We want our children to have a connection to nature, for their own joy and development — and to help them meet the environmental challenges that we face with climate change, water shortages and the like.
Warren Moon, executive director of the Wilderness Awareness School, which offers nature immersion programs and camps around the Seattle area, explains: “The more we are connected to people and nature, the happier and more fulfilled we are.” Sounds great. But how do we do it?
Perhaps in the simplest terms, we start fostering this connection by encouraging kids to be kids — outdoors.
We let them play in water, go barefoot, climb trees, make mud pies and sandcastles and poke at bugs. When I ran a nature day camp, I found that, despite the impressive projects I’d planned, the campers’ favorite activity was building forts in a scrappy patch of woods. Whole societies emerged, with wars and banks, secret recipes and slug races. I hung back; they didn’t need me, except sometimes to intervene in disputes, or to veto their plans of catapulting chunks of concrete. I’ve found these simple things can be much richer than any curriculum.
Adults can inspire kids by modeling their own connection, awareness and a sense of gratitude and wonder toward the natural world. Moon says these three things form the core of his work, both at the Wilderness Awareness School and with his daughters. Modeling respect and wonder during shared nature experiences encourages gratitude, which is a strong antidote to apathy, entitlement and despair.
In my current role running Frog Hollow School, a writing program for homeschooled children, I’m strict with my students when it comes to being gentle with plants at the park. I stress this so that the kids practice seeing every growing thing as part of a living community. It’s an ethic of kindness, taken across species.
Observing and wondering — and verbalizing those thoughts — model a sense of engagement. Observations don’t have to be fancy. “What is that crow doing?” or “Hey, look, the tulips are blooming,” or “What is that ant doing with that crumb?” all open the door to curiosity.
It isn’t as much about knowing answers as “cultivating desire to wonder,” says Kit Harrington, director and co-founder of Fiddleheads Forest School, an all-outdoor preschool in Seattle. Putting our observations into words “helps children develop a narrative sense of life in the forest and a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things.”
This sense of appreciation can be more powerful than learning a bunch of abstract facts. As Moon explains, “If it generates a sense of awe and wonder, scientific knowledge is great, but shared experience is super important too.”
To foster enthusiasm for the natural world, consider how you present your outdoor escapades. I like to call hikes “adventures” and take a treasure-hunting, exploring attitude. With younger kids, look for signs of spring, or search for places fairies might live. Sometimes we get “lost” and our hike becomes an adventure of wit and daring.
My dad’s strategy for inspiring my siblings was to go “slingshotting” instead of hiking. The three of them made their own slingshots, which they kept by the front door. They would walk up logging roads near North Bend for hours (and miles), catapulting pebbles at puddles and stumps.
You don’t have to get to the top of the mountain to open kids’ hearts and imaginations to the natural world. You don’t even need to leave your own street. As Harrington points out, “Nature is everywhere. It can be your backyard or your sidewalk.”
One of the best ways to get kids engaged with nature is through games. Kids might not sit observantly in nature — unless they are hiding or sneaking while playing a game, or inside their own special fort.
At Fiddleheads Forest School, children have a Magic Spot, which Harrington describes as “a place a child chooses that they know they can return to and they won’t be bothered. It’s their place, that they care for.”
Caretaking in general is a great way for kids to develop an environmental ethic. Growing a garden, tending a bird feeder, picking up litter on your sidewalk or joining local stewardship projects all help kids feel empowered and have fun outside. For Moon’s family, caretaking took the form of a backyard frog pond. “We’re stewarding a small piece of nature, and our kids see nature’s resilience, us making things better, and our awe and wonder,” he says.
Observing seasons, weather and the moon can give children a powerful sense of the cyclical, enduring nature of the Earth. Take night walks on full moons, stargaze on clear new moons, hunt for rainbows, track how late the sun sets in June. Repetition is fine, too. It lets kids watch changes through seasons and years, and see the effects of their own stewardship. It also lets them know they can fall in love with places, because they will continue to be in their lives.
Kids need lots of positive interactions with nature to develop their connection to it. If they have too much knowledge of environmental destruction without enough direct experiences of nature, Moon says, then “when they think of nature, they think of death and dying and a hopeless future.” By inundating children with information about environmental problems, “we’re sowing seeds of despair in 9-year-olds.”
However, if children understand nature on their own terms, then they can absorb sad stories. Moon’s daughter Kylah, 12, has been reading about the giant garbage patches in the ocean, but “it’s causing empathy and concern, not apathy and despair, because most of her experiences are of beauty and wonder.”
Sometimes the most difficult part is that we adults feel environmental pain as well. “We have the knowledge that this is in these children’s future, and must ask ourselves what we can do to help them be ready,” Harrington says.
She and Moon agree that the best thing we can give kids is the sense of hope that comes from feeling connected. Harrington recalls biologist, ecologist and author Rachel Carson’s quote about wanting a fairy who could bestow on every child “a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”
We don’t have that fairy, but we do have the wondrousness of nature, and children’s inborn inclination toward wonder. And this, in turn, helps give me hope.
Becca Hall, the founder and director of Frog Hollow School, lives in Seattle with her fiancé and their dog, and recently finished writing a novel.