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10 ways to get your kids out in nature, and why it matters

Milo and Oliver at the river. (Lauren Knight)

We awaken to the gurgling sound of a small creek; even with the windows closed, the gentle sounds of the rhythm of water making its way downhill reaches my boys and pulls them outside to explore. After two long days of travel and a pitch black night time arrival, they are eager to see what surrounds the cabin in daylight. We are in the thickly wooded mountains 20 miles or so from Asheville, North Carolina, enjoying the beginning of what would become our best family vacation yet.

And though it was just that — a vacation — over the following week, I got the sense while I watched my three little boys navigate the steep paths down to the creek, catch crayfish and salamanders, hike miles and miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and rock hop across small rivers, that there was something bigger going on. They were happy. Not just happy, they were awake with wonder, interest, enthusiasm, and joy. Being in nature had transformed them.

According to Richard Louv, 2008 Audubon Medal Recipient and author of Last Child in the Woods, kids today are becoming more and more removed from nature, at the expense of their own psychological and physical well being. Children are spending more time in structured activities and on electronic devices, leaving little time for unstructured play in nature.

Why does it matter?

In his book, Louv shares many studies that have shown that spending time in nature has tremendous health benefits, among them improved concentration, a greater ability to engage in creative play, an aid to help treat mental illness (in particular ADHD and depression), and exercise that beats out organized sports with its hour-to-hour physical activity. Children who spend more time in nature develop better motor fitness and coordination, especially in balance and agility. And the benefits of the mind are not to be overlooked; greater time in nature can help children develop a healthy interior life, greater mental acuity, inventiveness, and sustained intellectual development. As it turns out, being in nature is not the “tree-hugging” hype of the past.

Understanding that many of us live the reality of a hustling, busy day-to-day life, I am not suggesting that we all pick up and move to the mountains, though the idea certainly seems appealing at times. There are many ways we can incorporate nature into our children’s lives (and our own) to reap the benefits, even if you live in the city.

1. Inspire curiosity by being curious yourself
The most important part of prioritizing the natural world is to give your child the gift of enthusiasm. A parent’s excitement is contagious to her children, and when we show awe in nature, our children follow suit. Take the position of a learner — be open to learning new things; after all, no one can possibly be an expert on everything. Encourage questions you don’t know the answer to: “I don’t know! Let’s find out together,” is a wonderful way to get the ball rolling. Be open to a mutual adventure and allow your curious inner child to come out while you explore nature with your children.

2. Simply be in nature with no other distractions
Resist the urge to micromanage your child’s experience in nature. Forget about “teaching moments,” just show up and observe. Find a spot near a pond or creek and encourage your child to wait and observe. If you are still and quiet, you may observe nature uninterrupted; the frogs may reappear at the edge of the pond, the birds and squirrels may start to return to their work. If you are with a very young child, follow his or her lead. Let your child explore underneath stones and dig in the mud. Early exposure in nature is less about learning facts and more about the senses and joy.

3. Limit electronic devices while commuting
If you have to carpool in the morning, turn off the devices and instead encourage your children to look out the window. The early morning fall skies are beautiful with colors and migrating birds. Talk to your children about the different patterns clouds make, or even better, if your child can read, bring along The Cloudspotter’s Guide and try to identify cirrostratus and cumulonimbus clouds. After all, even views of nature from the car window are calming and beneficial.

4. Seek out natural, untouched spaces and return often to them
A suburban field, edge of a forest, or even a small ravine at the end of the street can be teeming with wildlife and spaces to observe and explore. Returning to the same spot throughout the seasons will allow for observations of change and cycles of life. We dubbed our favorite spot when we lived in Washington, D.C.,  “The Milkweed Field.” It was on the edge of Rock Creek Park, not far from a very busy road, but set far enough back to be out of eye and ear-shot of the traffic. In the summer, the field grew tall and green, with deer trails throughout. In the fall, hundreds of milkweed pods exploded with fluffy white seeds and we marveled at the monarch butterflies that congregated near the plants on their migration south. This place was magical, and right in the middle of the city.

5. Make time for unstructured outdoor play
Studies from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that children between the ages of 8 and 18 are spending at least 6.5 hours a day plugged in electronically — that’s 45 hours a week. If this is the case, we can reduce some of that screen time and replace it with nature exploration and just being outside with no other agenda. Try skipping organized sports for a season and use that time to go outside and be in nature with your child.

6. Stop thinking about nature time as leisure time
Time in nature is an essential investment in our children’s health and well-being (as well as our own). Changing our mindset will change our priorities; if we view nature time as essential to good health, we will be more likely to engage in it. Nurturing creativity and wonder is part of our responsibility as parents if we want to raise healthy, well-balanced children.

7. Read about nature with your child
Want to encourage and inspire? Check out books from your local library that are colorful with nature language and adventure. Better yet, read them outside. Here are a few suggestions:
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling
Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

And for the little ones:
Little Cloud by Eric Carle
Owl Moon by Jane Yolen
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
Swirl by Swirl: Spirals in Nature by Joyce Sidman

8. Plant a small garden
If you have the space, help your child plant a few vegetables. Bean and pea plants grow quickly and can be eaten when mature, teaching your child about food and the wonder of growth.

9. Look at the stars
Visit your local observatory (Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium is great, just check the hours and days they are open before you head there), then drive out of the city some (very early) morning or evening for your own stargazing with a blanket and/or telescope or binoculars. Stargazing offers a deeper, more expansive understanding of the infinite. Allow yourself to think about it, and talk to your children about that wonder.

10. Get organized
If your older child is interested, encourage him/her to get involved in the local community. Find an outdoor space, like a field or creek, to restore, and encourage your child to become an active participant in protecting it. Getting the whole family (or neighborhood) involved is even better. It will teach teamwork, pride in community, and family togetherness. Attachment to a piece of land is, of course, good for the land as well as the people who love it.

Lauren Knight blogs at Crumb Bums

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