Fostering a Love for Nature:
How to raise curious, observant environmentalist children in our ever-changing world.
My mother-in-law asked me, “How do you get your kids so excited about being outside?” With the trend and allure in our culture of living a more screen-filled existence, it can be tough figuring out how to prioritize being outside. I believe that it is absolutely essential to our human survival to be outside and develop a connection to the natural world. Our human existence is linked to plants, animals, and all the life outside our homes. Yes, being outdoors comes with its hazards, but I have found it increasingly easier to avoid those hazards if you prepare and are observant.
As a parent, I feel it is my duty to raise nature-loving kids. What else do we have if our earth is spoiled to the point of being uninhabitable? At Under The Canopy, this is what we foster, a love for all the trees, animals and plants in your own backyard. Here are a few ways I have figured out as a parent and caregiver to give my children lots of ways to connect with the nature that surrounds them daily.
1. Observe, Observe, Observe
To become more aware of your environment, it is best to take it in with all your senses. A lot of people just see trees and plants, think they’re pretty, and move on. To really see your environment you need to spend some time sitting still and really looking. If you are looking at roses, spend time gently touching the petals; take in their soft fragrance, look deep into the flower and try to find the small insects pollinating it. It is possible to sit and smell these flowers for a long time. If you and your children tend to get antsy, try bringing out your sketchbooks and drawing the flowers. This is a great way to observe something slowly and keep your hands moving.
2. Exposure to Nature
Taking the time in our busy, over-scheduled culture to go out to wild places takes some planning, but once you make it a habit, it’s hard to stop. Since the pandemic started, I knew we would need a way to reset from a week at home, so we have made the weekends nature adventure time. Every weekend we go to some new, wild place. It has been a perfect way for me to get a refresh for the week ahead and has given us the opportunity to really get to know the beautiful wild place of northeast Oklahoma.
The more you take the time to get outside and explore, the more interest your child will have in it. It is not always easy. Children complain about heat, cold, biting insects, but we have found lot of tricks to making it easier for them. Check out this post about how to happily hike with young children.
3. Make Nature Time into a Game
One of our favorite ways to learn is through play. We often play observation games while out on a family walk. For example: Find me four different kinds of flowers. Find me two different kinds of seeds. Guess what animal left this track in the mud? The world is full of these simple mysteries that are so fun to uncover.
4. Learn to Identify Different Species
Because we have been taking daily family walks since the beginning of spring, we have been noticing some of the more weed-filled lawns in our neighborhood. We appreciate the weeds and like to observe the different flowers growing in the grass. I ask the children to find four different varieties of plants in these kinds of lawns. We also like to observe each tree we pass. There are many different kinds of trees on the blocks surrounding our Midtown Tulsa home. We like to get out our Oklahoma tree guidebook and see which ones are which. We also use simple, take-everywhere identifier keys to make observations while we are out and about. These fit easily in a purse, are waterproof and give good beginning information in helping you figure out what is growing in your neighborhood.
5. Play Pretend Outdoors
A lot of my friends with boys struggle with having them acting out war and other violent games in their play. They try to not encourage shooting, but the kids seem to always find a way. An alternative to gun/violent play can be found in the outdoors. Playing pretend comes alive in nature: You can become explorers, scientists and even pirates hiding your spoils in secret caves. Pretend gunplay can be replaced with pretend bows and arrows as they explore the land and try to “trap” animals.
One of my favorite ways to spend time as a child was in a creek building small dams with stones. This is a perfect activity to use fine motor skills. Also, kids can enjoy the cause and affect of being able to stop naturally running water.
6. Collect Nature Objects
We all have nature collections in my house. Mine includes rocks from all the beaches I have visited, a few fossils, many nuts from trees and pieces of petrified wood. Every time we go for a walk, my youngest will gather a handful of nature objects, bean pods, pinecones, leaves and will say she is putting it in her collection. This is a very important part of fostering a love of nature.
Encouraging children to bring nature inside lets them get cozy with it. Furthermore, having nature objects around inspires them to go outside and find more. Note: Make sure you only collect things that you have identified as safe to collect and only pick something when it is growing in abundance. Those rare wildflowers are meant to be seen, not picked.
7. Read about Nature
There are so many good books about nature and the natural world. From picture books, young adult books and adult novels, there are many rich tales of unique habitats and people’s experiences in the wild. There is nothing like reading aloud an epic tale to your children about the many fun adventures to be had outdoors. For some great inspiration, check out this list of nature books compiled by Backwoods Mama and separated by age and fiction and non-fiction.
8. Go Camping
There is no better outdoor experience then going on a family camping trip. You will have to invest a little bit of money in equipment. However, once you have the basics, camping is an inexpensive way to experience nature in all its glory. Spending the night outside and waking up to the dawn chorus of birds is a breathtaking experience. Check out this article for some inspiration on great camping spots in Oklahoma.
Enjoying the outdoors with my children and fostering a love of nature is a passion of mine. To learn more about the virtual Under The Canopy classes happening this May for both children and adults, follow this link. Enjoy this time while sheltering in place to be outside, and remember: #natureisnotcanceled.
About Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek
Margaritte Arthrell-Knezek is a naturalist, writer and community educator committed to teaching the skills of sustainability and instructing children and adults on how to connect with the natural world that surrounds them daily. Arthrell-Knezek hails from New Haven, Connecticut where she began her work in the arts and environmental activism in 1997.
She graduated from The Evergreen State College In Olympia WA, 2010, with a bachelor’s degree in multi-media art and sustainability studies. She has traveled the world and landed in Tulsa, OK, where she is the Executive Director and Lead Educator of Under The Canopy LLC. Margaritte is a parent to two awesome children and wife to Mykey Arthrell-Knezek.
You can learn more about the programs she teaches at www.underthecanopy.org She is a regular contributor to TulsaKids.com and also keeps a personal blog about parenting in all its real and messy forms called Tap the Root. She was also published in Hilary Frank’s 2019 book, “Weird Parenting Wins.”