It’s well established that nature-based play is an important part of healthy childhood development providing significant physical, mental, and emotional benefits. Unfortunately, in an age of increased urbanization, it has become more difficult to get our children into natural environments. Some have suggested that this has given rise to an emotional, mental, and sensory disconnect among our children and youth. It’s popularly called “nature-deficit disorder”.
How can we remedy this disconnect, especially if we live in a city? Here are some suggestions for getting your kids into natural settings and engaging them in play and exploration once you get there.
1. Take a hike
Consult your municipal parks and recreation website to find out if there are any nature trails near you. Depending on the age of your kids, you might plan a short 30-minute walk or a three-hour excursion. Here’s a tip to make it enticing: Bring a thermos of tea and a few cookies, and have a fun tea break halfway through your hike. Kids love drinking and eating on the trail as it’s a step away from the ordinary routines of the home. It’s also a great opportunity to sit in nature, listening to surrounding sounds and watching for birds, squirrels, and even a neighbourhood cat on the prowl.
2. Build a fort
Whether you are walking on the beach or in a forest, you will often find sticks and logs that lend themselves to building simple forts. No special architectural design or engineering skills are required — simply stack logs to create a makeshift “log cabin”, or stand up long sticks and branches to create a teepee. And it’s not important if your fort isn’t weatherproof. The idea is to create a unique play space that invites imagination and encourages kids to spend more time outdoors.
3. Learn to track animals
Take a walk in a forest or long the banks of a stream or river, and try to spot different animal tracks. If you have access to a wilderness park, you may find evidence of bears, wolves, coyotes, elk, deer, and more. If you live in a semi-rural area, regional parks will often be visited by deer, muskrats, raccoons, and skunks. Even in suburban parks, you can still find signs of smaller mammals such as raccoons, dogs, cats, and squirrels. Can you follow the tracks anywhere? Can your children identify the birds or animals that may have produced each set of tracks? There are also plenty of websites that provide a basic introduction to tracking and how to recognize animal tracks.
4. Let them get dirty
To really connect with nature, kids need to be permitted to use all of their senses, and these include touch and smell. Let your kids pick up rotting leaves and sticks, jump in puddles, turn over rocks, and pick up bugs and worms. Faces, hands, and clothes can all be washed afterwards!
5. Collect leaves, pine cones, or rocks
It’s easy to turn outdoor play into a treasure hunt for natural artifacts such as leaves, pine cones, seed pods, and rocks of interesting colour, shape, or texture. Make a challenge to your kids: How many different kinds of rocks can you find? How many different kinds of leaves? Can you name the different trees and shrubs in the park? These challenges encourage children to look deeply into their natural surroundings and study nature in greater detail.
6. Sunny day rule
There are many months in Canada when the weather is prohibitively cold or otherwise inhospitable for outside play, so these might not be the best days to go for a family nature walk. However, just about anywhere you live, there will be enough days of sunshine in the calendar year to justify a “sunny day” rule. Simply put: If the sun is shining, it’s time to go outside. Make it a household rule — parents included!
7. Singing in the rain
It’s not so bad to play outside in wet weather either. The key is simply to dress appropriately. Rainy days are great opportunities to put on rubber boots and jump in mud puddles, or crouch at the edge of a stream — either in the country or in an urban park — to race leaves or sticks in the moving water!
These are just a few tips for getting active in nature. If you want to get extra-busy in nature play and exploration with your family, be sure to check out Richard Louv’s book, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.