plant or animal:
1. Is it native to the local area?
2. Does it live here year-round?
3. Where does it go or migrate when it’s not here?
4. What happens to this plant or animal in the winter?

Discuss what you find and then make plans to visit the same area in a month or two to see if different plants or animals appear there.

Contemplative Fishing

This is an activity for children ages 4-12 and involves fishing. If you enjoy fishing, it’s a wonderful way to teach a child about ecology if you bring them along. Learning ecology helps a child understand the interconnectedness of all life.

Ask the child to tell you what they see and hear at the pond, stream or lake where you’re fishing. Do they hear frogs? Do they see reeds and plants near the water? How clear is the water?

A good way to know that fish are actively feeding is to watch for risers. Explain to the child what a riser is (a circular disturbance on the surface of the water that indicates a fish has surfaced its mouth) and what the fish may be trying to catch and eat. Explain why you’re using certain bait. If you’re bass fishing, you may be trying different colorful lures because bass have great memories – and if they got caught and released once with a pink lure, they may be leery of anything pink in the future. If you’re trout fishing, explain that trout enjoy very cold water but they don’t enjoy water that rushes quickly, like in a stream. Ask the child where they see areas that a fish may want to rest or hang out, and that’s a good place to cast the fly.

This is also a great opportunity to talk about the food chain. The insects are necessary for fish to eat. The small fish are eaten by the larger fish, and the larger fish are eaten by ducks, pelicans or other predators like cranes or herons (or humans). The sophistication of your your explanation depends on the age of the child.

Neighborhood Pride

This is an activity to do with your child from toddler all the way to their teenaged years. You take a walk in your neighborhood with a trash bag and pick up trash and debris. You teach the child the value of serving the community, not littering, and having pride in where they live. Smaller children can hold the trash bag, while older children can wear gloves to pick up debris.

Discuss how it felt to do this activity. Was it embarassing? Did it feel good to clean things up? Did the child feel angry about the people who littered? How does it make them feel about taking care of the Earth?

Children’s Garden

You need not have a backyard in order to help your child plant and grow something. This is an activity for children of all ages and can be done indoors on a sunny windowsill, or outdoors in a sunny location. If done indoors, you will need a small pot, some good potting soil and some seeds that your child selects. You can plant beans, flowers or vegetables, but for beginner gardeners such plants as peas and beans do very well and grow quickly with the proper care. If done outdoors in a garden, you can help the child plant the seeds in a tilled, enriched soil and let the child weed and water the area throughout the season.

Children take a lot of pride in growing their own food, as evidenced from my own 10-year old daughter, who loves to pull out beets and carrots that she planted and eat them raw, right on the spot! (after a good rinsing, of course.) This is also a good way to teach children about the importance of good, appropriate weather for growing certain kinds of food, and the importance of enough sunlight and moisture. Tomatoes don’t do well when it’s too wet or too cool. Peas and lettuces wilt in weather that’s too hot. Children also learn what plants look like and where their food comes from, as well as gaining a culinary appreciation for vegetables.

Activity for the Blue Moon on December 31st

On New Year’s Eve this year, a rare celestial event will be recorded — the second full moon in a month on December 31, 2009. Two full moons in a month aren’t rare because they occur once every 2-1/2 years, but a second full moon in December happening on New Year’s Eve is.

The term that was coined for this is “Blue Moon.” It doesn’t mean the moon will appear blue in the sky, although that did happen late in the 19th century after a volcanic eruption left particulates in the skies for 2 years and created the illusion of  “blue moon.” This was also one of the origins of the term “once in a blue moon,” which defines an event so rare it only happens once in a lifetime, or longer.

The fact that the article about the Blue Moon event was the most viewed this morning on CNN is a good thing – perhaps people all over the world will step outside tomorrow night and ponder the skies for at least a moment. They will be mindful that despite everything happening in their own lives and in the geopolitical stage, there are natural cycles that churn away predictably in the background, whether we’re aware of them or not. The moon rises and sets on the horizon. The Earth revolves on its axis. The sun shines day after day, millennia after millennia. So much of this we take for granted, but it’s critical to our existence.

I used to love meditating on the sky at night when I was in my late teens, imagining that there was no atmosphere between me and the cosmos, that I could simply jump up and fly off into the sea of stars. The moon and stars weren’t just objects in the sky in my mind, they were ancient entities of energy and mass that have existed way before humans rose up on two feet and formed clans. The moon and stars are our ancestors. They’re part of the larger home of our Universe.

