Children and Nature Awareness Month? Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights? Advocates for Free Play? Nature Deficit Disorder? Do we really need to pay so much attention to that basic childhood experience once known as “Playing Outside”? Apparently, we do. When many children spend 6.5 hours daily in electronic environments, and vast numbers of them are overweight, they are missing out on key elements of development that were once taken for granted.
Study after study is showing that children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play outside. One of the most important ways to encourage positive, direct experience in nature turns out to be “the very fact that a parent, grandparent, older friend chose to take the child with them to a place where they themselves found fascination and pleasure, to share what engaged them there, [suggesting] not only care for the natural world, but, equally, care for the child” (Dr. Louise Chawla, Journal of Environmental Education, 1998, 1999). Children who don’t get a chance to be in nature miss out on a huge enrichment of their lives. That affects everything, from their attention spans, physical and mental health, to stress levels, creativity and cognitive skills. A range of studies indicate that children who attend programs with a nature component do better academically and show increased self-esteem, problem solving, and motivation to learn. Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, calls on everyone (developers, schools, parents and grandparents) to help children experience the freedom and joy of exploring, taking risks, getting creative, playing with friends in forts and fields and woods that will cement a love and respect and need for natural landscapes. We are going to have to be intentional about taking children into nature, to bring about the changes needed to leave no child inside.
Here’s a little story to inspire you:
“It’s raining again,” the kids whine, looking out the window at our increasingly soggy yard.
I feel the same way, I think – whiny. A little blue, and sick of being inside. The kids are getting antsy. We’ve all had enough.
“You know what grandma told me on days like this when I was kid?,” I ask.
“You’re not sugar – you won’t melt!” I reply with a chuckle.
“That’s weird, Mom,” my son informs me.
“Weird, but true! Go get your rain gear and let’s get out of here,” I say, and we’re off to the coat closet.
Bright yellow boots, hats, and slickers. Check. The kids look like miniature fishermen and it makes me laugh.
Outfitted, we’re off on a neighbourhood hike. We see a squirrel sitting with its tail draped over its head like an umbrella. Neighbours, sitting glumly in their living rooms, wave as we go by. They must think we are nuts! The kids spot a few earthworms wiggling on the sidewalk, and crouch down to get a better look, silently and raptly observant.
Up ahead we spot the mother lode of a rainy day in a child’s life – a puddle!
“Can we, Mom?” they cry in unison.
I pause and think for a second. Life is short – and bath-time isn’t all that far off.
“Not if I get there first!” I reply, running to jump in the puddle.
Splash. Giggles. Joy. Off to find more puddles. I wonder what all those people are doing inside on such a beautiful day? Even a short, “aimless” saunter around a natural area can stimulate your child’s curiosity.
Follow up on their questions at the library, through web sites like Young Naturalists Canada, or bring them to Scout Island Nature Centre.
Every adult that enjoys spending time with children (of any age) can be a quality “expert” or mentor. You don’t have to be a trained biologist or naturalist. More important is a sharing of your joy and curiosity in nature. The most engaging mentors don’t answer questions but rather ask questions. Below are some mentoring ideas borrowed from other mentors and from the Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown. If you want to develop your skills more fully, borrow this book from Scout Island Nature Centre or order it on line from Wilderness Awareness School.
A few suggestions to help you mentor:
- Teach less and share more
- Be receptive
- Focus the child’s attention without delay
- Look and experience first, talk later
- A sense of joy should permeate the experience
50-50 Rule: Half the time for planned activities, half the time for whatever comes up and works. Don’t ignore great opportunities because they don’t fit the plan.
When a child asks you a question, don’t answer — ask them questions.
Start with their curiosity, then extend the opportunity for learning as far as it will stretch. Try to lead people to their own discoveries; guide them along from one logical question to the next, and drop hints until they arrive at the answer for themselves.
- Easy questions – confidence builders: 70% of the time. For example, a worm is seen on the ground and a child asks “What is it?” You answer: “What does it look like?” (Most recognize worms) “How big is it? Where do you usually find worms?” You are asking questions they know the answers to but helping them build up information.
