Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.
― John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf

When last we approached this topic (in response to blog posts last summer by John Halstead and Allison Leigh Lilly) I left off with the idea that we can influence how our children experience nature…and its true!  We can totally influence how our children experience nature.  But first we need to understand how children instinctively understand nature.

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Before we “civilize” them, kids grok e e cummings’s idea that “the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful” and that they are part of that puddle stomping, mud pie making wonderful lusciousness of the world.  Before we teach them to not get dirty and not pick stuff off the ground because (gasp!) it has germs, all you need to do to teach most children to find awe in nature is to take them outside and let them do their own thing.

Hmmm…

Teach is not the right word.  It has been my observation (as a former kid, a big sister of brothers 18 years my junior, a former frequent babysitter of neighborhood kids, a summer camp counselor, and among other things, now a mom) that kids will find awe in nature in direct proportionality to how often they are outside, how little you direct them to “do this” or “do that”, and how dirty they are allowed to get.  Parents (or teachers for that matter) don’t teach their children to love nautre so much as they facilitate the encounter and let the magic happen.

The key to is to go somewhere where there isn’t a built in playground (don’t get me wrong, playgrounds are fun, but they are also an implicit directive to go there to play rather than in the field or the woods–unless, maybe your playground looks like this).  Look for places with plenty of plants or other things that are at their level (the beach is good, a creek is good, a trail with lots of things to turn over and look at is good…a big empty freshly mowed field is probably not so good unless you bring along a kite or a telescope at night or something).  Trust me, they will figure it out…but, if they are having some trouble, give them a few hints to look around, “I wonder what lives under than dead log?” or “Look at that spider web!  Where do you think the spider is right now?”  or “You know, so-and-so used to find arrow heads out here when I was a kid.”

The tricky part comes after they’ve grown out of that innately curious and fascinated with nature age (it varies, but in my experience, it seems to occur somewhere around 8-10).  Some children that are exposed early will “grow out of it” anyway and some kids that haven’t been given the opportunity to grow into it will find it on their own (I’ve observed that these are often kids that read–they may not have been given leave to find awe in nature itself, but they’ve developed a healthy foundation for it from books…but for the most part, its been my observation a kid that doesn’t experience nature before then has a harder chance of learning to appreciate it later.  You and the Great Outdoors have now come into competition with Xbox, the internet, and Nickelodeon–why go outside when soda, AC, and Mortal Combat are all in your room (or at least your house)?

One thing hasn’t changed though, for most kids, they need action, they need activity, and (after pointing them in the right direction) they need you to stop hovering and nagging (even a bookworm like myself as a kid wanted this–mostly I wanted to try out the stuff I had read about).  So, for older kids, get them them gadgets, get them boxes or jars, etc to bring stuff home to (normally I don’t advocate taking stuff with you–leave no trace and all that (and there are some legal concerns), but in this case, most kids like collections, and…really, there would be no Audobon, Muir, or National Park system without it) and send them forth in the neighborhood or park or yard.  Particularly in this era of over-programming our children, and  especially since you can’t count on schools to get them outside (not really the school’s fault…they often just don’t have the time or the resources), getting them outside is of vital importance (I’ve talked about the reasons why on here before).

Okay…now that I’ve stood on my soap-box, lets get down to the nitty gritty!   If we are honest, we parents, sitting on our duff and waiting on our kids to figure it out on their own is hard.  But never fear, there are five things we can do that are minimally invasive:

  • Consider some  low-tech gadgets to enhance observations of the very far and the very small–binoculars, telescope, magnifying glass, microscope, etc.  Learning to use these together, before going out in the field, is a great indoor rainy/cold day activity.
  • Field Journal and/or Sketchbook (and appropriate paint, pens, etc) to record what one finds.  This might be something to cart around, some kids like the idea of recording things when they see them, or they are into art.  If they aren’t, let them bring stuff home and preserve it appropriately–consider making a herbarium, or insect collection.
  • Make or find tools for collecting and preserving specimen–plant press, geology kit, butterfly net, underwater viewer, etc.  Perhaps (or perhaps not) surprisingly, a really good source of what tools are useful (and the environments in which they are useful) and how to make them are old natural history books* (this is one is a particular favorite of mine).
  • Field guide, field guide, field guide!!–Using a field guide effectively takes a while to develop as a skill, learn together.  If your kids are young (or even if they aren’t) consider these folding guides, which stick to the most common species in a region. They are small and they are laminated–I have this one, for shells, and to be quite honest, we  have yet to find a shell that wasn’t on the darn thing, and the kids find it quite easy to use!
  • Hold down the snack, water, and sunscreen fort–hey, maintaining home base is an important task!  Were would all those Everest explorers be without the people that kept the base camp waiting?  Pop a tent up in the back yard, or even at the park (seriously, if you aren’t actually camping overnight, where’s the harm?) for shade or wind protection, give the kids a map and compass (pre-stage a snack or prize and mark it on the map), keep the score for a scavenger hunt, etc.

Whatever you decide to do (because there are also some pretty awesome structured activities available out there for teaching kids stuff about nature–I’m not knocking them, I just think they are more effective after kids have been rewild-ed…perhaps that should be a part 3), just remember that its mostly about taking them outside, and letting them meet nature on their own terms.

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*Lots of these sorts of books are available online, for free, on Google.  Additionally, there are a few sort of “survey” books of the history of Natural History as a phenomenon during the Victorian era (this one is pretty good).  For the homeschoolers in the crowd (particularly for an older kiddo), a study of Natural History as the for-runner to the modern fields of geology, botany, and zoology (biology) and as the catalyst for shift of science being an amateur pursuit to a professional field, might be right up the alley of kids interested in both science and history.  Also…the study of natural history was a pursuit considered acceptable for women of that time period, and a number of women contributed quite famously to the field (in acceptable, conventional ways as well as less conventional and more risque ones).

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