• Sophie Smith

Raising Little Nature Lovers

Updated: Oct 14, 2019

It’s no secret that our family love being outdoors and one of my deepest passions is developing a love of the outdoors in my kids. Lexi was only a few days old when we started taking her on adventures into the mountains and daily walks around the garden. I didn’t know then why it was so important to me that my children connected with nature, but I have started to realise over time why it is so valuable, and these ideas have really been made clear by reading a wonderful book called How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott D. Sampson. So why is it so important that we teach our children to love the natural world?

For the sake of our planet

I don’t need to go into details here but the science is clear - glaciers are melting, ice bergs are melting, the seasons are all wrong, the droughts and floods are increasing. We need to act now and we need to raise up a generation who will stand up for this earth. Evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said: “We will not fight to save what we do not love.” And this is why we need to teach our children first to love our earth, and then to fight for it.

For the sake of your child

The benefits of nature play are countless. This quote from Sampson sums it up so well: “Compared to kids confined indoors, children who regularly play in nature show heightened motor control—including balance, coordination, and agility. They tend to engage more in imaginative and creative play, which in turn fosters language, abstract reasoning, and problem-solving skills, together with a sense of wonder. Nature play is superior at engendering a sense of self and a sense of place, allowing children to recognize both their independence and interdependence. Play in outdoor settings also exceeds indoor alternatives in fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development. And individuals who spend abundant time playing outdoors as children are more likely to grow up with a strong attachment to place and an environmental ethic.” (Scott D. Sampson, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature)

How can you create a deep connection with nature?

There are many ways that you can teach your children about nature and to connect with the natural world, but I love the three broad categories that Sampson outlines:

  1. Experience - the long and short of it is that children need to experience nature in order to learn to love it. Often I feel pressure to go off to find amazing spaces and places, but the research shows that it is the natural spaces close to home that children spend regular time in, that really have an impact. Those trips to Kruger or the big mountains are so valuable and exciting, but your back yard, or local park is really more important t o your children, especially in their early years. The joy about teaching children to truly experience nature, is that you as a parent will become so much more aware and begin to love and appreciate nature more too. I have always been awful at bird identification but since my kids are always asking me what the birds are, we have been getting the bird book out more and identifying birds and I'm finally learning. Because I'm more aware of the birds, I noticed a particular Butcher bird visiting a certain bush very regularly, and we had the privilege of watching the birds raise their babies right in our back yard. The same can go for flowers, bugs, or vegetables - learn and grow together. Which leads me to the next point:

  2. Mentorship - the research also shows that it's not enough for children to just be outside. The role of a mentor, or an adventure buddy and co-learner is so vital to a deep love of nature. This doesn't just mean teaching your kids facts, it means asking questions, drawing out curiosity, and exploring together. I've shared this before, but a great example was out woodpecker sighting. I heard a wood pecker in our mulberry tree and I think it was pretty evident to Lexi that this was an exciting sighting. If you know me, my excitement is contagious. We slowly stalked closer to listen to the sound and see it more clearly. Instead of telling Lexi about it (which I was bursting to do), I asked her why it was pecking at the tree. She was quiet and then ventured a guess that it was looking for bugs to eat. I agreed with her that that was probably the case and we would check in our bird book. We don't have to know it all to explore with our kids, we can be co-learners and explorers together. It flew away shortly and we went inside and found the bird book. We have a beautiful children's bird book which Lexi could "read" to learn more about the woodpecker and confirm her guess about the pecking for grubs. Then we decided to draw pictures of the woodpecker and I absolutely adore Lexi's drawing. She asked me to draw one too so I didn't get off the hook. And then we showed dad our drawings and told him all about our sighting. This reflecting through storytelling and nature journaling is important for embedding these experiences in a child's mind and heart.

  3. Understanding - because children spend so much time on screens inside, many children are losing the understanding of how much we need nature. We are intimately connected with the water, the air, the trees, the soil, the plants, and the insects, without them we wouldn't exist. Making simple connections like where our food grows and how compost breaks back down into soil, and how tree produce the air we breathe, are so vital for children to grasp so that they truly understand how interconnected we all are.

