Six Tips for Helping Kids Connect with Nature

As the saying goes, “The children are our future.” This is true not only for our own future as humans, but for all of the earth’s plants, animals, and ecosystems, many of which are experiencing climate change and other intense human-driven stresses. At no time has it been more important to foster a connection between children and the natural world. We must prepare the rising generations to become true stewards of and advocates for our shared environment, from the local scale all the way up to the global. We must cultivate in today’s youth a mindful environmental ethic, an awareness of their co-dependency with the natural world the dominant generations of today (Boomers and their children) have failed to cultivate in themselves. This broad shift in our culture must begin with encouraging children to be curious about the natural world. From curiosity comes learning, from learning comes respect, and from respect comes stewardship and advocacy.

To be sure, change needs to happen at many levels including in our educational system, but as a starting point, consider these simple, concrete ideas for parents and educators to help foster curiosity about the natural world in children of all ages.

1. Spend “slow time” outdoors.

In other words, spend time looking and listening, even if it’s only five minutes a day. A walk to school or to the store is an opportunity to observe. Ask your children, “Did you hear that bird? Who do you think it was calling to? Why do you think it was calling?” Stop and check out an insect that crosses your path. The key is helping them to develop an awareness of and curiosity about their natural surroundings.

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2. Plant a garden together.

Even if you’re a city dweller, plant a couple of potted vegetables or herbs. Let your kids get their hands dirty. The process of planting, growing, and harvesting something they can actually eat is a powerful tool for connecting kids to nature. Food, more generally, is a great entry point into talking about the complexities of our environment and the other creatures that rely on it and help to keep it going (think bees!).

3. Don’t get grossed out in front of them (even if you are).

Most kids are absolutely fascinated by so-called “gross” things, from worms to dead birds, but many of them pick up very early on that such things are yucky should be avoided. They get that from us, from adults. If your child sees a worm, encourage her to pick it up. If you come across a bee or a spider or even (gasp!) a dead bird, don’t scream and run away. Show them you are curious. Look at it up close (not too close, depending up on what it is), try to identify it together with a guide book from the library or on your smartphone. Google knows everything.

4. Watch nature shows as a family.

Let them watch TV, you say? Yes, this one is a bit counterintuitive, but let’s be honest, they all watch some TV at least once in a while so it might as well be educational. These days, there are fantastic nature-related shows available through multiple streaming platforms. I have yet to meet a kid (or adult) who wasn’t completely blown away by Planet Earth or Blue Planet (both have just recently released incredible second editions). Watch them as a family and talk about what you’re watching. The kids will be drawing pictures of and thinking about bobcats and falcons and coral reefs for weeks to come.

5. Follow your child’s lead.

This one is easy. If your child shows curiosity about something, help them develop it. If they see a bird or plant that interests them, go to the library and find a book on the subject; look it up on your phone and tell them about it. Make a bug kit or a birdhouse together. Draw pictures. Tell stories. The key here is to help them pursue their curiosity and to see where it takes them (and you!).

6. Take advantage of (free!) local resources.

From public libraries to local Audubon and nature centers and city and regional parks, there are so many resources available for engaging kids with nature- and most of them are free! Take some time to look up what’s available in your area and plan a family outing. Remember that sometimes less is more, especially if your kids are very young. You don’t need to drag them on a 5 mile hike every single weekend. A 15 minute nature scavenger hunt around the park can still be impactful.

*Check out CityWildPDX’s live Kickstarter campaign for the Wild Bus, a mobile environmental education classroom bringing CityWildPDX’s mission to underserved communities.

Written by

Britt Crow-Miller is Founding Director of Portland nonprofit CityWildPDX, and Asst. Professor and Senior Sustainability Scientist at Arizona State University.

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