This New Year’s Eve, go outside at some point after sunset and ponder the moon if it’s a clear night and you can get an unobstructed view. Try to feel your feet on the ground, pretending that there’s nothing holding you back from simply lifting up your arms and flying off into space. Try to see what is making the moon so bright in your mind’s eye: the sun shining on the other side of the planet, casting its glow on the face of Earth’s natural satellite. Feel how it feels to be riding this giant spacecraft, rotating slowly, held in place by gravity, cradled and protected by the atmosphere.

What you’ll see is the past—light from objects that may have long since expired or exploded, or changed. There are things happening in the universe that we don’t know about yet, because we can’t see the light from those events because it’s still traveling to reach our eyes. How does it feel to know that when you look up at the sky at night, you’re not seeing the present? That you’re looking back in time? We don’t experience that on Earth—everything actual object (not photos or movies) we see is in “real time”.

So when you look up at the sky tonight or tomorrow night, remember that. You’re looking into the past, and you’re seeing something that’s been in existence long before you were born, or even before your great great great grandparents were born. Whatever happens in the news or in your own life today, there are natural cycles that occur without any effort from us, that are out of our control, and those cycles both keep us alive and pull us forward toward the entropy of our own existence.

Contemplative Hike for Couples or Friends

Couple hikingWho This is For:

This activity is for couples or friends who would like to spend time together in a natural setting to release stress, experience beauty, and improve their mood. The reason this hike is “silent” is because it increases awareness of your surroundings and puts less pressure on each individual to maintain a conversation while trying to enjoy the setting.

The diad conversation after the hike builds intimacy in a safe way.

The Activity

Arrive together at a trail or park where you can wander for at least an hour or two at a slow to moderate pace. This activity is best done in a place where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic, dogs, frequent passers-by, or vehicle noise. An ideal location would be a forest trail, a mountain trail, a beach early in the morning, or a large park on a weekday morning when it’s not very crowded.

Once you arrive, set a simple intention on what you will do on the hike. An example of this may be:

“My intention is to avoid thinking about that fight we had and just enjoy being close to you in a beautiful setting.”


“My intention is to try notice what it’s like to feel close to you without needing to tell you what I’m thinking, or to just communicate non-verbally.”

Speak your intention out loud to each other, then agree that once you pass a certain “threshhold” — the trailhead, a tree, a rock — you will begin in silence. You will not break the silence during the entire walk, communicating only through non-verbal means, such as gentle touches, pointing, or facial expressions. Agree on how long you will walk and at what time you will turn back (wear a watch).

Once you step over the threshhold, walk close together. If you pass another person, you may greet them by nodding or smiling, but try to maintain silence.

Notice how it feels to spend this much time together without speaking. Look around and give your attention to the trees, the birds, the sky, the ground. Notice your thoughts as they come and go, approach, and pass.

What thoughts keep coming up? How does being silent around your partner feel? Like a relief or like torture? What do you wish you could say?

After you cross back over the threshhold, find a comfortable place to sit and sit opposite each other. This is the second part of the activity.

There are only two rules to this part of the activity:

1) No matter what the other person says, you can only respond, “thank you for sharing.”

2) You don’t discuss or talk about this part of the activity later. This creates a sense of safety about sharing and promotes honesty.

One person begins by asking, “What part of the hike was most difficult for you?”

The other person responds, but the person asking the question can only say, “Thank you for sharing.”

Here are some suggested questions to ask:

1) What kept coming up for you as you walked?

2) What do you wish you could say to me while we were walking?

3) What did you enjoy most about taking a silent walk with me?

4) What did you enjoy the least about walking in silene with me?

5) What thing did you notice in nature that you most wanted to talk about with me?

When you’re finished, agree not to talk about the questions or get defensive about the answers later. Agree not to talk about the details of the hike itself too much. Return home.

What This Activity Evokes

This activity is a way for couples or friends to spend time in nature in a way that builds awareness of both their internal and external state. Not only are the individuals asked to enjoy their surroundings, they’re also asked to contemplate how they feel about being silent around their partner. The silence can feel good, or it could be discomforting, depending on the relationship. This comfort or discomfort is a point to be examined.

The diad exercise after the hike is a way to discuss what happened in an honest way, without analyzing too much or over-discussing it.

Winter Solstice Ritual

Winter Solstice Ritual

Spending time in nature has the incredible ability to make us feel peaceful and grounded. As an ecopsychologist, I know that human beings need a connection to something wild, whether that be a pet, a garden, or a mountain in order to feel soulful and happy. I see how couples who backpack, hike or garden together are able to—at least for a while—put their troubles behind them when they immerse themselves in the beauty of the wilderness. Studies have shown that spending time simply walking in a natural setting (as opposed to simply walking in the mall, for example) can have immense psychological benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression.

