While we are all on-board with getting kids outside more often and less bonded to screens, many people see the benefits of an outdoor education but don’t necessarily have the schedule flexibility or the financial means to send their kids to a nature-based program.
Getting out on the weekend can be tough too, especially in the winter. This is what it looks like in my house…
Me: Let’s go to this cool trail this weekend! It’s less than two hours drive from here.
My partner: Ok, but I have a lot of errands to run Saturday and… Let’s look at the elevation gain.. .hmmm, is that kid friendly? And if we make it there… What about snow or ice on the way? Tricky.
Kids: (if we finally get there) Yay! Outside time!… Wait… We’re tired. We’re hungry. We’re cold. Where’s the bathroom?
And so sometimes it’s easier not to go.
This is why I’ve gathered a list of easy, low stress ways to build your child’s nature connection outside of school or weekend adventure:
1. Stay local. Look for green spaces near your house, like a local park, an empty lot, or a wooded, undeveloped area nearby. No matter what neighborhood we’re in, we almost always find a “green space” within walking distance. Another fun way to do this is by opening the maps app on a phone and, keeping distances and stamina in mind, letting the children decide where to go.
2. Slow down. Whenever you’re outside, even just going from house to car, schedule in a few extra minutes to look around and tune into the environment. Young bodies already are more tuned into the natural environment than older, more socially trained, mature adults.
Some things my family has spotted when slowing down between the car and the house: a dog off leash, a rabbit, snow berries on the ground that make a “pop” sound when you step on them, different kinds of bird calls, a change in the weather patterns, a spider repairing a web, puddles to splash in, the smell of a fire nearby, fascinating variation in leaf shapes, etc.. These seemingly small things are also ways we ground ourselves. Noticing these things can help your child more deeply connect to the world and instill a sense of belonging.
3. Hidden Spaces. Children in nature often seek out enclosed space to play in. A great way to discover these is playing hide and seek near where you live. It doesn’t need to be a park or the woods. If you give the children challenge of hiding you’ll be surprised at what they can come up with. Once they’ve found their favorite local hidden spaces children will often come up with games to place in these enclosures such as house play, making a base, or pretending to be animals in a den.
4. Express wonder and fascination. No matter how much science you know or how much of a biology nerd you might be, there is always more to learn about the natural world. And showing your vulnerability about not knowing and wondering allows children to more deeply embrace their own curiosity and not need to feel embarrassed for their ignorance.
5. Reference books. A good field guide can give hours of fun for a curious kid. When you find a really good question, something you don’t know about, it creates a sense of wonder and competency to look it up. Plus once you find the scientific name in the field guide you can look up all kinds of information from other sources. My favorite kid friendly nature books are Peterson Field Guides which have lots of visuals to enjoy and make it easy to look things up by color or type of creature.
6. Bikes. If you have younger kids, a family bike (adult bike with space for kids) can be a great investment. Only have an hour free for an adventure? Bundle up and ride around the neighborhood. See how many squirrels you can see. Find out what the wind smells like. Create a special song you always sing together at the start and end of your journey. Our favorite song for the end of the bike ride is the Beatle’s refrain, “we’re on our way home, we’re on our way home, we’re going hooooooome.” If you have older kids, bike rides, especially along bike paths where cars aren’t allowed can become a rich adventure with much less crash anxiety for adults. In the summer you can stop along the trail to pick berries. In winter you can point out patches of ice and observe more birds with the leaves gone from the deciduous trees. Another benefit to biking with kids is the sense of physical independence they feel. Any activity where they can use their own strength to experiment with speed and physical intensity can lead to feelings of self esteem and joy in one’s own body.
7. Gear. When I was younger I thought I didn’t like the months between November and May because I was cold and clothing was so much lower quality in the early 90’s. Now that I work outdoors everyday I have great gear and I honestly love every kind of weather! But as you probably know, outdoor gear can get expensive. Look for second hand outdoor stores, including Wonderland Gear Exchange, Ascent Outdoors and REI’s used section of their website. Costco also has consistently affordable options.
8. Use loose parts. Part of kid’s joy in nature is that there are loose parts for building or experimenting with everywhere. Some examples of easily collectable loose parts: small stones, branches, leaves, bark, seeds, berries, fallen flower petals, mosses, sticks, nuts, etc.
I observe a very particular joy that comes when we go for a walk with a large, reusable “treasure bag” as the children call it. Even in extremely manicured spaces there is always something to collect, whether the outside of a nut or a bird’s feather. Once you are home again it can be fun to bring the pieces inside to build with. “Ahh, next time let’s get more berries,” I’ve heard a child say. Or, “Look at all the colors in this leaf! I’m going to bring this one to my room.”
9. Consider basic tools. Sometimes the best outdoor tool is the one that helps you further investigate. This might be gloves (for staying warm while exploring), a shovel (to find out what’s in the dirt), or a magnifying glass (to look closely at the fascinating details.) Whatever you choose as your tool make sure it’s durable and washable. We’ve also had a lot of success teaching children to use adult tools outdoors with supervision, such as loppers, handsaws, and hammers.
10. Stay open. Going outside without a plan can bring joyful surprises as you discover mysteries and happen upon dynamic places to play. It’s the “not knowing” what you might encounter that produces wonder and creates memorable experiences. Pick a trail head or nearby park and see where your child takes you.
May these tips help you and your children become more deeply engaged with nature. Please let me know in the comments other accessible ways you’ve found to help tune into the natural world.
Author: Hannah Bressler, Fiddleheads Forest School Teacher
Hannah has been part of the Fiddleheads team since 2018, sharing her joy and enthusiasm for being outdoors with young children. Having lived most of her childhood in various countries outside the United States, Hannah and her partner decided to settle down and make Seattle their home in 2008. She has since fallen in love with the Cascadia and as a dendrophile (tree enthusiast) is overjoyed to work at Fiddleheads, engaging kids with the forest. Besides her experience as a teacher at other preschools, her previous work as a midwife and a long-term nanny gave her appreciation for the diverse styles of families and a deep respect for a child’s unique path of development. Hannah believes in the genius inside of each person and that the preschool-age is a special period where a child is exceptionally receptive to exploring empathy and philosophy. In her free time, Hannah works as a publisher for a small press in poetry and illustrated fiction. She also loves to cook, paint, read, and find new places to ride her bicycle