In the past two decades we’ve let our children steadily retreat from spending time outside in nature. Today, kids spend half the time outdoors as they did in the early 1990s, with just 6 percent of preteen kids spending time outside on their own. Instead, the average preteen and teen spends an astonishing 7 hours, 38 minutes in front of a television or computer screen. Predictably, this has had some dreadful health impacts (doubling the childhood obesity rate since the 1980s, for example), as well as having negative effects on behavior. There’s a deeper disconnect being created as well, though, one which is harder to measure, but is nevertheless very much real in its threat.
“If children lose contact with nature they won’t fight for it. Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.”
Here are 6 Ways to Help Kids Connect With Nature
- Enjoy Yourself Outside
One of the most important things is to lead by example. Show your children that you yourself value nature, enjoy spending time outside, and make it part of your life. Children, particularly young children, are always watching their parents for how to behave and how to relate to the world. We can’t expect our children to enjoying spending time outside if we don’t. If that’s a challenge for you, remember that not every person who cares about our environment is a die-hard extreme outdoors enthusiast, and you don’t have to be to set a good example for your children. Simply spending some time in parks, at the beach, taking walks is enough.
- Nature Is Where You Find It
While visiting the outstanding beauty of our national parks and seashores, journeying into our last remaining wildernesses, or climbing the tallest nearby peak, are all good fun, creating memories of a lifetime. When it comes to inculcating a love of growing things in our kids, a backyard, a vacant overgrown lot or small vernal pool, a city park or community garden can be just a inspiring, educational and fun. It’s (mostly) simply a matter of perspective.
- Let Your Kids Have Their Own Experience
I say mostly, because what’s becoming increasingly clear is that alongside kids spending less and less time outside, is that their lives are often increasingly structured and regimented. And it turns out that, unstructured playtime is crucial for their development. So when you step out for some time in nature, leave your agenda behind. Also set aside your ideas about what your children should be exploring, enjoying, touching, collecting, examining, climbing on, around, and under. As long as there isn’t a genuine, imminent, and serious risk to their safety, let your children do whatever they will. Dirt, scraped knees and bruises, grass stains and mud, are all signs of time well spent — as are a pile a stones, acorns, seeds, leaves, sticks, or shells. For small children especially, it’s this primary exploration and discovery that you want to allow space for.
- Don’t Forget the Garden
Another way to engage with nature, which often gets overlooked as such, is gardening. While not every child will be drawn to cultivation, your child may well be like mine, and be totally enthralled with watering the plants and tending the garden. DNot only does this connect them with plants as nature, but gives them a personal connection with food that, in many people (adults included), is often lacking. If you let them harvest it, you may be surprised at what green leafy vegetables are suddenly amazingly appetizing. To my son, picking leaves of kale himself suddenly made them the most tasty thing in the world.
- Adjust Your Expectations
If you like taking hikes, be sure to start incorporating your children into them at a young age. You’re going to have to reset your expectations of what is an easy outing. Carrying even a small baby in a babypack, along with their supplies, plus your water, first aid kit, extra clothing layer, suddenly means you’ve got 30 pounds on your back, turning what was a fast day hike into more of a workout. Once your child starts to walk, there will be a time period when what you consider a long hike decreases, as tiny legs tire more quickly and have to take so many more steps to cover the same distance. Rest assured, that if you regularly go out, you should be able to get a couple miles out of your little hiker at a far younger age than you might expect. As with spending time in the park though, don’t hold too tightly onto your agenda or destination. For every successful three mile hike with your little one, there will be at least one flailing, screaming, failure.
- Start a Sit Spot
Once your kids are a little older you can introduce a bit more structure, alongside what’s essentially a mindfulness practice, into your time outside, by starting a ‘sit spot’. Scott Sampson describes the practice:“The ‘sit spot’ lets you get to know one place and creates a sense of intimacy. If you sit long enough in a place you will begin to not just see but sense many things. One of the ways to do this is to listen to the birds, because they tell you about the mood of the place and whether or not predators are around. You should got to the sit spot at different times of the day and different times of the year so you start to understand the place almost like it’s a friend.”One important step in this, which Sampson leaves out, is to not have expectations when you sit. Don’t hunt for the next sound, next smell, next sight. Rather, observe whatever presents itself to you.
While parents are fighting climate change now, it will be our children who will need to continue the fight. Let’s make sure they are exposed to the beauty of what’s at stake — nature. What do you do to help build your children’s connection with nature?