Dr. Scott Sampson
Because I am always looking at birds and listening to their songs, my daughter Jade has become something of a birdwatcher too. As parents and educators, we can help children discover their true passions and learn with and from the natural world. Here are my 10 key principles to inspire a love of learning in nature:
1. Make New Habits
Take some time to discover the varieties of wild or semi-wild nature close to your home and explore these places with your children. Most young children will have no problem engaging with their natural surroundings. Their curious minds are built to do just that. Older children who’ve established a bias toward electronic screens may take a little more coaxing; this is where grown-ups need to exercise some imagination, and even foster a trickster mentality. Rather than telling children that they need to go out because it’s good for them, think about encouraging them to play games like tag and kick the can. The key here is to establish nature as the fun and preferred option for playtime.
2. Open Senses and Expand Awareness
Play with Deer Ears and Owl Eyes. Deer have amazing hearing, thanks in part to their very large ears, which capture the faintest of sounds. Try having children (or adults) cup their hands behind their ears and listen. Ask them to figure out the most distant sound they can hear, and the total number of different sounds they can identify. Similarly, owls have amazing eyesight. Invite kids to soften their vision so that they can see as much as possible in multiple directions. What is the most distant thing they can see? On subsequent visits outdoors, pause once in a while to remind kids to use their Deer Ears and Owl Eyes.
3. Free Play Rules!
Carve out some regular time for the children in your life to engage in unstructured play, with a portion of it outdoors. Unstructured here means free play without adult guidance or supervision. Encourage kids to create their own imaginative games and activities, preferably using readily available natural elements—loose parts like water, sticks, dirt, and rocks.
4. Start Sit Spotting
Find a place in a natural (or seminatural) setting where you can sit and observe. Pick a place that’s close—for example, in the backyard, courtyard, or neighborhood park—so that it’s easy to get to. Visit your sit spot regularly, preferably daily or at least several times a week, and sit quietly there, observing with all your senses. Vary the time of day, enjoying morning, noon, and night, to see how your sit spot changes. Eventually, you will know this little corner of the universe better than anyone else. You’ll quickly find that this activity changes the way you and the youngsters in your life experience where you live.
5. Become a Hummingbird Parent
Instead of helicopter parenting, work on developing your flight skills as a hummingbird parent. This means giving kids space and autonomy to take risks, staying on the periphery sipping nectar most of the time and zooming in only when necessary.
After kids spend time outdoors, ask them what happened. What did they see, hear, and feel? What was their story of the day? Make sure the bulk of your questions are easy to answer, particularly at the start, so as to build confidence. Once in a while, drop in a mystery—something you may not have the answer to that’s just beyond the kids’ edges. Then return to that mystery once in a while to see if they’ve made any progress on it. In addition to the lessons learned, asking questions shows that you value both nature and the children’s experience.
7. Venture into the Bubble
An essential ingredient of nature connection is learning to see animals, plants, and other life forms as subjects rather than objects. One method is the “soap bubble technique,” invented by German biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Head outside and picture every plant and animal surrounded by a soap bubble that represents its own individual sensory world. Now imagine being able to step inside the bubble of your choice—say, of a robin, earthworm, butterfly, or pine tree.
Encourage kids to find their favorite animal, enter the imaginary bubble, and experience this alternate world. You might ask questions like, “Do slugs see?” and “Why do you think that bird is singing?” Ideally, these questions will lead into mysteries that inspire more curiosity. Of course, the soap bubble technique is aided by some knowledge of the sensory world of the creature in question, but such understanding isn’t necessary. It’s the imagination that counts most.
8. Nature Connection is a Contact Sport
Too often these days, children’s encounters with nature are dominated by a look-but-don’t-touch directive. Nature connection depends on firsthand, multisensory encounters. It’s a messy, dirty business—picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, splashing in ponds. Rather than telling kids “no” all the time when they want to climb a tree, throw a rock, or step into a muddy pond, take a deep breath and offer words of encouragement. Don’t worry so much about the dirt and scrapes. Clothes and bodies can be washed, cuts heal.
9. Snap Some Nature Photos
Screens are a major part of our lives. So think about ways to use digital technologies to leverage nature connection. For example, encourage kids to take a camera outside and take photos of five natural things that interest them—flowers, bugs, rocks, whatever. Then invite them to open their senses and spend at least five minutes closely observing their surroundings, including tiny things like ants and giant things like clouds. Afterward, feel free to encourage electronic sharing of any products, an easy avenue to blend the digital and natural worlds.
10. Discover Your Own Nature Passion
If you haven’t found a nature activity that you’re passionate about, think about it. Yes, most of us are extremely busy and find it difficult to carve out time for anything new. But the reality is that most young kids these days aren’t going to get out into nature unless we take them there. So try to find an activity—whether it’s close to home, like gardening, or far away, like fly-fishing or snowshoeing—that you can engage in with the children in your life.
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Dr. Scott is a dinosaur paleontologist and science communicator. He hosts the PBS KIDS television series Dinosaur Train. He recently wrote a book titledFollow him .