Date Tags outdoors

Eric Fromm coined the term biophilic, to describe the innate need all children have to connect with other species, what he called the desire to be “attracted to all that is alive and vital.” In other words, children are born loving nature. It is a need that is deeply rooted in all our genes. Edith Cobb argues that there is a window of time lasting from early childhood until about 14 years of age when, if children are provided with rich and repeated experiences in nature, they are more likely to develop a life long love for the natural world. If we keep our children indoors, however, we run the risk that nature may simply become the backdrop for their daily lives, as inconsequential as the billboards, neon lights and telephone poles that decorate our cityscapes.

Children are active, curious, energetic and enthusiastic. They love to play (sometimes on human made playground equipment but that's OK), imagine, discover and explore. No wonder that a conventional hike through a park or the woods can be boring for a child. Take a few steps off the trail, however, and roll over a log, dip a butterfly net in a pond or romp along the edges of a rushing stream, and the experience suddenly becomes an adventure.

So, how can adults be effective mentors?

  • Open doors but don’t “push them through.” Ultimately, loving nature should never be forced. Children will pick up and emulate your enthusiasm. Take time out of your personal life to get outdoors. If children see you making an effort to be out in nature, they’ll want to come, too.

  • Go forth with explorer’s eyes. Be amazed at what you see, but also allow your children the gift of discovery. For example, you might know where to find salamanders along a certain trail. You could simply say to your children, “Hey… do you want to find a salamander?” Or you might say, “I wonder what we’ll find under these logs?” In the first instance, you have owned the discovery; in the second, the excitement and joy belongs to the child. There is nothing quite so thrilling as a child bellowing out in a lusty voice, “Look what I found!” Remember to give children the time and space for discovery. Revealing a small hint of that which is normally hidden from our sight is empowering, inspiring and, at times, simply unforgettable.

  • Remember that play can be a powerful teacher. The natural landscape lends itself to creative play. A stick can become a magic wand, a sword or a tent pole; a copse of trees, a castle. It is through unstructured play that children cultivate and enhance their imaginations. Being creative means creating—letting your children make forts, mud pies and flower crowns. Never doubt the value of exploring and playing in the natural environment—these experiences are at the very heart of developing young naturalists.

  • Buy your child a good hand lens (10 ×), a small compound microscope and, when they are ten or so, a good pair of binoculars. Teach them to delight in the very small, from the cells of leaves enlarged by a microscope to the feathery antennae of a moth revealed by a hand lens. A close-up view gives you an entirely different perspective on the natural world. Learn to use binoculars to view birds, the Moon or even a distant galaxy.

  • Encourage building in nature. One of our most memorable childhood experiences was building a fort or tree house. Children have a yearning to create dens, nests and hiding places. The process of building involves problem solving, understanding the properties of natural materials and lots of exercise! Together, build a survival debris hut.

  • Set up a terrarium in your house. A terrarium is basically an aquarium that is filled with plants, soil and rocks suitable for terrestrial or land-based creatures. Allow your children to bring home “pets” for a few days: caterpillars, frogs, insects. Don’t forget to release each critter in the same place you found it!.

Speak positively about nature. We forget as adults how powerful language can be. Be careful how you speak about nature—we communicate values through our words and expressions. Seeing a bug may elicit the response “Yuck—is that ever creepy!” or “It’s dirty—you don’t know where it’s been.” To cultivate a sense of wonder, you need to use the language of wonder: “Wow—is that ever cool”—“Did you see that?” Show surprise, curiosity and joy in everyday observations of the natural world: the movements of an ant, the wagging of a dog’s tail, the stealth of a cat, the smell of a flower, the myriad shapes of leaves. In other words, take notice, show respect and, more than anything, display enthusiasm, because kids will see that you truly value and love the natural world.