- Edge questions – this kind they can answer but they may need to do some looking and thinking (25%). “Where is this worm going?” They guess “You sure?” Get down and look and help them notice the trail the worm has made. They will probably get right away which way the worm is going.
- Beyond the edge (5%). Ask questions they might not even think to ask e.g. “I wonder how this worm sees where it is going.” They may be interested enough to search out answers in a book or online or even make reasonable conjectures and think of ways to test their theories.
It is not that you never give answers. Sometimes you need to give instructions or you do need to pass on information. But your job is to keep curiosity alive and help the child learn how to find their own answers. Questions are an art form you can develop. Lecture as little as possible, only in short bursts and choose your opportunities when children are fully attentive and ready to absorb the information.
Use all your senses — as other animals do
Owl Eyes: Imagine you are an owl with eyeballs so large they are stuck in their sockets and cannot move, but you must notice everything around you while only looking forward. This wide-angle vision or Owl Eyes is how we are normally supposed to see, but television, books, and computer screens narrow our field, making it difficult to spot movement when in the woods. Practise noticing all that is around and then turning and zooming in with your eyes for a closer view.
Deer’s Ears: Pretend that you are a deer and prick up your ears. You can hear the subtlest of noises from a greater distance. Notice all the sounds around you and which direction they are coming from.
Raccoon Touch: Raccoons are always touching things, feeling things with their little hands. Feel the ground and things around you with your hands and notice the sensations: cold, wet, grainy, etc.). Now be aware of sensations coming to you from your whole body, through the skin (sunshine, wind etc.).
Dog-Nose: Sniff the air the way a dog does – short inhalations to see if you can pick up an interesting scent. Tune into various smells that are coming your way: the subtle fragrance of pine needles, the smell of rich, moist earth, perhaps a hint of smoke… After practicing each sense individually, try combining two senses together (e.g. Owl Eyes and Deer Ears). Keep adding one more sense until you are using all senses simultaneously. It’s fun!
The senses are like muscles; it takes practice to develop them. Take your senses on the trail with you. Learn to walk carefully and gracefully like a fox, using all your senses to notice your surroundings. Of course if you are walking with children you will have to slip in and out of this fox walking and sensory awareness and play games along the way (see below).
Joseph Cornell has written a wonderful series of books for Sharing Nature with Children (the title of one of his books). There are games and activities that will engage any age group.
Parents cite numerous reasons why their children spend less time in nature than they did, including disappearing access to natural areas, competition from TV and computers, more homework, and fear of stranger-danger. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, challenges all of us to find ways amidst growing pressures of fear, structured time, and artificial environments to ensure that today’s children have opportunities to develop a sense of wonder that comes from exploring the natural world. Within a few decades, the way children understand and experience their neighbourhoods and the natural world has changed radically. Even as children and teenagers become more aware of global threats to the environment, their connection with nature is fading. There is a group of people in British Columbia working together to reengage children (and adults who have not had the opportunity) with nature, The Child and Nature Alliance
Children never tire of games and there are so many games to play outside. Scout Island Nature Centre has compiled a long list of games from a variety of sources. Go to Games on our Nature Activities Page for the complete list. A great resource for teachers and leaders of children’s groups. The Coyote’s Guide and Sharing Nature with Children have great ideas also. Below are a few of our favourites.
The Wildlife is Watching! From Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature
Create the playing field. Use a section of trail or path with very good hiding opportunities. Mark out a beginning and ending point along the trail. Between these two points, make sure your group has ample room to hide.
Create Roles. With the help of an assistant, divide your group into two. The hiders (the “wildlife”) will have five or so minutes to camouflage and hide themselves within five feet (or your choice) of the trail’s edge. The seekers must leave the immediate area until the hiders feel completely hidden.
The Game. To begin, the seekers walk slowly down the trail, one at a time, a reasonable distance apart, and count to themselves how many of the hiders they’ve spotted. The seekers may stop in the middle of the trail at any time, but they can only move forward. Once they take a step, they can’t go back. They may not touch plants or point out any hiders they’ve spotted. When the seekers get to the predetermined end of hiding zone, they can whisper into the ear of the awaiting instructor how many they spotted.