One way to honor the natural world and actual form a relationship to the land where you reside is to acknowledge the passing of the seasons. Solstice ceremonies and rituals date back millennia, when societies were much more in tune with natural cycles because their very livelihood and wellbeing was so intricately tied to the land, the weather and their animals. Celebrations were rich with food and drink—one last feast before the start of the long period of uncertainty and possibly starvation during the cold months of January through April.

We are now approaching the next solstice, which is the winter solstice, or the first day of winter, typically falls around December 21st in the northern hemisphere. The solstice is the day in which the sun begins to rise earlier and set later, making for longer days and shorter nights. The day of the solstice is the shortest (and darkest) day of the year, but it’s also the beginning of a trend toward longer days, even though it marks the first day of winter.

I designed a do-it-yourself winter solstice ritual around the concept of preparing a seed that will hopefully sprout and take root in the spring, both literally and figuratively. Because the solstice is the start of longer days at the same time it’s the beginning of the coldest season, it represents the preparation for new beginnings at a time when it’s easy to forget that things will once again thrive and grow. Maybe you’ve lost something of importance to you this year. Maybe something didn’t quite turn out the way you had hoped—a relationship, a job, or a financial venture. On the day of the solstice, you want to plant “seeds” for new beginnings and new hope for things to blossom for you in the coming year. The seeds will lay dormant for a few months, just as your dreams may lay dormant while you make background preparations for the changes you want to make.

This is a ritual you can do alone or with a friend or romantic partner.

You’ll need a few days to research and prepare for this ritual. You want to lay the groundwork and give your seeds the best possible chance to grow and thrive. First, you’ll need to know what are some of the native plants or grasses that grow in your bioregion. Here where I live in Colorado, buffalo and blue gamma are the native grasses that grow in the plains right up to the foot of the Rocky Mountains. For the ritual I’m doing, I bought a small amount of this seed at my local nursery. Learning about the native plants in your area is a way to know more about the land where you live, more than just where the nearest mall is. It’s the kind of knowledge our ancestors needed in order to live sustainably with their bioregion.

Once you have a list of native plants, you can visit your local nursery order seeds online. Purchase a small amount of some kind of grass, wildflower or plant that will grow without much human input in a meadow, open space or park near your home.

Next, find out what time the sun rises on December 21st where you live. This will be important for your ritual. Also, think of a park, wild area or trail that has a good view toward the southeast horizon near where you live. Preferably, this should be a wild area that isn’t landscaped with grass, an area that would be good ground for growing the seeds you purchased. Ideally, it should be an area where the plants you purchased already grow naturally or where the ecosystem would not be disrupted with its introduction.

On the night before the solstice, take a small amount of the seeds and mix them with compost, garden soil or some kind of seed starter mix. Place the mixture in the middle of a square of brown paper bag, like a lunch bag or a grocery bag. Carefully wrap the mixture as if you were wrapping a gift, and secure it with thread or a very thin piece of tape. You will be taking this with you on the morning of the solstice, along with a pen or marker.

On the morning of the solstice, plan on arriving at the natural area or park at least 15 minutes before the sun is scheduled to rise. After parking your car or arriving on foot, take a minute to center yourself in the space and state your intention. What are you here for? Ask the land permission and blessing for your ritual. You and your partner should then begin to walk or hike on the trail in meditative silence, allowing yourself to be mindful of your surroundings. Notice the way the air smells, the way the wind sounds as it moves across the land or through the trees. Notice if you hear any wildlife. What does the sky look like in this moment at sunrise on the shortest day of the year?

You’ll want to walk or meander in this space for a short time, watch the sunrise if possible, and relax into the surroundings. Then, when you’re ready, take out the seed packet you prepared and the pen you brought with you. What do you want to let go of that you’ve lost in the last year? What new challenges or hopes do you have for the coming year? What “seeds” would you like to plant for your life on this day.

Write down some words directly on the brown paper that represent what you are hoping to incubate and nurture for next year. It could be things like a good relationships, a new understanding of someone you love, better friendships, a new job or career. Perhaps you want to nurture new, positive habits. Write down two or three words to represent your hopes and goals.

Let your heart lead you to a spot where you know your seeds have the best possible chance to grow in the spring—a spot with lots of sunshine and good soil. Take the seed packet and place it under the snow or bury it a little bit on the ground (depending on the weather that day). Place it somewhere where it won’t easily be found, where it will remain sacred and safe.

Return to your home or car again in silence, to honor the moment and contemplate both the real seeds you’ve placed on the earth and the metaphorical seeds you’ve placed in your subconscious that will hopefully take root and thrive in the months ahead.

