images/voice_uploads/littlered.gif">Ask the typical 10-year-old how to surf the Internet, and he or she will probably be able to show you a few things on the computer. It’s a skill many kids learn at school these days. But ask the same child to identify an oak tree from a maple and you’ll likely get a confused look.
Environmental awareness is not something that most schools have the time or resources to teach, so it’s up to parents, godparents, and grandparents to instill a love of nature in the next generation.
“By educating our kids in nature’s ways, we build respect, which is a precusor to love,” says Steven Boga, an expert in environmental education. “In this way, we embolden a new generation of wilderness caretakers.”
One sure way to develop your children’s interest in nature is simply to immerse them in it, as much as possible. You don’t have to live in the middle of a national forest or park in order to do this, either. Here are some ideas that even a surburbanite mom and dad can use to nurture an interest in nature:
♦ Put up a birdfeeder — From an inexpensive slab of wood to a squirrel-proof Droll Yankee, this is a sure-fire way to draw your kids’ attention away from the TV and computer. Black oil sunflower seed will draw the best variety of songbirds, but putting out a hummingbird feeder filled with homemade nectar (boil 4 cups water, add one cup sugar, let cool) is also tantalizing. Buy a children’s bird guide and help them identify what shows up.
♦ Camp out — Perhaps start out in your backyard, just to get your kids adjusted to their new nylon surroundings and their sleeping bags. If the bugs aren’t bad, lay out a tarp or blanket and watch the night sky for constellations and shooting stars. Once they’re ready, try an overnighter in a national forest or park campground. Avoid rainy or very hot or cold weekends on this first trip, so it’s not miserable for parents and kids alike. Bring some games to ward off boredom, but avoid bringing electronics like GameBoys (they defeat the whole purpose.)
♦ Take a hike — It doesn’t have to be long, and it doesn’t have to be a pristine wilderness in order to encourage interest in nature. A municipal park will suffice, as long as there are leaves to crinkle, bugs to study, and perhaps a stream to slosh around in barefoot. Encourage your kids to use their senses on their hike. Teach them to cup their hands around their ears and listen for bird calls. Show them how cool mosses feel, and tickle their necks with fine sedges. Breathe deeply the scents of flowers and forest duff.
♦ Take a float — Most young children can’t hike very far, but they’re far more tolerant of riding in a canoe. Rent a canoe from your local outfitter and take the family on a day float, avoiding any serious whitewater (Class II or better). In North Carolina, the upper French Broad and the Little Tennessee offer leisurely paddling. Virginia’s best bets are the South Fork of the Shenandoah and lower sections of the James River. Tennessee has the South Holston River. Don’t forget PFDs and sunblock!
♦ Play outdoor detective — One practical dad we know has a favorite camping game he likes to call, “Find the Firewood.” But there are others that are more to kids’ liking. Try lying on your stomach in the middle of the forest floor (make sure there’s no poison ivy first!) and watching the miniaturized world before you: spiders on the prowl, beetle battles, industrious ants, and funny inchworms. Magnifying glasses are a must for this. Hunt for animal signs such as tracks (look in mud or sand along streambanks), scat, regurgitated owl pellets, and fur remnants on bark.
In the course of your outdoor wanderings, your children will probably have numerous questions that you can’t answer, things like, “What kind of flower is that?” and “Why is that tree so funny looking?” Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know — it’s better than making something up. Use your child’s curiosity as an opportunity to investigate the topic when you get home (or bring a field guide or two in your daypack and look it up in the field.) You’ll learn something, your child will learn something, and the experience will be richer for both.
“Once you get out there, you find you’re both asking what this or that is,” says Bob Gale, ecologist at the Western North Carolina Alliance and father of pre-teen naturalist genius Ashby. “If you show your kid that leaves are cool, that trees are cool, that bugs are cool, then your kid will think they’re cool. I don’t have to push Ashby to enjoy these things — he now understands and enjoys them on his own.”
Gale says his wife, Pam, enforces a family law that has worked wonders to encourage an interest in nature among the whole family: a hiking trip into the forest every Sunday, barring severe weather. “Weather and schedules can get in the way, but if you get out of the habit, get back into the habit,” Gale says.
Another tip Gale offers to enviro-parents: “Avoid regular network TV. Tune your child into the kid’s nature programs on public TV instead, shows such as ‘Magic Schoolbus,’ ‘Kratts Creatures,’ and National Geographic specials. In other words, control the TV set.
“Don’t just leave the remote lying out there for them to use. You control that. If you get their interest in those things, they tend to seek them out again and they see their importance compared with video games and dumb space cartoons.”
Once your child has developed a keen interest in the out-of-doors, don’t ruin it with a bad experience. Avoid hazards such as sunburn, bee stings (be watchful when hiking in dry, upland terrain during the fall when yellowjackets are active), burns (campfire safety should be practiced at home, before going camping), blisters, and dehydration. All it takes is one bad outing to spoil all of that good karma.