Once everyone has finished the walk, return along the trail. The seekers point out the wildlife they have spotted. Any wildlife missed, can then show themselves to let everyone admire how well they hid.
Eagle Eye From Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature
This is an extremely fun and engrossing game, appropriate for all ages. The person selected as the “Eagle Eye” stands in one spot, closes her eyes and ears, and counts to 45. Everyone else except the facilitator hides. The catch is that they have to be able to see the Eagle Eye with at least one of their eyes at all times. After counting, the Eagle Eye opens her eyes and looks around without moving from her spot. She can turn around but may not move from her location. If she spots somebody, that person is captured and comes to stand quietly next to the Eagle Eye until the end of the game. It is important that captured participants do not point out other participants or give any hints. After the Eagle Eye has spotted everyone she can, that round ends. This time the Eagle Eye only counts to 30 and everyone must move to a hiding place ten feet closer. After counting, the Eagle Eye looks for people hiding. The game ends when only one person is left out hiding. That person can then be the new Eagle Eye. After the game, you might want to ask students about what worked or didn’t work and why. Ask them about what colours they see around them in the forest and about what colours they tend to wear. Also, this game can be played in a deep forest thicket with ferns everywhere and then at the forest’s edge near an open meadow. Compare and contrast through questioning.
Tangle of Snakes
Stand in a tight circle, shoulder to shoulder. Each person reaches out with his or her right hand and grabs hold of someone else’s hand across the circle, not next to them. Then they do the same with their left hands. Now, very slowly and carefully, they try to untangle the group without letting go of hands. Just like snakes, coming out of their den in the warm weather, they’ll eventually get sorted out.
Hiding outdoors provides the perfect opportunity for daydreaming or watching the natural world around you. But keep your wits about you so you’ll be ready for the dash to home base.
Predator and Prey
Choose the predator (what kind of creature is it?) and the prey (what are they). Relate it to what you have been seeing outdoors and talking about.
- Choose a home base – a tree or a back step is perfect. Place small objects (pretend food) on the ground around the tree.
- One person is the Predator. The other players hide (prey). If you’re hiding, choose a spot where you will be safe and well camouflaged. It’s best if you can see home base.
- The Predator covers his eyes and counts loudly and slowly. When he reaches 25, he shouts, “Ready or not, here I come”, and the search is on.
- When the Predator sees someone, he shouts that player’s name: “One, two, three on Madeline!” and they both race back to home base. If the Predator gets there first the person is “caught”; if the hider gets there first he/she says “Home Free”.
- Hiders can try to sneak back to home base. They must grab as many pieces of food as they can on the way back to home base and then yell “home free”. If the predator sees them, he/she can run back and tag home base first and call the prey’s name. Then the prey is caught.
- The Game is over when every person has been found or made it to home base. The one who got Home Free with the most pieces of food is the next Predator.
For nocturnal hide-and-seek you’ll need a flashlight and three or more players dressed in dark clothing. Before you play, decide on a home base and boundaries. Make all hazardous areas such as roadways, water and patches of poison ivy out of bounds.
- Choose a person to be It. Standing at home base with the flashlight, It covers her eyes and counts to 25, slowly and loudly. The other players sneak off into the night and hide. When It reaches 25 she shouts, “ready or not, here I come,” and looks for the hiding players.
- When It sees a player, she shines the light on him and calls out his name. He is caught and goes to home base. Other hiding players can try to free people from home base by touching them, being careful not to get caught in the flashlight beam themselves.
- The game continues until all players are caught and back at home base. In this game, the last person to be “beamed” is It.
- If the last player is hidden too well and can’t be found, call out, “all-e-all-e-in-free” to let him know the game is over and he won’t become It.
Hide and Squish
One person (snake) hides in a snug spot, such as a garden shed, behind a woodpile, or under a low-branched tree while the others count out loud to 25. The snakes split up to look for hidden player. As each person finds the hiding spot, she quietly climbs in and hides with the other snake(s). All the snakes have to really quiet. When the last snake finds the group, the game is over. The first snake to find the hiding spot starts the next Squish.