How to Interest Children in Nature
Although Joseph Bharat Cornell’s original 1979 book Sharing Nature with Children has been re-published and still has some wonderful suggestions, today’s kids, indoctrinated with instant gratification and fast-action video games, need to be comfortably introduced to quietude before they can respond to the subtleties in many of Cornell’s suggestions.
The quiet magic and exciting adventure of hiking into another world are fast disappearing for our children, or are sometimes gone altogether, as concrete destroys more and more of the land. The repercussions of that loss are now manifesting as ADHD, obesity, and aggressive behaviors, which some speculate are caused by video games and ‘team’ sports.
Authors Richard Louv and Doug Tallamy both stress the value of unstructured outdoor play for children, as do many other psychologists, biologists and medical doctors. Theses and dissertations (including mine!) have been written and are being written supporting the benefits of outdoor activity for adults and children alike. One of the biggest parental fears these days is the potential menaces of outdoor play, ranging from physical injuries to “stranger danger.”
In addition to providing potential family time for some, simply hiking along a shady wooded trail, or walking the wrack line of a marine shore scattered with shark egg casings, crab molts, sea weed, jellyfish, sea beans and tunicates can be an opportunity to unplug from the neon blur of social media addiction.
But there are some teachers and school systems that are finally seeing the bigger picture of how to keep the children safe while engaging them in outdoor activities. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work with teachers and students in Montessori, Waldorf and charter magnet schools in South Florida, at campuses both urban and semi-rural.
Some of the teachers have planted vegetable and/or butterfly gardens, which provide perfect occasions for outdoor activities as well as a perfect “natural areas teaching lab” (NATL), which the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville provides for not only the college students but for the public and local school children as well.
I have developed a series of games and interactive programs to help children and teachers become familiar with the great outdoors, which includes using some material from National Audubon Society (NAS), and other great organizations. I often start with a delightful online ‘quiz’ the children take called What kind of bird are you most like? The children laugh and excitedly look up their bird in a field guide, and that is usually enough fun to pique their interest. Making up similar “tests” for butterflies, beetles, and other wildlife or plants could be developed to keep their interest as different species are explored.
The children love these books! I introduce the concept by showing them my own field journals, and they are excited to get their very own book and permission to draw anything and everything they observe in the field (with caveat directions that this book is not about their personal lives or social events).
The children are encouraged to observe animal appearance and behavior, including color, size, shape and vocalizations. I advocate that fourth grade is the best time to introduce children to this activity for a number of reasons. In our state, children begin learning History at that grade; this is a perfect segue into teaching about the plume hunters who decimated 90% of South Florida’s birds during the early 1900’s to supply women’s hats with feathers. For this reason, I often start with birds.
In addition, most fourth graders love dinosaurs, so that is also an easy pathway into birds and birding, as birds are descendants of dinosaurs, and many of our beloved dinos were feathered and warm-blooded. From there, it is easy to lead into butterflies, gardens, trees, and different Florida habitats from endangered pine rocklands to beach-combing.
Kids are urged to take their journals with them when they go on trips with their families to the zoo, the beach, and the park. There is a myriad of citizen science studies now available on the internet, where children could be encouraged to track lady beetles, dragonflies, fireflies, or many other species, uploading their data into websites such as iNaturalist.
I am continuing this avenue in my doctoral program, joining other conservationists, activists, and educators to instill the next generation with appreciation for nature through hands-on activities – and the children are loving it. It’s a win-win situation for Florida, parents, and the kids who live here!