Nature can teach kids about the world and themselves

The Artdog Images of Interest

Last May, I blogged in some detail about ways that kids can learn to think better and be creative by getting out into nature. That series was focused on keeping kids learning and teaching them to value nature during a summer away from school.

But just because they’re back in school now, that’s no reason for them to stop learning from nature. I’d like to hope that they benefit from classes that teach science on beaches and riversides. But if their schools can’t afford field trips, I hope they get an opportunity somewhere.

I’d like to hope they get to grow things in school-run gardens, to learn about plant life cycles and where food comes from. But if they don’t get that experience in school, I hope they get it from someone.

Maybe they’ll be sent on nature scavenger hunts. Those always make great homework projects. But if the schools are forced to teach to a different test, maybe their moms, dads, older cousins, Scout leaders or someone will take them out to find the wonder in nature, anyway.

Perhaps they’ll have a class project to observe a variety of clouds and learn to tell them apart. But if they don’t, I hope some caring adult will take the time to show them.

Perhaps their school will have a birding club, or they’ll take a trip to a zoo, aquarium, or nature preserve. Wouldn’t it be great if they could learn to observe animals with quiet respect? But if the school’s too busy drilling on grammar and math facts, perhaps an uncle, aunt, grandparent, or other trustworthy adult can help them learn the joys of such excursions.

Family is the first resource when schools are stretched too thin, but if your family can’t take on a full-fledged nature and science curriculum, remember there’s help available in faith communities and community groups. 

Importantly, there also are active youth organizations, such as Camp FireGirl Scouts, and Boy Scouts of AmericaYes, I know both Girl and Boy Scouts have been embroiled in controversy recently. But don’t let that make you lose sight of the fact that they’ve enriched the lives of several generations, and I’m here to tell you that both organizations still contain plenty of committed adults who only desire to help young people grow into knowledgeable adults. (Full disclosure: I was a Girl Scout myself, a Camp Fire summer camp counselor, my daughter was a Girl Scout who deeply loved her summer camping experiences, my son is an Eagle Scout, and I served as a Boy Scout Merit Badge counselor, so I’m not exactly unbiased about these organizations–though I’m also not blind to their flaws).

Whatever you do with your kids and wherever you do it, remember that an enduring connection with nature is a lifelong gift for your children–and a vital survival understanding for all of us.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the photo of young kids with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent observing life along a riverbank. I also want to thank the Green Corn Project Blog, for the photo of the enthusiastic class of second-grade gardeners; to Connecting Youth with Nature for the photo of the kids with magnifying glasses and Small Talk SLP via Pinterest, for the Nature Scavenger Hunt page; to InnerChildFun for the photo of the little boy with the “weather window,” and to E is for Explore! for a different variation on the “Weather Window Cloud Identifier” idea; to EDventures with Kids for the Animal Observation sheet, and to Cornell Labs’ Bird Sleuth K-12, for the photo of the budding birders with binoculars. Finally, I’d like to thank C&G News, and Harper Woods, MI Girl Scout Leader Anna Jochum for the photo of 2nd- and 3rd-Grade Brownie Scouts on a winter survival exercise, and to the Utah National Parks Council of the Boy Scouts of America for the photo of the Scout leader teaching a group of boys a little about leather tooling. I deeply appreciate all for sharing!

“When I am big . . . “

The Artdog Quote of the Week

A person could (people have and do) write many books about the value of outdoor play, the things children learn from it, and the reasons why “nature deficit disorder” really is a serious matter. We can’t save what we don’t value, but there are so very many reasons why we should and must value our natural environment, and cherish the many lessons nature teaches.

IMAGE: Many thanks to How Wee Learn on Pinterest, for this image. The board from which this was taken is loaded with other cool thoughts and ideas about teaching our children, too!

The balancing act: Keeping them safe

The Artdog Image of Interest

As a parent, I know that delicate balance between letting kids explore and keeping them safe. It can be a dangerous world. A responsible parent can’t disregard the hazards, even as we gradually expand kids’ boundaries.

Playing in nature definitely presents a list of potential hazards, from sunburn to tick-borne illnesses (a particularly knotty problem this year!), animal bites, falls . . . a worried parent could go mad. I believe it’s important to remember that our primary job as parents is to render ourselves unnecessary–to rear independent persons who are as healthy and well-adjusted as possible, equipped with the skills and judgment needed to succeed as fully-functioning adults.

But achieving that goal requires that they stay alive long enough to become adults.

So, where do we draw the line? And how do we adjust appropriately–because that line always keeps changing! Developmental stages flash by so fast, we have to work, to stay on top of “what’s developmentally appropriate today?” I managed (with a lot of help) to shepherd two reasonably-functional human beings into adulthood, and for me the key always seemed to be information.

I have yet to meet the child who responds positively to “because I say so!” And they’re RIGHT. That’s an extremely unhelpful answer.

As appropriate for the developmental level, I always tried to take the time to explain to the child why certain restrictions had to apply, if I possibly could. Granted, sometimes there’s no time. But that meant we needed a follow-up conversation. I discovered even the youngest child has the capability to be a rational human being (to the extent that someone can be, at any given stage of development). If we want them to grow into that capability as adults, we must treat them accordingly when they’re kids.

