Love for the natural world begins when we are very young. Even the smallest of hands-on experiences ignites a child’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder, and these early encounters stay with us. I remember evenings with my mother…sitting on our front steps and listening to her stories about trees, stars, moths and whatever else presented itself. I know the wonder those times created deep inside of me; a reverence and joy I continue to nurture.
Recently, I watched a mom walk with her toddler, stop and lift him up to touch the leaves of a young maple tree, and pluck a leaf for him to carry. Then the little guy spied an ant hill on the sidewalk. He and his mom watched the bustling activity for a few minutes before moving on to explore a boulevard garden.
Seeing them raised memories of giving our son leaves, pinecones, acorns and rocks to hold under our watchful eyes. He loved his “pet caterpillars.” He squeezed the first wooly bear I showed him too hard, but we worked on “gentle touch” and held other caterpillars, baby toads and small frogs. Butterflies also were an early delight, both in the garden and while out hiking.
Each summer we watched American robins, cardinals, house wrens, blue jays and mourning doves nest in our urban yard. Using binoculars, we observed them raise their nestlings in our hedge and apple tree. At the cabin, we saw yellow warblers, American redstarts, Baltimore orioles, bluebirds, woodpeckers and many others. In both locations, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks and herons were common overhead.
Something about those early, joyful experiences stuck with our son. Even now as he studies medicine and has little time outside, he’ll text us about a Cooper’s hawk perched on a fence, a barn swallow nest in a hospital parking ramp, a winter moonrise, or the ducklings and goslings paddling on the creek near his apartment.
If you have children in your life, show them the simple things in nature; there are so many easy activities to enjoy together. Finding rocks, leaves and large seeds is a great place to start. Talk about their shapes, colors and textures. Learn to identify a few of the common trees where you live.
Getting dirty in the garden is great fun for most kids and adults! Plant seeds and tend them together. Carrots, green beans, radishes and marigolds were the first seeds we planted. (We also grew a potted cherry tomato.) We checked for progress everyday, from the first sprout, to buds on beans and marigolds, to harvesting and eating the veggies.
While gardening, watch for butterflies and moths. Large ones, such as monarchs and swallowtails are easy to point out and talk about. If you grow milkweed, dill or parsley in your garden, you may find caterpillars to show children; monarchs on the milkweed and swallowtails on dill, parsley and other plants in the carrot family.
In autumn, take a “leaf walk” together and collect colorful leaves. Some kids enjoy pressing the leaves to make a book of the different types, shapes and colors. Most will enjoy piling up the leaves and jumping in them! While you’re out walking, watch for colorful birds and listen for their songs. Learn about the birds that inhabit your community.
Many children like to create nature journals. When our son was a preschooler, he made simple journals from scrap paper. He drew pictures of dragonflies, bees, birds, flowers, rocks and whatever else in nature caught his interest. He’d dictate a few sentences for me to write about each item until he was old enough to write his own. There are also simple journals that you can buy to record your observations together. We used both the “Bird Log” and “Nature Log” by Adventure Publications. These days there are many more options from which to choose. Here’s a link to a few other nature journals for children.
The early darkness of winter evenings makes it easier to view the night sky. Watch the moon wax and wane from a tiny crescent to a luminous globe and back to a sliver. Point out the brighter planets: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. If you live away from urban lights, or can drive outside of the city, look at the beautiful Milky Way overhead and at a few of the easier-to-recognize constellations, such as Orion, Canis Major, Gemini and Ursa Major in the Northern Hemisphere. Many children, especially those living in cities, have few opportunities to marvel at a sky full of stars.
During a snowfall, walk together and notice the hush that settles over the land as falling snow muffles all sound. It feels magical, especially at dusk or in the evening. Catch snowflakes on your mittens and point out the variety of their beautiful shapes. A fresh, clean snow is also the perfect opportunity to look for animal tracks, and if the time is right, see the creature who made them! A walk in the woods on a mild winter day reveals the shapes of trees, native grasses and wildflower seed heads. Watch for woodpeckers that stay with us through the long winter and listen for the hooting of owls.
As children grow and continue to learn, we can talk with them about endangered and extinct plants and animals, and what each of us might do, even in small ways, to prevent further loss. To that end, providing youngsters with fun experiences and happy memories of nature can help them connect meaning and joy with the natural environment — and that may create a deeper commitment to caring for our beautiful world.