Experts say the first 14 years of a child's life are crucial for establishing a connection with the natural world.
Children have a natural affinity to the outdoors. They are fascinated by it, attracted to it, and eager to explore it. This lasts until about age 14, at which point, unless parents have made a concerted effort to "provide their child with rich and repeated experiences in nature," they tend to lose it. The potential outcome is described dismally by Drew Monkman and Jacob Rodenburg in "The Big Book of Nature Activities":
So how does a parent go about forging that lifelong connection between a child and nature, ensuring that it does not become an invisible backdrop? Monkman and Rodenburg offer some valuable suggestions that range from specific activities to a broader pro-nature mentality. These are particularly relevant as summer approaches and families are more inclined to spend time outdoors.
"If we keep our children indoors, we run the risk that nature may simply become the backdrop for their daily lives, as inconsequential as the billboards, neon lights and telephone poles that decorate our cityscapes."
1. Set an example.
We all know children emulate their parents. If you spend all your time with your nose buried in a phone, they'll want to do the same. But if you show interest in the great outdoors, that will pique their curiosity too. Take time out of your day to be outside. "If children see you making an effort to be out in nature, they'll want to come, too." It's also important for parents to speak positively about nature. Choose your words carefully, avoiding descriptors like "yuck" and "dirty." Express curiosity and wonder, instead.
2. Have an explorer's mentality.
Be open to whatever happens when you're in nature. Give kids the time and space for discoveries; in other words, don't rush them along a path. Take time to flip logs, lift rocks, explore hideouts, climb trees.
3. Collect stuff.
Allow your children to bring their natural treasures into the house. Set up a display table where rocks, sticks, leaves, bones, flowers, dead bugs, and whatever else they find can be kept for observation. Build a terrarium for 'pets,' such as caterpillars and insects, but be sure to release these in their natural habitat once the observation time is up.
4. Build in nature.
Children gravitate to cozy spaces, whether naturally-occurring or handmade. Help them to build forts in the wilderness, off a trail or in your yard. Treehouses are another great project that might need some adult assistance, but will become the site of many of their greatest childhood memories.
5. Go camping.
Camping is a fabulous way to engage with nature as a family, and to establish habits that will stick for life. Staying outside for 24 hours at a time exposes kids to a side of nature they might not usually see, such as nocturnal animals, stargazing, and how to build a fire. Over the years I've come to believe that investing in quality camping gear is highly worthwhile because it enables you to take a fabulous vacation for almost no money at a moment's notice.
6. Ask questions.
Encourage your child to ask questions. Monkman and Rodenburg write:
"Consider the art of questioning. A question can either inspire curiosity or shut it down completely. The engine of learning is curiosity. A name ora label is merely a beginning point, the start of a story -- it is up to you to keep the story going!"
You may not know the answer to your child's question, but that's OK. Try your best, brainstorm together, and then research once you get home. If the answer doesn't exist -- as is the case for many a scientific question -- suggest that perhaps one day your child will become the scientist who discovers it!
If you're serious about spending more time in nature with kids, I highly recommend picking up a copy of "The Big Book of Nature Activities" (New Society Publishers, 2016). It has become a great favorite with my family.