Kids are born explorers, but they can use a bit of parental guidance when it comes to getting outside.
Summer is the best time for kids to spend time in nature. Not only are animals out and about, and plants and trees are in full bloom, but the kids themselves are unfettered by school schedules. Take advantage of this season to spend as much time in nature as possible with your kids, both showing them its beautiful complexity and letting them explore it independently.
What is the best way to approach this? Here are some great suggestions from the Kratt brothers, a zoologist and biologist who run the 'Wild Kratts' kids' TV show; Scott Sampson, host of PBS's 'Dinosaur Train'; and a few of my own ideas, as a mother to three exploratory young children.
#1: Let kids take the lead.
The good news is that you don't have to teach kids to love nature because they already do. Young children are hardwired to love the outdoors, to be utterly fascinated by creepy crawlies, dirt, rocks, trees, and more, so a parent's role is more to eliminate distractions (think phones and tablets) to enable that exploration to take place.
The Kratts suggest that doing less, even to the point of boredom, is the key to fostering a love of the outdoors:
"Boredom leads kids to flex their creative muscles. It gives them time to think a little bit, to breathe, explore, and figure out their own interests. It may be difficult at first, but if you give kids space to get bored, you’ll be amazed by the creative ways they’ll fill their time."
#2: Be a hummingbird parent.
In contrast to a helicopter parent, the hummingbird parent hangs back sipping nectar, while zipping forward to intervene only when absolutely necessary. They're present, but not *too* much so. They recognize that children, around age 5 or 6, start to feel a desire for independence and allow it to happen. Over time this builds skills and confidence, which makes it easier for a parent to relinquish even more control over their child's life; it's a win-win situation for the whole family.
In a natural setting, a hummingbird parent hangs back while the child leads the exploration. They're there in case something goes wrong, but otherwise they are uninvolved in the child's play. According to Scott Sampson, host of PBS kids' show Dinosaur Train,
"The goal should not be to eliminate risk. Children need to learn how to deal with risky circumstances, or face much larger consequences as inexperienced adolescents and adults."
#3: Allow for full engagement with nature.
Clothes can be washed. Bug bites will eventually disappear. Cuts and broken bones heal in time. Let your kid throw themselves into the natural world with reckless abandon and resist the parental urge to shout, "Be careful! Not so high! Put that down! Ew, that's dirty!" In Sampson's words,
"Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business—picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, and splashing in ponds."
It's important to get kids into settings where their interaction with the natural world is unmediated. For example, a visit to a swamp is a more powerful tool for hands-on learning than a zoo or butterfly conservatory (as wonderful as those places are, too). Take them on hikes and bike rides in remote places. Have picnics in parks, ravines, and on beaches. Go camping, visit a cottage, plan a canoe trip, or send your kids to camp, if possible.
#4: Set a goal for the summer.
Make it your family's mission to spend as much time outside as possible this summer. Sit down with your kids and brainstorm ways of doing so. Create a bucket list of places in your area that you can visit and check them off the list. When kids are involved in planning, they're more eager to participate, and they might have some surprising interests that you don't even know about!
My region has an interesting Adventure Passport program, which features new stops every summer. You get a stamp in your passport (available for free at libraries, tourist info centres, and other locations) for every place you visit. See if there is something similar in your area, or make your own, incorporating kids' input.
#5: Build an outdoor exploration kit.
Make your nature excursions as easy as possible by putting together an exploration kit. Keep it in a backpack or a bag in the car trunk, and include any of the following: a bug-catching container, a magnifying glass, a pocket knife, flashlight, a butterfly net, identification guides for wildflowers, insects, trees, birds, etc. Don't forget the usual necessities that make outdoor adventures much more pleasant – hats, sunscreen, snacks, rain jackets, and a water bottle.
#6: Have a positive attitude.
Exposing kids to nature should not feel like a burden in any way. Instead, consider it a welcome escape for yourself, as well. Kids are the best possible excuse to get away from your desk, away from the piles of laundry and dishes, and out of the house for a few hours. Embrace it and allow the restorative power of nature to work its magic on you too. You'll be a happier, better parent for it.