Teach Kids to Love Nature With 'The Big Book of Nature Activities' (Book Review)

© Drew Monkman (author). Drew Monkman (author)

Packed with information, activities, games, and tips on how to understand and engage with the natural world, this hefty book should be on every parent or teacher's desk.

Did you know that the average child can identify 300 corporate logos, but only 10 native plants and animals? This sad fact reflects how little time children spend outdoors, hiking on trails, exploring parks, and catching bugs, compared to the amount of time they spend watching commercials on TV, walking through malls, and driving on highways decorated with billboards.

A new book has been published that hopes to change this and inspire the next generation of naturalists. “The Big Book of Nature Activities: A Year-Round Guide to Outdoor Learning” (384 pages, New Society Publishers, 2016) is written by outdoor education expert Jacob Rodenburg and award-winning environmental advocate and teacher Drew Monkman. I received a review copy several weeks ago, just in time for the start of the summer holidays with all three of my kids at home. The book has turned out to be a real lifesaver.

“The Big Book of Nature Activities” begins with an in-depth introduction explaining the importance of contact with nature for children and why ‘nature deficit disorder’ is such a serious concern. It offers practical tips for ‘How to Raise a Naturalist,’ including suggestions for activities based on specific ages and stages. I particularly like the list of ‘100 Continent-wide Species to Learn’ and the emphasis on identification and memorization to make the outdoors more familiar for kids. The book also divides North America into six ecological zones, making the activities relevant to anyone living in the United States or Canada.

There are several lengthy chapters on teaching basic nature skills, i.e. how to identify birds, mushrooms, invertebrates such as butterflies and dragonflies, plants, and constellations, as well as ideas for bringing nature into kids’ lives, such as using a display table indoors, a nature journal or sketchbook, photography. The book also talks about ‘Key Nature Concepts for Kids to Learn,’ from evolution to phenology to climate change.

I am impressed by the number of online resources, including lengthy lists of ‘citizen science’ projects (such as the Christmas Bird Count, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and Nature’s Notebook) and nature apps that, the authors point out, “are much lighter than field guides!”

The main part of the book is divided into seasons. Each section provides a continent-wide overview, followed by detailed looks at mammals, amphibians and reptiles, fish, invertebrates, plants, fungi, weather, and the sky. There is a seasonal poem for kids to memorize, season-specific activities for them to try (i.e. make an acorn whistle in fall, mix your own flower blossom perfume in summer, try ‘fiddling’ for worms), and more in-depth scientific explanations from cartoon characters Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, and DeGrasse Tyson.

The book manages to strike the perfect balance between an intensely detailed biology class and fun outdoor play. Somehow it manages to be packed with information – I learn something new and fascinating on every page – yet manageable, doable, and inspiring at the same time.

My kids and I have grown to really love this book. They are showing greater interest in species identification, and we’ve adopted many of the suggested practices, such as bringing home a snippet of strange berries and leaves and fungi found on our hikes and keeping a nature journal. We’ve made a terrarium, and they spend hours catching bees in the garden. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of nature-related ‘Why?’ questions, most of which send me to the book or to Google for answers.

“The Big Book of Nature Activities” is a fabulous resource that I think every parent and educator in North America should have. You can order it online for $39.95 (US/CAN).