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Ways for Families to Explore Nature Together through Various Ages/Stages
Guest Article by Jennifer Miller, M.Ed.
“Mom, come quickly!” E says practically jumping up and down. “There’s a blue jay in our yard!” And this scene has played out over and again but with varying creatures - bunnies, beetles, and butterflies - oh my! If you have a patch of grass outside your door, there’s an opportunity for your kids to explore nature. Take them to a park and no screens, toys or equipment are required for discovery. As we head into the summer months, it seems we are all feeling “nature-starved” and ready to get out to experience the beautiful weather.
There’s strong evidence that points to a range of benefits for children who get outside and play. In schools, teachers have worried that taking kids outside will result in misbehaviors and a lack of control. But when they've tried it out, such as leading students through a park while creating field journals or tending a community garden, they found just the opposite. Students were more engaged and held greater focus on the learning taking place. (1)
And for families, there are significant benefits for discovering nature together including greater:
empathy and perspective-taking skills
sense of awe and wonder
motivation to learn (2)
One study compared a group of preteens who spent five days in nature with no screen time with a demographically similar group of preteens at home who engaged in regular activities including daily screen time.(3) That study showed that the children who spent the time in nature after only five days were more skilled at taking social cues including nonverbals and understanding each others’ emotions. That short time spent with peers in nature enhanced their abilities to connect and communicate with one another.
The experience of being in nature, appreciating and discovering and learning together as a family, is an incredibly simple and yet, powerful way to spend time together. You really only need to go for a walk together outside. But sometimes, we appreciate and can use a bit more structure and inspiration. In that spirit, here are some ideas for exploration at various ages and stages.
Discover Bugs; Play Hide and Peek!
This game involves lifting up and peeking under any and every rock you can find and exploring the world of bugs that lives underneath. Preschoolers will be thrilled by the pill bugs, worms, slugs and more that are just waiting to be discovered. The nine- and ten-year-old in the photograph below still find it exciting!
Go on a nature walk and look in the dirt for tracks. See if you can follow and attempt to identify various paw prints you see in the mud. And be sure to leave your own!
My son and his friend excavating behind the garage in search of bugs!
Go on a Nature Scavenger Hunt
Print off one of the many checklists on Pinterest and head to the park or a woods nearby. Some lists are fairly simple and straightforward such as, find a stick, a stone, and a ladybug. Some are more involved such as, find litter, find an animal hole, or find a group of mushrooms.
Plant a Garden
Designate a small spot in the yard to dig up and allow your child ownership over the lot. Help her line the edges with rocks to divide the space. Pick out seeds at a local garden shop and consider all of the requirements for growing - sun, soil, water? Plant, tend, weed and marvel. If you plant herbs or vegetables, incorporate the crop into family dinners and your child can feel proud to have grown what you are eating.
Create a Habitat
You may select a cardboard box or else find a small place in your yard for your child to create a habitat. Consider what animals might want to live there and what they require to be happy? Will they need a water source? What kind of food will they gather? Help your child make a habitat for a local chipmunk, ant colony or mouse.
Middle to Late Elementary
Create a Nature Journal
You’ll need a few items in order to create a nature journal. Get a blank notebook. Fill a pencil pouch with colored pencils and a glue stick. And pack your camera (or camera phone if that’s the only option) too. Now head to a natural setting. The challenge is to recreate the natural setting in your notebook by drawing, taking pictures of and writing about the different aspects of the habitat you are experiencing. Draw pinecones. Write about the smell in the air. Glue pine needles onto your pages. Imagine getting it back out in the middle of winter. Would your notebook place you right back where you are? This activity can enhance a child’s discovery and appreciation of a place while adding their own creativity to the mix.
Assemble a Nature Art Collage
Go on your nature walk together with an empty bag for collecting. Pick up natural treasures along the way such as seed pods, buckeyes, and flower petals. Then, find a suitable backdrop like cardboard or even, a wood plank. Now arrange and glue (an adult may need to help if a hot glue gun is necessary).
As adults, we can forget or simply underestimate the incredible lure of a trickling stream. You need no instructions for kids here. Just let them go (and make sure their shoes can get muddy and wet!). Skipping rocks, looking for crayfish, and finding fossils are all on the agenda here. In my experience, we have to practically drag our child away when it’s time to leave.
Middle to High School
Check out a field guide from your local library or bookstore. Find a natural subject that most interests your son/daughter. There are guides for fossils, rocks and minerals, plants, wildflowers, birds, woodland creatures, trees and more. Now head to the park or hiking trails and see what you can identify together.
Camping as a family does not have to require major equipment or planning. In fact, you can pitch a tent in the backyard or at a nearby nature preserve and enjoy the bonding that occurs because of it. Make a bonfire and share ghost stories. Take a hike. Pick out the constellations in the night sky. Leave your electronics behind.
In addition to all of the aforementioned benefits of getting out in nature with your children, it can have the added impact of calming us down and changing to a slower, more steady pace in contrast to our daily lives. Use this Earth Day as a reminder to find simple ways to appreciate nature with your kids and enjoy the many benefits of exploration together.
(1) Scott, G., Colquhoun, D., (2013). Changing spaces, changing relationships: The positive impact of learning out of doors. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 17(1), 47 - 53.
(2) Garst, B. A., Baughman, S., Franz, N. K, Seidel, R. W., (2013). Strengthening families: Exploring the impacts of family camp experiences on family functioning and parenting. Journal of Experiential Education, 36(1), 65-77.
(3) Uhls, Y. T., Michikyan, M., Morris, J., Garcia, D., Small, G. W., Zgourou, E., Greenfield, P. M., (2014). Five days at outdoor education camp without screens improves preteen skills with nonverbal emotion cues. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 387-392.
Jennifer Miller, M.Ed. has worked for over twenty years with educators and families to help them become more effective with children through social and emotional learning. She is author and illustrator of the site, Confident Parents, Confident Kids and expert for NBC Universal's Parent Toolkit.