8 ways to help your child fall in love with nature this winter

The great outdoors can provide a much-needed boost right now

By Katy Bowman

When it comes to getting outside in the winter, many of us find ourselves in constant battle … with ourselves. It’s freezing out there. The world is scary. It’s comfier to stay in and play video games.

I go into hibernation mode the minute temperatures dip into the 30s. But I try to force myself to go outside for some exercise every day, and I’m always struck by how much happier and healthier it makes me feel. That’s not just sentiment; it’s science: studies show that being outdoors is not only beneficial, but critical for our mental and physical health.

Yet kids around the country are spending less time in nature than their parents’ generation did. Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, published in 2005, cites technology, property development, and heightened fears about kidnapping and Lyme disease as some of the reasons many of today’s children are not spending enough time outdoors.

“Even before the pandemic, there was a lot of research showing that Americans were becoming increasingly anxious and stressed; and with the pandemic, these are at record levels,” said Brian Rollfinke, director of education at Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Md. “Kids are experiencing everything from seasonal affective disorder to generalized anxiety, and of course as an educator, I’m concerned about kids’ attention issues. We live in this fast-paced society where everything is about instant gratification and being plugged in. I’m a huge believer in combating that with nature immersion.”

Being in nature can heighten kids’ senses, and decrease their stress, in addition to helping them focus, build patience, and foster a sense of stewardship, he said. Luckily, winter and early spring are prime times for viewing nature in all of its glory. Bare treetops against a clear sky create Instagram-worthy scenes. Critters’ tracks and scat are easier to spot in the mud and snow. The absence of leaves makes it easier to spot bald eagles, great horned owls and other critters, and their nests, in our yards and nearby forests. And you may find waterfowl taking up temporary residence in a pond or reservoir near you.

Here’s how to make the most of this bounty while cultivating your child’s love of nature this winter:

Take a hike. Explore a local trail or patch of woods, pointing out trees and plants that are uniquely beautiful this time of year, as well as nests and tree cavities where critters might live. Hiking is one of the few ways we can still be social these days, so if your child is craving camaraderie, set a walking date around the block with another family on your street, or meet at a local trail for a socially distant hike. Many nature centers and clubs are still hosting small group hikes; you can search The American Hiking Society’s website for upcoming events and trails near you.

Provide for the birds. Place a feeder and birdbath near a window where kids can get a good look at all the ensuing activity. When temperatures freeze, it’s hard for birds to find water, so if you really want to attract them, put out a bird bath and get a little electric heater to keep the water from freezing, and watch the birds flock to it, Rollfinke said.

Or put up a bird box in your yard in hopes of attracting nesting bluebirds, swallows, or wrens this spring. “It’s so neat to follow a life cycle–many songbirds go from hatching to being basically an adult bird in about a month,” he said. “To see the eggs hatch, observe parents feeding the nestlings, watch them gradually grow their flight feathers, and be there when they take their first solo flight from the nest — there is so much kids can learn from witnessing that entire process up-close.”

Keep a nature journal. Whether it’s chronicling the birds and critters that visit your feeder or describing the color of the sky, journaling can help improve kids’ patience and focus while sharpening their writing and observation skills. “When you’re trying to identify unfamiliar species in nature — you find a little caterpillar and you’re looking through field guides trying to find out what it is, for example — that’s true problem solving, and it really engages the mind,” Rollfinke said. Kids can sketch, photograph, or write poems or stories about what they see, using juicy verbs and adjectives to paint lovely pictures with their prose.

Pick up sticks. The wind and snow cause more fallen branches this time of year. Little kids may enjoy helping you pick up downed wood from the yard or street, which you can use as kindling (and marshmallow-roasting sticks) in a fireplace or outdoor fire pit. Kids who love to build can use leftover sticks to make forts or shelters for themselves or their dolls. Fairy gardens are another way to get creative with nature. And if you want to draw wildlife to your yard, build brush piles around it, as birds and animals will eat at a feeder more readily if there’s cover nearby.

Build your own nest. “I think it’s really valuable for a family or kid to find a special patch of nature that can serve as their own personal retreat, and get to know it well,” Rollfinke said. It can be as simple as sitting on a conveniently located tree stump, climbing a favorite tree, or regularly returning to a nearby patch of woods to take in the sights and smells throughout the year. “When you come back to a place over and over, you become really attuned to the seasonality of nature,” he said.

Take photos. “Winter can be a great time for nature photography,” Rollfinke said. “Berries against the backdrop of snow, seeds dangling from dead stalks, ice formations, and mammals with their brilliant thick winter coats can all make incredible photos.” Save or print your winter photos and then photograph the same areas in the spring, summer, and fall to capture the splendor of the changing seasons.

Engage in citizen science. “I’m a big advocate of projects where kids can collect data that scientists will eventually use,” Rollfinke said. Bird counts, water-quality monitoring, weather watching, and recording dates when buds open are all ways teens can get involved in real science and data collection. National Geographichas a running list of citizen science projects, and Rollfinke suggested the iNaturalist app, which helps connect people all around the world through their updates about what organisms they’ve observed where they live. “If you see a bug in your backyard and take a pic with your cell phone, you can upload it to iNaturalist, where various people all over the world will chime in on what they think it is,” he said. Items that reach a consensus are deemed confirmed, and are searchable by state, county, animal, species, and more.

Take up a cause. Thinking about climate change as a whole can be overwhelming, but choosing an issue to research, advocate for, and inspire others to act on can be energizing, educational, and impactful for kids of all ages. Consider issues like plastic pollution, the decline in honeybee populations, window-related bird deaths, white-nose syndrome in bat populations, or poor water quality and the health of marine ecosystems in your area. “If they have one issue that they can really get to know and have some ownership of, kids and teens can do some small acts of stewardship and feel really good about making a difference,” Rollfinke said.

What are your family’s favorite outdoor winter activities? Share in the comments.

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