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Child with binoculars

Ranger Julie shares some simple ways to help children along the path of nature discovery.

Wild Child

I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.

– A nine year old boy in San Diego, California

As a ranger and as a parent to a young child I have pondered what sorts of opportunities my child will have to really engage with nature, to learn to love and become part of it. Does our society allow enough freedom for children to really explore, make mistakes, try again? Will my busy schedule allow me enough time to nurture his interests with the outside world?

I recently read Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods(Opens in a new window) . It had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, but as I watched my 2 year old begin to build a curiosity for nature (he will sometimes stop in his tracks, point to the ground and declare, ant!), I was inspired to finally crack open this book by the man who coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder. The term refers to the concept that as children spend less and less time outdoors, it can impact their mental health including their ability to concentrate and their mood. Some studies have even shown that nature likely has a positive effect on treating cognitive disorders in children.

I would imagine there are probably many parents who would like to foster nature exploration and natural play in their kids, but between jobs, keeping households running, social and organized activities, electronic devices, and many other realities of life, it’s hard to know where to start.

But never fear! There are some simple ways to start (or continue) your journey along the path of nature discovery and appreciation, and yes this applies even if you don’t have a garden.

“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.”

Richard Louv.

Here are some suggestions, some my own that have worked with my son, and some from Richard Louv’s book:

  1. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. If my son has dirt under his fingernails and muddy trouser knees at the end of the day, I consider that a success! It means he played, explored, discovered.
  2. Invite wildlife into your garden or balcony. Get your kids involved. Go to the local nursery together and ask which plants will attract bees and other pollinators. Plant seeds together, let little ones be amazed at how they sprout on the windowsill, give them the responsibility of watering and eventually plant them outside together. There’s that dirt under the fingernails again. Yes!
  3. Find a piece of wooden board and place it on bare dirt. Lift it up in a couple of days and see how many critters have taken refuge under it. Can you identify some of the creatures? Come back every few weeks to see what other creepy crawlies there are to discover.
  4. Go camping in the garden. Put up a small tent or canvas tepee and leave it up all summer.
  5. Become a cloudspotter. You just need a view of the sky and maybe a Cloud Spotting Guide. Cirrostratus or cumulonimbus, which one is it? Or is it just a funny shape that reminds you of a unicorn or teddy bear?
  6. Take a hike. Go for a walk with the whole family. Take the buggy for toddlers, but do let them out to run around; you won’t get very far but it will be worth it. With older children, start small in a local park and build your way up to longer or more challenging walks complete with a picnic lunch. There are some fantastic routes in the New Forest for all experience levels. Involve teens in the planning process for longer walks.
  7. Keep a Wonder Bowl. Sometimes kids are naturally inclined to pick up cones, rocks, shells, etc. Encourage this. If they are not naturally inclined, make a game of it. ‘Can you find something smooth, something rough, something hard, something soft, something you’ve never seen before, something beautiful, etc. If appropriate (not alive, liable to rot, etc.) take these home and put them in the Wonder Bowl.
  8. Sit under a tree or in a field or almost anywhere outside, and learn to consciously use all your senses. Close your eyes. How many bird calls can you hear? What can you smell? What is your body touching? What does it feel like? Does the air taste of anything?
  9. Make bark rubbings using crayons and paper.
  10. Keep a Nature Journal. Put your bark rubbings in in. Glue different leaves to the pages, draw, sketch, write.
  11. Go berry picking at a local farm or fruit picking at a local orchard.
  12. Become Citizen Scientists – join a BioBlits in your local area.
  13. Go Birding! Make a conscious effort to look and listen for birds. Once you start noticing birds, you may find you can’t stop, it’s addictive, but in a good way. If you have binoculars, take them along when you go for walks. We keep a pair in the car.

And finally, one last thought from Richard Louv: “Use nature as a partner to strengthen family bonds. What better way to enhance parent-child attachment than to walk in the woods together, disengaging from distracting electronics, advertising and peer pressure?”

By Julie Sims

Ranger, Bird Aware Solent