I have a handful of books on how to get kids enjoying nature: I Love Dirt! by Jennifer Ward, Sharing Nature with Children by Joseph Cornell and Hands-On Nature by the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (edited by Jenepher Lingelbach and Lisa Purcell). All are good. Hands-On Nature is like a teacher’s lesson-plan book, with schedules and activities and curriculums laid carefully out; what best recommends it is the background information pages, without which you might not know how to answer your child when s/he asks you how dandelions make seeds (your first guess was close, but no cigar: dandelions carry complete seeds in their ovaries and thus, unlike almost every other plant, do not require even self-pollination. So if you were wondering how it was that every dandelion lovingly picked by your child and set in a glass of water on the kitchen table managed to produce its full complement of fluff, now you know). Sharing Nature With Children is like a girl guide troupe leader’s book, with activities including games broken out by age as well as intended lesson. I Love Dirt! is the easiest, a list of 52 things you can do with a child outside and ways to get them to explore their environment more purposefully. Its only downside is that you may think, as you read it, who needs a book? Like I need to read that kids like splashing in puddles?
Don’t let that put you off; if you are looking for an easy introduction to ways of getting kids eager to be outside learning about nature, it’s a great place to start. I tend to read a couple different activities, maybe from a couple different books, look out the window to see what’s growing/blooming/migrating/falling/seeding/whatever, and then out Frances and I go. This is FUN.
You don’t believe me. You want your sofa and your coffee and your laptop so you can answer emails while little Mikey or Yasmin finds new and exciting ways of using their everlasting Thomas the Tank Engine collection. I hear you. But at least once, give it a shot. Frances and I went to the local woodlot today; I intended to stay for thirty minutes and had to drag both of us home after two hours, and even so, Frances was coaxed out only because I promised we could go back next week.
We marveled at trout lilies, and Frances picked up the basics of their life cycle in about fifteen seconds and delighted in informing me whenever she saw a baby trout lily (small, single leaf) or a grown-up (with a flower). We looked at all the new leaves and buds and plants on the ground. We listened to the creek, and Frances threw stones in it to make splashes. We listened to birds and I caught chickadees nesting in a nearby tree. I had approximately three thousand heart attacks while watching her cavort on the edge of the embankments. We jumped the culverts. We talked about the difference between small pieces of concrete, which look like stones, and actual stones and rocks. We picked dandelions. Frances told me all about weeping willows while looking at a pine tree. We saw weird mushrooms. It was a great afternoon.
The “woodlot” in question is a small patch of undeveloped land between two suburban residential streets with a stormwater drainage creek running through it, heavily channeled by concrete and gabion baskets, and an unpaved path running a short ways over several large steel culverts. Algonquin Park it ain’t. Do you think she cared?
Young kids are too small to appreciate the Grand Canyon anyway. Take them to a weed patch, if that’s all you’ve got handy. Let it be ordinary. Nature isn’t special or precious. Nature is dirt.
A study of the world’s leading environmentalists showed that they had almost nothing in common, except a childhood in which they were given the time and space to form a significant relationship with nature. If you want your kids to grow up loving nature, let them jump in mud puddles.