When I think back to some of the best memories of my childhood, many of them revolve around the natural world. In my youngest years I recall learning to ride a horse, spending countless hours in a barn rounding up kittens, and building up the courage to follow them up the barn ladder into the hay loft. As I got older I remember riding horseback for hours at a stretch, trekking through cornfields, and sitting through school with the desperate thought I that when I went home I would spend every minute until supper time outside adventuring.
When I look around today at children I am alarmed by the number of them that have almost no connection with the natural world. They don’t run and play in the fresh air….they stay indoors playing video games, watching television, or talking on cell phones that might have received for their fifth birthday. Nature is a curiosity and not the source of wonderment and complete abandon that is was for me. With every generation we seem to place less value on our relationship with nature. The “fun” in childhood seems to be disappearing at an alarming rate. Back when my mom grew up there was summer camp that involved sleeping in a cabin with other kids, swimming in the lake, and telling stories by camp fire. I looked at a camp directory in my area recently and saw a weight loss camp, an Asian languages camp, and an ethnic sensitivity camp. All of these “camps” were conducted indoors.
One of my foremost concerns as a parent is to make sure my children get to experience nature as I did and to guard against the development of nature deficit disorder.
The importance of this is evident in the book Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. The book explores the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications. It also shows us how important that connection is for child and adult health. It shows how the absence of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation can be linked to some of the most disturbing childhood trends: obesity, attention disorders, and depression.
So what can you do to cultivate within your child a natural and long lasting understanding of and connection with the natural world. Here are 10 suggestions to help you get started:
1. Connect with nature in your own backyard. Sit on the ground outside with your kids and have them describe what they see….the colors, the sounds, etc. Make a mud pie, fly a kite, or collect bugs to observe. If you do not have a yard, make it a family project to bring nature indoors with house plants, a fountain, a recording of nature’s sounds.
2. Built a fort or a tent outside for your kids. Even if it just a sheet thrown across a clothesline, give them a secret place for them to play outside and let their imaginations create hundreds of outdoor adventures.
3. Go camping. There is no greater way to experience nature then to go camping. You can sleep in a tent or in a sleeping bag under the stars, cook your food by campfire, and share stories with other campers.
4. Regularly visit botanical gardens. Most large cities have botanical gardens to showcase the native species of plant life available in your region. It is a great way for kids to learn about the types of plants that thrive in your region of the world.
5. Take your kids on a tour of a working farm. Many farm tours are geared toward kids allowing them opportunities to feed animals and do some actual farm chores. Some farms have Pick-Your-Own programs where you get to harvest your own food. This is also a great way for kids to identify with the process that brings food to their plates every day.
6. Go on a nature photo safari. Take your kids to a park or garden and allow them to become amateur photographers, taking pictures of all their natural finds. When you are finished collecting pictures turn them into a collage or photo slideshow. Here is an example of one such slideshow from YouTube of a natural backyard habitat.
7. Build a birdhouse with your children and put it in your yard to attract birds. Have them keep a record of all the birds you see and try to identify each of them.
8. Create a children’s garden. The book Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots has many ideas for garden projects that kids are sure to love such as a sunflower house and a pizza garden.
9. Start a compost bin inside or outside the home. Show them how kitchen scraps, paper, fallen leaves, and weeds can be used to create dark rich soil and how something that comes from the earth returns to it. Make it fun too. Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots gives instructions for making a compost sandwich. You can also buy some red earthworms and create a worm farm in your compost. All of these activities give your children hands on experience with nature and they absorb valuable information at the same time.
10. Read books to your children that encourage a curiosity in nature and the natural world. Barefoot books is a great place to look for books along these lines. They have many stories that incorporate natural themes. A Forest of Stories for example is a book my children really like that tells the story of seven magical trees from around the world including the Kapok tree, the Cherry Blossom tree, and the Palm tree. These trees were around long before man and in a sense are our living ancestors. We have a relationship with them now that is strikingly unfair as we accept from them a multitude of gifts and we often give nothing in return. It goes on to show us all of the gifts that trees give us and why they should have a special place in our lives and hearts.
Tiffany is a freelance writer and a “natural” mom to three wonderful kids. One of her foremost concerns is the state of the environment and making sure that she and her family live with a light ecological footprint. She’s a cancer survivor and the experience has taught her there is nothing more important than living naturally and healthfully. Visit her blog at Nature Moms.