I’m not an outdoorsy person at all. I wouldn’t be caught dead camping. Hiking is OK, but I’m not willing to do it for very long — and if there isn’t a bathroom within a few minutes, I’m totally out. And yet, I do have a long-standing love of nature. I’ve been known to weep at sunsets, and I could spend a good 10 minutes watching a caterpillar inch across a twig.
Somehow, I have managed to raise two young boys who feel the same way. Over the past week, for example, we’ve been tracking the whereabouts of a snail who’s taken residence on the bricks outside our front door. First the little dude (or dudette, not sure) was hanging out by the door frame; then, over the course of about three days, climbed up to the top of the door.
My kids were ecstatic this morning because the snail had crept all way to the potted plants (quite a distance for a snail!). I noticed that even my 9-year-old — who is already jaded by anything childish or saccharine — was totally immersed in the experience of tracking the whereabouts of our snail friend. As my younger son went to reach for the snail, my big boy scolded: “Be gentle with him!”
Of course, this is the same child who will knock his little brother over on his way to play video games, but my heart was warmed when I saw that I had somehow managed to instill a love of living things in my boy.
I realized that there are simple, no-frills, easy things I’ve done over the years to accomplish this. Mostly, these are things I did when my kids were little (the preschool years are perfect for this), but the traditions that started then have continued over the years. Here are some examples:
1. Get up close and personal with bugs.
OK, not all bugs. I’m as scared of spiders as anyone. But ladybugs, butterflies, caterpillars, potato bugs, ants — my kids and I have spent hours just watching those amazing creatures do their thing.
2. Plant stuff.
I’m no green thumb by any means. But every spring my kids and I plant stuff — stuff I’m almost certain we won’t kill (and if we do, there’s a lesson about life and death to be learned there). Marigolds and sunflowers are my go-to flowers to plant from seeds, and my kids don’t seem to get tired of watching them shoot up and bloom each year.
3. Look at sunsets, and search for rainbows.
Somehow, we’ve taught our kids that catching a beautiful sunset or spotting a rainbow is like winning the lottery. They’ll call us to the window, screaming their little heads off if they spot either one. I love it.
4. Let them crawl around in the dirt.
When my first son was an infant, I let him crawl around a park once, and I was appalled at how much grass and dirt he ate. But within a month, it was less about eating and more about exploring. And anyway, a little dirt is good for the immune system, right?
5. Read nature books to them.
We took out this great book about potato bugs from the library and didn’t return it for six months because my son was obsessed with it (oops!). And we’ve got a book about the planets that both kids adore — they’ve read it so much it’s falling apart. Nature books are a great way to synthesize all the hands-on stuff they learn outside into something tangible.
6. Take them apple and berry picking.
I’ll admit we’ve slacked on this in recent years, but there is nothing as cool as showing your kids where their food comes from. And I can’t tell you how much more fruit my kids eat when they pick it themselves.
7. Form a ‘Moon Fan Club.’
My kids are huge fans of the moon. Sometimes we get all fancy and track its whereabouts and watch it change over the month. “Look, Mom! It’s a half moon already!” and “Hey mom! It’s full! It’s full!” Shucks, I sure love the moon.
8. Allow them to splash around in rain puddles.
Usually when I’m outside in the rain for any reason, I don’t want to be there. But my kids have always seen rain as an opportunity for play. We don’t always have the time for it, but I try to give them as much rain-play as possible. Childhood is short: They’re only going to want to play in the rain for that much longer. Sigh.
9. Have them pick stuff off the ground and examine it.
Kids love to collect stuff. When my kids were itty bitty, they used to pick all manner of junk off the ground. I mean, there were some things they needed to stay the hell away from (shards of glass, sticky candy wrappers, cigarette butts). But mostly, they collected twigs, acorns, leaves, and rocks. I miss the days when my purse was full of that stuff.
10. Let them wander around freely in safe, open spaces.
When I told my son I was writing this article, I asked him what we’ve done that has given him a love of nature. I loved his response. He said: “Like when we go to a park that has no playground, and we can just run around the grass or whatever.” There’s something to be said for wide open spaces where kids can wander around without their parents telling them to watch out for cars or strangers. Just carefree exploration of the outdoors.
I’m definitely not raising the next Thoreau, but I’m happy that my kids have an appreciation of nature. It teaches them that we all have a responsibility to care for our planet. It makes them smarter, thoughtful, and more science-minded. And it makes them kinder, gentler people — people who are compassionate toward all living things.