I grew up on 75 acres of oceanfront property on the north shore of Nova Scotia. There were fields and woods, brooks and marshlands all around me, and I was outside all the time. But here I am now, raising kids in the city and trying to find ways to foster a love for — and knowledge of — the natural world in my girls. While it can never be like rural living, there are simple, thoughtful ways to help children be in tune with nature amidst concrete and sirens. Here are some of the things I’m doing and highly recommend:
Get outside every day. Even in less-than-ideal weather.
When I was a kid, we were outside all the time — rain, snow storms, and wind were just extra incentives for us to venture out. As adults, we tend to think we should stay inside whenever the weather isn’t pleasant. But why? Unless it’s dangerous, throw on the appropriate gear and head outside with your kids. Maybe you won’t be able to stay out very long, but let your children feel the elements: Let them get wet, feel the wind in their faces, tromp through the snow, and sweat a bit in the heat. To help them cope better, make sure you have plenty of water (when it’s hot), extra mittens (when the first ones get sopping wet from snow), and fun rain boots (to wade in the puddles). Believe me, this will be good for you, too.
Take walks along regular routes and point out the seasonal changes.
For the first four months our girls were home, we pretty much walked the same way to the same park every day. The girls watched the leaves change color and fall to the ground, the trees grow bare, the cold of winter arrive, and the signs of spring pop up; now it’s summer and everything is green. Every time we walked, I pointed out the changes — even when the girls probably didn’t understand what I was saying. Now they point out the changes they see when we’re out.
Call attention to your natural surroundings wherever you are.
Your children will notice whatever you take time to notice. Look out your windows and mention what you see: What’s the weather like today? Is there a squirrel on the balcony? A bird sitting on the tree branch out front? Stop and smell a flower and encourage them to do it, too; bend down and look at the beetle crawling across the sidewalk; point out how green the grass is now; make note of any new flowers planted in your neighbors’ planters. Can you see the sunset? What about any stars or the moon at night? Nothing is too small or insignificant to point out.
Research the best parks nearby for hiking and take regular nature walks.
B and I have turned into hikers as parents. Who knew? We’re fortunate to have many parks within an hour’s drive with good family-friendly hiking trails. Our girls are small, so we stick to short and safe routes, but there’s always a lot to explore with them. They enjoy packing their backpacks (just like Dora the Explorer, of course) and discovering new trails. We discuss different kinds of plants, trees, and creatures along the way. We practice being quiet and listening for nature sounds. A couple of weeks ago, we got to experience a large buck barreling through the woods behind us.
If you don’t have nearby parks with hiking trails, you may live near bodies of water, mountains, or farmland. Whatever it is, take your kids out and experience it together. (And, of course, be sure to bring water and snacks for the kids!)
Create simple projects and activities that encourage exploration of nature.
I loved doing this stuff as a child — I think all kids do. I love this neighborhood tree guide project from KidWorldCitizen. In the fall, collecting leaves and making something with them will be a perfect craft. My daughters are petrified of bugs (not sure why, though we saw no bugs in Ethiopia except for the odd mosquito), so I’m planning an insect project of some kind with them soon. Butterfly nets are now on the girls’ birthday wish list after they recently used a couple belonging to some new friends. Just laying on a blanket and looking at cloud formations is fun on a lazy summer afternoon.
Bring the outside in.
Let your children bring home leaves, flowers, and things they find outside. There are limits, of course — no injured birds allowed in here (or poisonous things)! And we do teach them that some things should not be picked but left alone to grow and be enjoyed. My girls like picking little flowers and finding leaves.
I like to keep natural elements in the house…a dish of seashells in the bathroom, wooden bowls, interesting rocks. I also make a point to keep fresh-cut flowers on the dining table and live plants in the house. Bringing natural things into the house, and letting the kids do the same, helps connect you all to the world outside.
Plant something together.
A couple months ago, we bought sunflower seeds and each of my daughters planted a few of them in two tiny pots and placed them on a sunny windowsill. When the seeds sprouted, I helped the girls replant them in a larger pot and we placed it in their bedroom. I remind them every couple of days to water it, and we note how it’s growing. Of course, if you have space for any kind of garden and can get your kids involved, all the better! Tending to something from the time it’s a seed not only teaches children about how things grow but instills in them a sense of responsibility for something living.
Plan vacations that get you out into nature, and take advantage of ways to learn about nature in your area.
Maybe it’s the beach, or the mountains, or a national park, but plan some trips that allow your children to explore and enjoy nature. And consider something new — even challenging — like tent camping or mountain climbing or sailing. Don’t forget little getaways that may be closer to home; overnight or weekend trips can be just as memorable. With young children, it’s always best to keep it as simple and stress-free as possible. Many cities have destinations like arboretums, aquariums, planetariums, etc. We’re fortunate to have the National Aquarium right down the street. It’s not cheap, but it was fun to take the girls recently and witness them seeing sharks, dolphins, jellyfish, and many small ocean creatures face-to-face for the first time.
How do you foster your children’s connection to nature, especially if you live in an urban area? I’d love to hear about it!
Images: Zoe Saint-Paul