Practical ideas

So here are some practical ideas to help grow that connection with you, your children and the natural world around you:

Grow a veggie garden - you can do this whether it is a little cherry tomato kit from My Eco Sprout or a full vegetable plot. After years of half hearted attempts and excuses, we are finally trying to get a decent veggie patch going. We have used tyres to prevent eager little feet from trampling plants, and have set up the bathwater to drain into the veggies. Not only will it save money on veggies, it will also cut down on plastic waste. For amazing insight, tips and inspiration, I can highly recommend Jane's Delicious Garden, and she even has a book called Jane's Delicious Urban Gardening, so no excuses for the city dwellers.

Compost heap - there are so many advantages to making compost, and it basically makes itself. It is lovely for your veggies patch, or your garden plants, or even your indoor pots plants. It also reduces the rotting food waste in your kitchen bin, reduces how much garbage you send to the landfill, and ultimately composting keeps organic matter out of the landfill, reducing the amount of methane production happening in garbage disposal areas. It is a fun little task for your kids to help you with, and my kids are always amazed to see how food turns back into soil - such a simple but profound life lesson.

A bird book - you could either invest in a bird book, or there are some great apps and online sites. You could even make your own bird book to note all the birds you have seen in your garden. If your kids are really keen, you could get an app which recognises different bird calls.

Rambles - there is a difference between a ramble and a walk. A walk is a purposeful movement from point A to point B. A ramble is an adventurous exploration, with no set goals or purpose other than to explore and observe and have fun. If you can add a little bit of risk and 'danger' to the mix, like balancing on a fallen down tree, or crossing river, even better. There's a place for both walks and rambles, but rambles are what will allow for time to really fall in love with nature.

A sit spot - this is one of Sampson's recommendations and is better for slightly older children. Find a place close to your home where you can spend daily time sitting and observing. Look at the light, the creatures, the birds, the plants, the colours. Become so familiar with one place that you are in tune to the subtle changes.

Stories - our human love for story telling runs deep, and a great way to instil a love for nature is to read, and to tell, stories about nature. Chat about your encounters with nature over the dinner table. Choose books that teach children the stories of animals, whether factual or fictional.

Nature journal - another way to reenforce those daily nature encounters is to create a nature journal. This can look different depending on how old your child is. At the moment, we just draw pictures of special things we have seen or done, which I collect. But you could have a special book where you stick drawings, pressed flowers, photographs, and small treasures. You can help your child write small stories about their nature encounters.

Nature table - we are always collecting treasures - from flowers, to seed, to birds eggs, to shells, and so I have created a little nature table to display and celebrate these treasures. As the kids grow older, I will use this space to teach them about different things like changing seasons and different biomes.

Silk worms - this one certainly isn't for everyone but if you have access to a mulberry tree and you aren't squeamish, silk worms are the most amazing way to learn about the circle of life - from eggs to worms, to mating moths and eggs again. The other day my three year old even made the connection between the moths mating to make eggs and her parents mating to make her! Another lovely option for learning about life cycles and creatures to to collect tadpoles like my friend Roxy over at City Girl Searching did with her little girl.

Litter pick up - this one is a little different but still important. My kids insist on picking up rubbish whenever we see it, and although it grosses me out a bit, I love that they are learning to take responsibility for their environment, not just wait for someone else to fix the problem. I really need to get better about taking a packet for rubbish with us on walks and beach trips.

The best part about all of this is that you get to learn and grow and fall in love with nature on a whole new level as you walk this road with your kids. I've found myself running across a busy high street to grab that piece of litter that was freaking Lexi out, saving every veggie scarp for the compost, climbing trees again to discover baby birds, pressing flowers, absolutely delighting at new shots in the veggie patch and noticing all the beautiful details of our garden and surroundings that I would have passed by if I hadn't slowed down and got down the the level of my children. At the end of the day, our children will learn from us and our attitudes and if we don't learn to value or our world too, neither will they. So let's learn and grow with our kids and reconnect with this beautiful and amazing planet we live on.

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© 2019 Sophie Smith