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.
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.
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?
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.