Children are born with an innate curiosity about the natural world around them. How can we help them satisfy it? Parents need to teach children in a simple but deliberate way how to understand and interact with the natural environment. If this curiosity is not stimulated, it gradually dulls as the many distractions of modern life fill the child’s interest.
When a child becomes excited by nature, he/she gains access to its inherent rewards – inspiration, entertainment, comfort and perspective. As our modern life becomes more complex and over-stimulating, an appreciation of our natural world offers the child a gift that will last a lifetime.
Start when they’re young
First impressions are lasting impressions. Even babes in arms, birth – 6 months old, will respond with interest to the wonders of their natural environment. The first year or two of a child’s life is a special time when the child looks to the parent for guidance in all areas of learning. Seize the moment to instill in your child an interest and a reverence for nature.
As an example, when my children were babies I would take them to a quiet spot near the house before dinnertime to listen to the evening bird songs. As each bird gave its distinct call, I would simply say the name of the bird – varied thrush, grouse, towhee, robin, woodpecker…. Invariably, my child would be fixated in silence, concentrating on the attention we gave to the sounds of nature. Beyond the learning experience, these were precious moments, rewarding for both child and parent.
Go with them
Your participation is essential, as it underscores the importance of learning about our natural environment. As guide and mentor, your example sets the benchmark for your child’s level of interest in nature.
Begin by taking your child out in nature with just yourself. Avoid bringing your child’s friends along for the first few outings; children listen to their peers more than their parents and all it takes is one snicker from a friend saying ‘this is dumb’ to throw a wet blanket on your efforts.
Also, sending your child off to camp or school field trips is no guarantee that he/she will have a successful experience in wild nature. With children, social interactions can distract from their experience of nature.
Help Them Observe
Equip your child with the means to better explore and observe the natural world, from the miniature world of the insects to the local flora and fauna, and the swirling night sky constellations.
Give your child his/her own child-sized binocular for use during outings in nature. A monocular may be even preferable to binoculars for young children because a monocular is smaller, lightweight and easy to pack in a pocket or pack.
A sturdy, hard-bound journal with blank pages enables your child to keep a record of personal observations. Coloured pencils are also useful for nature drawings or bird sketches. As journal pages gradually fill with drawings and observations, the child gains a sense of pride and accomplishment which deepens the growing bond with nature.
Local Wildlife Books
Find a book which details the birds, mammals and wild flora specific to your locale. Reading a guide will greatly enhance your child’s outings. The children’s book section of the library will have lots to offer.
Your town’s bookstore will likely have topographic maps of your area. Pin a large (poster-size) copy on a wall at home as a reference. The child can highlight areas explored or pin small numbers that correspond with pages in their journals. Over time, the child develops an intimate knowledge of the surrounding area and its wild attractions. It’s also useful to have a laminated copy of the topo map to bring along as a pocket guide during outings.
“How can we expect to preserve and protect biodiversity if we don’t even know the names of the plants and animals that share our neighbourhood?” - Robert Bateman, wildlife artist
Let them lead
Although you may have a preset route to follow, give preference to the child’s interests. Follow their interests, and let your child set the pace. Keep the outing easy and fun. And, you may be surprised by what your child’s keen eye can teach you.
Encourage your child to be a ‘trophy’ hunter (by camera, of course!)
Keep a checklist of local wildlife and flora and try to “discover” them in the wild. Give your child a small camera to document their find, and mark it off on the checklist. By documenting their discovery, the child sees progress and can take pride in their accomplishment. Use copies of the child’s photos for Christmas cards to the relatives. This adds value to the child’s efforts.
Bring your child to a wildlife rehabilitation center
Many communities have wildlife shelters and recovery centers which provide the public with an opportunity to see local wildlife species close-up. This is also a chance for your child to see local people engaged in stewardship activities. These people are modeling to young people their dedication to wildlife.
Give your child an area to steward
Whether it’s a small wild corner of your yard, a child-sized section of a garden bed, or a nearby special spot in nature, give the child responsibility for its stewardship. For young children, this can be as simple as monitoring the changes in this area over the seasons, setting out seeds to help the birds in winter, or freshening the water in the birdbath. These seemingly small acts of stewardship instill the notion of individual responsibility for the care of our environment.
Older children can take on a task such as creating a backyard wildlife habitat, maintaining birdfeeders, or growing their own vegetable patch. It may be necessary to help the child get started, but know when to stand back and let the child take ownership.
With the threats facing our environment nearing a precipitous threshold, we must increase our efforts to teach our children the wonders of nature. This is our best assurance that they will make wise choices throughout their lives which benefit the environment and promote the values of sustainability for the benefit of all.