Ah, kids. Who doesn’t enjoy watching them run and play in the park, shout excitedly while pointing at a favorite animal at the zoo, climb that tall tree with the spindly branches in the backyard (wait, don’t do that. Your mom will kill me.). It doesn’t matter whether you’re a parent, the “cool” aunt/uncle, a teacher, or a volunteer with a community organization. The outdoors calls to us, and we love watching the next generation following in our footsteps. We want to instill a love of the outdoors in our children.
So how, in a world of video games and social media, do we teach children the joy of unplugging and getting outside? The draw of these digital dopamine dispensers is extremely powerful, especially for those exposed to them from an early age. Having grown up in the age of Atari, I get it, and I’m not opposed to recreational gaming. (For those not born in the 80’s, this was back when video game controllers had only one joystick and one button.) These days, it’s becoming increasingly important to counter the time spent in front of a screen with time spent in nature, as a way of providing balance in kids’ lives. So how can we instill a love of the outdoors in children? Here are some ideas:
Start Early and Often
As with all things, we learn best when we start from an early age. Babies and toddlers are adorable little sponges who soak up everything that they’re exposed to. Sure, they may not have a full understanding of what they’re looking at, but on some level, connections are being made in their brain that will be reinforced later. Our daughter, Nature Girl, loves to be outside and see all of the animals and plants in our yard, and we make it a priority to point out any new creatures that we find.
One day, following a hard rain, I found a crawfish walking across our driveway, apparently having made its way from a nearby pond. I captured it in a tub with some water so Nature Girl and Soccer Boy could see it. Later, we took it down to the pond and I explained that we were taking the crawfish to its home. As we released it into the water, Nature Girl said “bye shish!” Years from now, she may not remember releasing “shish” into the pond, but this occasion formed the basis for a lifelong relationship with nature.
Another key part of the learning process is repetition. Not every learning experience will be a life-changing event, so it’s important to keep hitting the smaller lessons in a variety of ways. This will build up and reinforce the foundation that we want to create. Some attempts may be hit or miss, so the more ways the lesson can be presented, the better our chance of success.
Engage their Senses
By changing up our approach to teaching our children about the outdoors, we can find which works best for them. This is also a great way to connect with our kids and learn what makes them tick! Some are great book learners, while others are more visual or experiential. Studies have shown that the more senses you can involve in a lesson, the better you will retain it. This is great for us because the outdoors are full of sensory information! In a single teachable moment around a campfire, kids can experience the following:
- The orange flickering light from the fire, casting shadows on the bright colors of your tent, against the backdrop of brown, grey and green forest.
- The crackling and popping of the firewood, and the sizzle of roasted hot dogs and flaming marshmallows (you might want to blow that one out.)
- The smokey smell from the campfire, along with the cooking food.
- The cool chill of the night air against your back and the heat of the fire warming your feet and hands.
- The taste of campfire-cooked hot dogs and charred marshmallows. (Next time you’ll blow it out sooner. Told you.)
Together, all of these combine into a very vivid, very real experience, much more than could be had from sitting in front of a screen. And this is only a small instant from that camping trip.
Invest in Experiences
This is probably one of the best ways to instill a love of the outdoors in children. The Bible says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21, NIV). It is true that we put our money into the things that are important to us. To encourage our children to love the outdoors, this means investing in outdoor experiences or the gear to go with them. North Carolina has a set of amazing aquariums and we purchased the family membership to the North Carolina Aquarium Society. This membership allows us free admission to any of the NC aquariums and the NC Zoo, along with other discounts and benefits. It’s a win-win, because we are also supporting a cause that we believe in – education and conservation.
Of course, this will depend on what your family is into. Our son loves to play soccer, so the school team and rec league are other things that we make a priority. If you have young children who haven’t yet found their passion, try a few different things, while keeping them focused on the outdoors.
If they’re not settled on a specific activity, you can probably keep the cost low for now. Try a sport for a single season (or just a few games if you can). Rent some kayaks for a few hours. Buy (or borrow!) only some basic camping gear to start with. You can always get more and/or better equipment later, if their interest really takes off. Pro Tip: Memberships, trips, outdoor gear, etc. also make for great gift suggestions to tell the grandparents or other relatives for birthdays or holidays!
Slow it Down
The other day, I was playing in the inflatable pool with Nature Girl, splashing and enjoying the cool water. After a while, she tired of the slide and lay with her arms on the side of the pool, watching the bees buzzing among the clover flowers. “Hey bee!… Hey bee!” she said, greeting each one that she saw. Some might react, “oh, she’s bored. Time to move on to the next toy or activity.” and would have missed out on an important opportunity.
In her own two-year-old way, Nature Girl had become a little scientist, observing the world around her and trying to connect with it. She may not have known the type of bee, but by slowing down, she was able to see it in a level of detail more than just the cartoon pictures in toddler books. She may not have known the name of the flower, but she could observe the bees’ behavior as they visited each flower, crawling over it before flying off to the next one. Observation leads to understanding, and her “hey bee!” was an attempt to connect. The bees may not have reacted to it, but it opens the way for future interactions, such as planting other flowers that they like, or building a bee hotel.
Watching my daughter, I also found myself relaxing and reflecting on what she might be learning and experiencing for the first time. Had I pushed her on to another activity, we both would have missed out on an opportunity to learn and appreciate a small part of creation.
Embrace the “Good,” the “Bad,” and the “Ugly”
Overcome with thirst, the zebra dips down for a drink at the water’s edge, unaware of the danger that lurks below. In an explosive lunge, the crocodile bursts forth, barely missing its prey. Slowly, it sinks back below the surface to wait for another victim.(Read this in David Attenborough’s voice.)
From an early age, we are conditioned to see some animals as “good” and some as “bad.” We’re usually pretty pro-mammal, and especially the cute and cuddly ones. However, it’s critical to teach that these other creatures also have an important place in the world. Ecology doesn’t see “good” or “bad.” Some snakes, for example, keep the rodent population under control. Vultures (which fall solidly into the “ugly” category) perform an essential clean-up service.
We’re talking about teaching respect for all living things. True, from a safety standpoint, that respect may also include some healthy caution. Some animals are dangerous after all. I wouldn’t want my toddler to pick up a snake, but it would be wonderful for her to observe it from a safe distance. The more complex education will come later, such as identifying the type of snake, venomous or not, etc.
To instill a love of the outdoors in children involves their understanding. Education is an important part of preventing this bias against “bad” or “ugly” creatures. Why does the vulture look the way it does? What do snakes to to help our environment? Again, you can include as many senses as you can. Why do flowers smell sweet? Why does that mushroom stink? There is a purpose for all of these things, and learning about them will open a broader world for your child.
Instill a Love of the Outdoors in Children
By using these techniques, we can teach our children a love and respect for the outdoors. Start them out early and often, using a variety of different activities and senses. Invest in memberships, equipment and activities that encourage kids to enjoy their time outside. Every now and then, allow them to slow down and take time to really notice the world around them. And don’t forget, even if a creature isn’t cute and cuddly, it still plays an important role in the environment. These lessons support a lifestyle that loves being outside.