At nine years-old I played in a wooded patch behind my grandparents’ house. Alone in “the forest,” I gathered sticks, leaves, and moss to build my cottage. For days I devoted myself to its details, creating a path that led to its front door and bestowing names upon the little stream and other landmarks along that path. It was a kingdom all of my own.
At eleven I rode through mountain trails in Tennessee with my childhood friend. Trusting the horse that she had trained and wrapping my hands around its sleek mane as we jumped over fallen trees and galloped through a high meadow, I felt wild and free.
These moments in nature offered a small taste of the iconic childhood my father had enjoyed. According to the stories he told me as a girl and now retells my daughters, he and his two brothers spent entire days in the woods and in the bayous with their little squirrel guns. Sure, they got into pickles, but where do you think all the good stories come from? Every tale needs some conflict. There was the time they ran into wild boars. Then the time a territorial bull chased my dad up a tree. The time he had to fight a water moccasin. And our favorite, the time he got stuck in the mud.
In the scope of an entire life, childhood is such a brief season, never to be repeated. And while the days of unsupervised outdoor exploration—such as my father experienced—may be a remnant of the past, I believe that if we try, parents can still offer a taste of such freedom.
Children naturally invite us to explore, leading with their unadulterated sense of wonder, yet to follow their lead, we too must become like a child. This does not equate carelessness, silliness, or a lack of adult preparation and supervision. By contrast, I’m referring to an openness and freedom that leaves room for curiosity.
So what does this look like? I’m still learning, but so far here’s what I’ve observed.
Parents who foster a love for nature in their children tend to:
1. Make outdoor time a priority. This can take on so many different forms, so please do not feel discouraged if you don’t live in the country. Nature is all around us when we look for it. When we lived in the city, we logged hours in our backyard and walked to the park several days a week. For more adventurous excursions, we drove to the lake, arboretum, or a local nature preserve. I wanted to make this a priority, which is why I designated one day of the week “Nature Fun Friday” when first organizing our homeschool schedule. Even one afternoon a month scheduled for intentional outdoor exploration is a step in the right direction. I recommend actually putting it on the calendar and planning it intentionally. Once you’ve identified your dates, do a bit of research to see if there are any special or unique opportunities in your area. You may be surprised by what you find.
2. Allow time to explore. This often requires a slower pace and multiple stops along the path or trail. No rush, no work-out agenda, no packed schedule, just letting the child set the pace.
3. Provide physical distance so children can enter their own world. Yes, it’s important that we teach our children safety precautions (don’t put hands in holes) and clear boundaries (stay on the trail), but let us try not to hover. Allow them to explore and experiment, while we observe from a distance. We can always intervene if needed. But this distance is necessary for them to enter their own world of play. For research on this topic, I recommend this book.
4. Dress for dirt and bring the necessary supplies. Here’s where our adult-preparation skills come in handy, because a successful adventure in nature requires supplies. Essentials: play clothes, bug spray, sunscreen, water bottles, snacks, first aid kit. Good Ideas: waterproof shoes, bug net, collection jar or box, plastic bags to collect items, field guides, binoculars, magnifying glass, small towel, and change of clothes.
5. Allow exploration and curiosity to be the teacher. This can be hard for me, but I believe it’s important—even essential—so it’s my goal. Try not to consume the outdoor time with “teaching.” As parents (or home educators) we can fill those gaps once we return home. This is one reason that collecting from nature and nature journaling are such ideal methods for follow up, as they offer us an opportunity for true nature study. Being active participants in Nature Pal Exchange also encourages my girls to be working on their nature collection every time we explore.
(A notable exception to this guideline would be an educational opportunity offered by experts, such as park rangers. From our experience, these tend to be quite interactive and engaging. I highly recommend seeking out such opportunities.)
6. Encourage nature study in their home. The resources are endless, from books and games, to activities and quality television programs (such as Planet Earth or Wild Krattz). One of my treasured possessions as a girl was my collection of Zoobooks; my girls now adore their Nature Bingo games. To take it a step further, encouraging children to keep a nature journal is an excellent way to foster independent learning.
7. Model an appreciation for nature. In my opinion, this is key. As parents, we need to find an element of nature that we truly enjoy and share that joy with our children, such as bird watching, pressing wildflowers, gardening, hiking, or even just visiting the local arboretum and admiring the flowers. Furthermore, let’s try to avoid words like “gross” when describing something your kid thinks is awesome or interesting. Looking back, I now realize how great my mother was at this. She always encouraged my love of nature, even though she was less than thrilled when I picked up bugs and toads.
8. Provide encouragement and ideas when necessary. Sometimes even the best little explorers need a nudge. On days like this, I use a simple scavenger hunt card to move us along the trail. Feel free to download my printable below, or there are several more options on Pinterest. Just search “nature scavenger hunt.”
9. Practice courage and perseverance. I thought of this quite a bit when we were working on our perseverance character study unit. I also appreciate how one of my homeschool-mom heroes, Greta over at Ma and Pa Modern, writes about it in this great blog post about creating an Adventure Club. The point is this: not every experience in nature will result in frolicking through the fields with sun-kissed cheeks and a soft breeze in our hair. There will be hard days. Bug bites, bee stings, skinned knees, and sunburns are all part of the territory. If we educate ourselves, come prepared, and teach precautions, we can avoid many of these unfortunate experiences (no territorial bulls or water moccasins for us, thank you!), but odds are that eventually … someone will get a little hurt. In my opinion, this is never a reason to avoid an adventure. Like Thoreau, may we “go to the woods because [we wish] to live deliberately … to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
10. Find joy in nature. Many of us find joy because we see poetry and design in creation. But even if this is not your worldview, we can still embrace the idea that, “we have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In [our] children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.” – Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods
To download the free printable, click here: Nature Walk Scavenger Hunt_Summer