Our children are our future- maybe an oft heard saying, but true nonetheless! What will happen to the world after we leave it, will be in the hands of the adults we are nurturing through childhood today. So, making sure they have an intimate knowledge of, and connection to, their natural environment is essential if we are to safeguard what we haven't already destroyed. Time for a more aware and environmentally conscious generation across the board!
Children are born intensely curious about their world. So we don't have to teach them to be interested, just nurture that quality and make sure they don't become blasé or apathetic by so much of what is blasted at them on an almost constant basis, if we allow it, via all kinds of media. Lack of exposure to, or adequate time to just "be" in the natural world, explore it in their own way, can also dull their natural curiosity.
There is, in fact, something that has been named (although not officially recognised) Nature Defecit Disorder, which is said to affect children who are starved of being able to develop sufficiently in contact with the natural world.
So, what can we as parents or caregivers do to enhance our children's awareness and appreciation for the environment and all that live in it? This will naturally depend on the age group of the child, so make sure whatever you decide to do is age/ability appropriate and safe for your particular child.
Remember to try to follow your child's lead, let them make discoveries and follow them as far as they wish (within safety and time limits), although there is no harm in pointing out your own observations too. Keep in mind that the idea is for it to be an enjoyable and exciting discovery, not turn into a lesson or lecture in the traditional sense, and that it may not go in the direction your preconceived ideas assumed.
Here are some ideas to use on their own, or as stepping points to further adventures:
FOR EVERY SEASON
Choose a suitable location to revisit each season. For younger children just talking about the changes you notice might be enough... the new buds, flowers or seed-pods appearing; lush green or dry and brown grasses; maybe different types of wildlife activity; caterpillars, then cocoons which open to release beautiful butterflies. Children may like to draw what they notice; take photos for comparison; make diary entries about sights, sounds, smells and sensations. Weather conditions could be noted- breezes, snow, rain, cloud formation, scorching sun- and changes that are responses to these could be discussed.
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE
Hunt for a selection of feathers, flowers or leaves and notice the differences in each sample... can your child think of reasons for those differences? Draw or take photos of what you find!
Note: Feathers can harbour germs and other nasties, so either use lightweight gloves when handling or wash hands well after. Don't allow the child to sniff the feathers. Also, plants and flowers should not be picked unless you are sure it is ok to do so. Also keep in mind some are toxic. If unsure what you are handling, wear protective gloves and wash hands well after.
4, 6 OR 8 LEGGED HUNT
Go on a 4, 6 or 8 legged hunt! This can have added fun if there are the same number of legs among the human explorers, in other words 2 people (4 legs) for a 4 legged hunt etc. See how many creatures you can find on a walk through a natural area with the chosen number of legs. Take photos or draw if you wish.
ADOPT A PATCH
Adopt a small area, maybe a metre square, or a little spot surrounded by rocks, or a patch of creek-bank. Preferably choose somewhere that you think will remain relatively untouched and not destroyed. Maybe an out of the way spot in a National Park, or even a wild spot in your own garden. Photograph your patch and make notes about it on a regular basis, maybe once a week or fortnight, for however long you like... what is living there; growing there; what changes; what stays the same? This can continue for as long as your children retain interest in their patch...even over years if they wish. Give your patch a name if you like... how inventive can they be with coming up with name ideas?
WEB OF INTRIGUE
Take your children out at night, into the garden or a nearby scrubby area, and see how many different spider webs you can find. Let them watch busy spiders at work. Start discussions wondering how spiders manage to make such intricate designs, and how they travel so far between trees etc. to attach anchor points. Draw webs; make spiders! Make sure you discuss appropriate spider safety with your children.
GROW A FEAST!
Children can gain so much from growing their own food- pride and a sense of achievement; appreciation and understanding about food; planting skills; knowledge of life cycles; exercise and fresh air; the soothing nurturing feeling that comes from contact with the soil. And fresh, healthy food right off the plant as well! You may even find children who are normally fussy about eating certain veggies will have a try of ones they have grown themselves... and the taste is often so much better too! As you work together on your veggie patch, there's lots to talk about too, lots of questions to be asked too no doubt
Go on a daily wander together in the garden, snacking direct from the plants, and harvesting for the day's meals. Make sure you make it clear what is, and isn't, safe to eat and don't allow very young children to sample unattended.
Try a herb garden; a pizza and pasta garden; an Asian veggie garden; a pumpkin patch full of different kinds of pumpkins; an edible flower garden. Try growing some things for seeds to plant next time. Grow plants for medicinal purposes and other household uses... lots of new activities and discussions there! Grow a pot pourri and fragrance garden and make your own wonderful natural scented products!
CREATE YOUR OWN HERBARIUM COLLECTION
Collect, dry and mount samples for your own herbarium. Make sure it is acceptable to collect in the places you wish to get samples from. Even a simple collection from your own garden is a good way to start. Then approach friends, family and neighbours for more specimens. Try to find out what the plant is, where it grows naturally, and some information about it. If you want to follow official herbarium procedure, there's lots of info online about how to go about it.
Choose a day when it's pleasant outside, but there are interesting cloud formations in the sky. Take a blanket out in the yard, the beach, or a park, or any safe area where you can get a good view of the sky. Get your children to join you in imagining what shapes the clouds form... what animals can they see; people or faces; dark wizards or light fairies; buildings; comfy giant's pillows or beanbags; huge mounds of fairy floss. Take photos of the imaginings... or sketch them.
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL
Find a trail of ants busily going about their business. Follow it in both directions... where are they coming from? Where are they going? Is it a one way trail or are there ants going in both directions? Are they finding any food? If so, what? Are there any ants working in teams to bring back food, or are they all working individually? Is there any other work than food gathering going on, such as tunnelling? Observe the ants on a day when rain is predicted... what do you notice?
How about: bird-watching; rock collecting; join a photography club- photography helps develop keen observation and often gives varied perspectives on things- then enter wildlife photography contests; get involved with wildlife rescue; join waterwatch or a "Friends" group.
Have fun with the above ideas, and anything else you can come up with, but don't forget- some of the most worthwhile appreciation of nature comes from allowing your child to just "be", to wander and wonder, to think and daydream. To build that special connection to, and respect for, the Earth and all living things.