If nature came in a bottle, you can bet that every pediatrician would prescribe it. Time spent in nature can improve a child’s attention, boost creativity, reduce stress and provide a host of other benefits. It’s also good for parents. Exploring the natural world together can strengthen family bonds. And you don’t need to trek to the most remote wilderness to enjoy these positive effects—it’s as easy as going wild right at home. Here’s how…
Curing ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’
“Natural connections can occur anywhere, from the core of a city environment to a suburban neighborhood to a rural desert landscape,” says Cheryl Charles, PhD, president and CEO of the Children & Nature Network. In other words, there’s no need for any child to suffer from “nature deficit disorder,” a term Richard Louv coined in his groundbreaking book Last Child in the Woods.
Louv links rising rates of childhood depression, obesity, attention disorders and other problems in part to a lack of nature in children’s hyper-wired lives. A growing body of research (pdf) supports his contention that giving children more time in a natural setting can help counteract these trends and support their well-being.
So where does a busy parent begin? It’s easier—and more fun—than you might think. Here are eight ideas to get you started right out of the chute.
Nature Rocks is a delightful website that offers fun and surprising ideas for enjoying nature. And, best of all, it bases its recommendations on how much time you have to spend, your location and the age of your kids. Activities range from making a secret space in the woods, to exploring urban wildlife to planning an outdoor adventure for the entire family. This site, which was inspired by Last Child in the Woods and cofounded by the Children & Nature Network, is loaded with resources including books, maps and excellent links to information on natural areas and activities around the US.
Create a Little Habitat
“Help your child discover a hidden universe,” urges Louv, who’s blog is a font of wonderful ideas. It’s as easy as setting a scrap of lumber on a patch of bare earth, waiting a couple of days, and then checking out the insects and other creatures that have made a home beneath it. Louv suggests using a field guide to identify the creatures and revisiting this little universe every month to “discover who’s new.”
Create a Big Habitat
Invite your kids to help make your backyard a great hangout for wildlife. The National Audubon Society provides tips on creating a healthy yard with how-tos covering everything from attracting birds and bats to reducing pesticide use and conserving water.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Jennifer Ward rounds up loads of nature activities for kids in her books, I Love Dirt and Let’s Go Outside. Building a nest is one of her favorites for kids between the ages of 4 and 8. “Birds construct the widest variety of homes with only their beaks and feet, and what’s even more remarkable is that their nests withstand weather and predators,” Ward reveals. “For this activity kids are encouraged to collect items in nature, such as grasses, twigs and leaves, and try their hands at constructing a nest. They’ll find it’s not easy, even with the advantage of fingers, and will discover a new appreciation for these feathery architects.” Speaking of which…
Count the Birds
You and your kids can join the Great Backyard Bird Count on President’s Day Weekend each year. Co-sponsored by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this site offers a special section for kids and great tips on identifying birds. The information everyone reports helps scientists track changes in bird populations around the country.
Look for Signs
A fresh snowfall reveals the secret comings and goings of deer, coyote, rodents, birds and other critters that frequent backyards and city parks. BioKIDS, a joint project of the University of Michigan and the Detroit Public Schools, offers a useful online tracks and signs guide for kids. The guide also covers scat, structures and other animal signs.
Enjoying nature with your kids means not over-scheduling them. “Well-intentioned parents think they’re helping their children by planning and structuring most of their time, when free time in nature is one of the keys to children’s creativity and healthy development,” advises Charles.
If you need support, join the slow parenting movement. It is a growing phenomenon described by Carl Honoré in his book, Under Pressure: Rescuing Childhood from the Culture of Overparenting.
Tap into Wonder
You don’t need to be a nature know-it-all. “Parents and children can learn together,” Charles suggests. “It all starts with a sense of wonder and an appreciation for the mysteries in nearby nature all around us.” Go outside and look around with your children and then follow their curiosity.
As Rachel Carson famously wrote in her book, The Sense of Wonder, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”
Kim Ridley, EcoHearth