After two long days of travel and a pitch black night time arrival, they are eager to see what surrounds the cabin in daylight. We are in the thickly wooded mountains 20 miles or so from Asheville, North Carolina, enjoying our best family vacation yet.
And over the following week, I got the sense while I watched my three little boys navigate the steep paths down to the creek, catch crayfish and salamanders, hike miles and miles of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and rock hop across small rivers, that there was something bigger going on. Not just happy, they were awake with wonder, interest, enthusiasm, and joy. Being in nature had transformed them.
According to Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, kids today are becoming more and more removed from nature, at the expense of their own psychological and physical well being.
Why does it matter?
In his book, Louv shares many studies that have shown that spending time in nature has tremendous health benefits, among them improved concentration, a greater ability to engage in creative play, an aid to help treat mental illness (in particular ADHD and depression), and exercise that beats out organized sports . Children who spend more time in nature develop better motor fitness and coordination, especially in balance and agility.
I am not suggesting that we all pick up and move to the mountains. There are many ways we can incorporate nature into our children’s lives (and our own) to reap the benefits, even if you live in the city.
1. Inspire curiosity by being curious yourself
A parent’s excitement is contagious to her children, and when we show awe in nature, our children follow suit. Take the position of a learner . Encourage questions you don’t know the answer to.
2. Simply be in nature with no other distractions
Find a spot near a pond or creek and encourage your child to wait and observe. If you are still and quiet, you may observe nature uninterrupted; the frogs may reappear at the edge of the pond, the birds and squirrels may start to return to their work. Let your child explore underneath stones and dig in the mud.
3. Limit electronic devices while commuting
If you have to carpool in the morning encourage your children to look out the window. The early morning fall skies are beautiful with colors and migrating birds. Talk to your children about the different patterns clouds make, bring along The Cloudspotter’s Guide and try to identify cirrostratus and cumulonimbus clouds.
4. Seek out natural, untouched spaces and return often to them
A suburban field, edge of a forest, or even a small ravine at the end of the street can be teeming with wildlife and spaces to observe and explore. Returning to the same spot throughout the seasons will allow for observations of change and cycles of life.
5. Make time for unstructured outdoor play
Try skipping organized sports for a season and use that time to go outside and be in nature with your child.
6. Stop thinking about nature time as leisure time
Time in nature is an essential investment in our children’s health and well-being (as well as our own). Changing our mindset will change our priorities; if we view nature time as essential to good health, we will be more likely to engage in it.
7. Read about nature with your child
Want to encourage and inspire? Check out books from your local library that are colorful with nature language and adventure. Better yet, read them outside.
8. Plant a small garden
If you have the space, help your child plant a few vegetables. Bean and pea plants grow quickly.
9. Look at the stars
Visit your local observatory then drive out of the city some (very early) morning or evening for your own stargazing with a telescope or binoculars. Stargazing offers a deeper, more expansive understanding of the infinite.
10. Get organized
If your older child is interested, encourage him/her to get involved in the local community. Find an outdoor space, like a field or creek, to restore, and encourage your child to become an active participant in protecting it.