As appropriate for their age, that means teaching kids how to prevent their own bad outcomes (wear sunscreen and bug repellent; know basic safety principles about approaching animals or walking on rotten branches or uneven terrain). They may ignore it, but at least they’ll know why it happened, if they do.

It helps to remember the favorite saying of a friend of mine: “Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” Giving them wide enough boundaries to explore and “push their envelope” means sometimes there’ll be unfortunate results. That’s why it’s just as important to teach them what do do if something does happen. There’s no emergency situation that can’t be made worse by the victim’s panic! The goal is not to terrify them, but to empower them.

It isn’t easy, but it’s worth the effort.

IMAGE: Many thanks to Citypages (Minneapolis, MN) for this image! (no info available, on who’s the photographer).

A most important event

The Artdog Quote of the Week

Engaging kids with the natural world is serious business–but don’t tell them that! Kids interact with nature in the way they do everything: with imagination and curiosity. Also, I’d like to hope, with spontaneous joy.

Getting kids out into the natural world is a matter of enormous importance–they won’t save what they don’t value–but we must couch it in children’s native language, which is that of play.

IMAGE: Many thanks to the Natural Healthcare Store, for this image, which shares a page with some other great kids-and-nature quotes in the source.

4 Powerful benefits from a simple nature walk

The Artdog Image of Interest

Some folks will look at this photo and see nothing but weeds, potential sunburn, probable bug bites, an annoying tick-check later, and dirty feet in the making. Grab the sunscreen and the bug repellent! They’ve let the kids loose in the the woods again!

Others will realize that these kids are receiving many more benefits than they are facing potential hazards. What are the benefits of taking a walk in nature? Let me count out a few for you!

1. Walking in nature improves emotional well-being. Children today suffer from higher rates of depression and anxiety than past generations–yet walking in nature has been shown to counter “morbid rumination” (brooding on anxious or negative thoughts).

2. Walking anywhere promotes better fitness, but walking in nature is intrinsically satisfying. This makes it a more attractive activity than, say, walking on a treadmill or a track. The variations in terrain also can help foster greater agility.

3. The endless variety and movement in nature provokes a child’s natural curiosity. Some experts suggest it may help foster greater focus and improve kids’ attention span, while other folks have pointed out it can help improve listening and other cognitive skills. It’s also true that things a child personally experiences in nature can make academic studies of topics such as biology, ecology and other sciences more relevant and understandable.

4. Exposure to nature can also improve the body’s ability to function. While overexposure to the sun is a hazard, sunlight is essential to the production of Vitamin D in the body–a vital component for robust immune health. And speaking of the immune system, did you actually know that a little dirt is actually a good thing? A too-sanitized environment for children can actually backfire if the child’s body has no chance to build up natural immunities. It’s the same principle that applies to the immune-system benefits of household pets. Finally, being in nature can even improve kids’ eyesight, if they spend sufficient time outdoors!

Nature walks provide so many powerful benefits, it’s hard to overstate their value. So what are you waiting for? Grab the kids and get out there!

IMAGE: Many thanks to the writer/blogger Angela Amman for permission to use her photo “Walking in the Woods,” posted on her Playing With Words blog.

How to tell it’s been a good day

The Artdog Quote of the Week

Do you remember feeling this way as a kid? Please make sure the children in your life get to have this same kind of wonderful feeling! They won’t save what they don’t value, and the stakes get higher every year.

IMAGE: Many thanks to the Children and Nature Network’s Facebook page, for this image.

Let the children play

The Artdog Image of Interest 

There’s a special magic that happens when kids play outdoors in an unstructured way. Last week’s Image of Interest discussed NPAs, or Natural Play Areas in parks, and their value. But lower-case natural play areas don’t just have to be in parks.

Lucky are the children with access to a farm or a big back yard that consists of something other than manicured grass and a plastic swing set–although kids tend to make do with whatever they’ve got. More varied terrain does tend to help get the creative imagination going.

Creative adults, especially those who grew up with access to interesting natural play areas, almost invariably get a smile on their faces when they think about kids playing outdoors–but in fact that’s getting harder for children to do as years pass.

There’s a record number of kids in developed nations–kids who seemingly have all possible advantages going for them–who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. As Peter Gray has written in Psychology Today, “Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today.”

Gray and many others point to the decreasing amount of play time children are allowed, these days–especially unstructured play time–as a source of the trouble. Running wind sprints or practicing your pitching skills on a flat field–while possibly enjoyable and valuable–are WAY different from unstructured play in a natural play area.

But all too often we see parents or other caregivers worry more over the potential dangers of outdoor play–from overexposure to the sun to air pollution–than about the ill effects of too little outdoor play. “Supervise your child carefully,” parents are warned. Supervise, certainly–and not all areas are equally safe for all ages. A little common sense, especially where toddlers are concerned, is well-advised.

But when they grow out of the toddler stage, don’t forget that appropriate developmental needs change. And, believe it or not, there actually are physical and psychological benefits to doing things such as sledding, walking barefoot in the woods, or rolling down a hill. Even simply getting dirty can be good for the immune system. Of course, kids have known this for eons.

We adults should relax a bit, and let them do it.

IMAGE: Many thanks to CafeMom for this image. It’s taken from the excellent article by Jacqueline Burt Cote, 6 Reasons Your Kid Should Play Outside, According to Science.