When you return home, have a big breakfast feast—lots of delicious sweet and savory things to nourish you. Share your impressions with your friend or partner. Talk about how you can help nurture each other’s “seeds” in the months to come. This is a new “outside of your head” way of bonding with them, and you may find yourself remembering in the days ahead how magical it felt to be out in nature at sunrise on the shortest day of the year, in a solitude we don’t often experience in the city.

What is ecopsychology?

Sunrise over the mountainsWhat is Ecopsychology and Why is it Important?

Ecopsychology is a relatively young field of study that examines how human mental and physical health is connected to the health of the natural environment. It examines how humans have disconnected from nature and how and why it’s important to reconnect to nature. Ecopsychology also attempts to explain why some people persist in destroying their environment—whether consciously or not—and the best way to motivate and inspire humanity to live sustainably and in harmony with the Earth.

Ecopsychology assumes several fundamental concepts. First, that human are a part of nature, not apart from nature. It assumes that the health of the environment is directly linked to our health, because we are a part of, and live on, the earth. The deteriorating health of the planet cannot be ignored or compartmentalized without dire consequences to the survival of humans.

Finally, ecopsychology assumes that mental health cannot be compartmentalized solely as ego- or self-oriented. Our connectedness to nature is intricately tied to our mental well-being. Our surroundings have a direct effect on our state of mind, as evidenced by several recent studies. One such study, performed in the U.K. by Mind (Ecotherapy: The Green Agenda for Mental Health), reports that “going for a green walk in a park or countryside where one is surrounded by nature reduces depression whereas walking in a shopping centre or urban setting increases depression.”

Our Relationship to Nature

Human beings are indeed animals and a part of nature just as a chipmunk, a blade of grass and a mountain is a part of nature. Humans are not greater than, more important than, or apart from their natural surroundings.

Ecophilosopher and writer Paul Shepard hypothesizes that there was a shift and disconnection in thought about how human related to nature at the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. He states in his article Nature and Madness, “It fostered a new sense of human mastery and the extirpation of non-human life.” (From the book, Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind, p. 24)

After the invention of agriculture, humans began to think of themselves as controllers of plants, and ultimately of animals when animal husbandry developed as well. Perhaps the true break with our natural surroundings didn’t fully happen until the industrial and scientific revolution of the 16th-19th centuries, when nature was seen as dangerous and something to be tamed or exploited. But the seed was planted, according to Shepard, early in our species’ history.

How Connectedness to Nature Relates to Our Attitude About Conservation

Many individuals and organizations recognize the dire environmental consequences of a controlling or use-oriented attitude toward our environment. But many more do not.  It is a type of insanity — the inability to see or care about the fact that misuse of our surroundings is a kind of species suicide. What other animal would deliberately harm the place where they live so much that their very health and species survival was affected? Yeasts or viruses come to mind, as do parasites. Does that mean that humans have become parasitic and toxic to the Earth?

Ecopsychology is a field of study made necessary because of the disconnectedness we feel with each other and nature, and because of the dire situation of the health of our home. We no longer can continue to go on with business as usual, raking our machines and tools across the face of our planet, sucking it dry of life and spewing our garbage into the air and sea. We no longer can afford to think that the Earth will be there for us indefinitely, shiny and new, constantly giving as we forever plunder.

Studies have shown that persons who can relate to nature, or spend a lot of time in nature, may realize the connection to their environment better than those who do not, and consequently are more apt to give more attention and credence to issues such as the need for conservation and sustainability.

“…people high in environmental identity accord more weight than people low in environmental identity to those principles that endow environmental entities with moral standing. That EID score was also related to an increased rating for a fourth principle, ‘managing natural resources for the public good’…” (Susan Clayton, Environmental Identity, pg 57)

James Hillman may have said it best: “Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.”

Re-Connecting to Our Soul Through Nature-Based Practices

Since we are nature, we have an ancient wisdom and wildness in us that we can tap into—if only we slow down and are mindful enough to do so. Tapping into our soul—the core of each of us that is both inside and outside us and that holds our ancient animal wisdom—is done through various means of internalizing nature. This is done by ritual and nature-based practices.

When you’re feeling scattered, stressed, or depressed because you’re spending too much time “in your head” or sitting in a room with electronics all day, you can begin to feel more grounded and calm by simply connecting to a wild place you enjoy, sitting in your backyard, or spending time with a pet. It doesn’t cost money and it doesn’t require that you travel long distances.

Nature is accessible to everyone, regardless of income level or location. Nature can take the form of a tree, a pet, the sky, or a river. One does not need to travel far or have special equipment (other than protective clothing and a comfortable pair of shoes) to enjoy and reconnect to the world around us.