Exploring Nature with Young Children

Two toddlers exploring rocks under their parents’ watchful eyes. (They both enjoy nature as young adults now!)


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.

Colorful tree leaves are a simple way to introduce nature to young children.


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.

Black swallowtails (Papilio polyxenes) and other butterflies are easy to show to children.


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.

A hairy woodpecker (Dryobates villous) hunts for insects on an old American elm stump.


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.

“Watering the garden” was a favorite task at our house!


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.

Monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on a common milkweed plant (Asclepias syriaca).


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.

Winter walks are a good time to look for tracks and the creature who made them, like this red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus).


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.

 Our summer days included checking the flowers and watching bees, butterflies and other garden insects.

Opt for Gratitude

Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) and Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum).

Gratitude is a choice, a state of heart and mind as clean and uncomplicated as a butterfly, or a sky-blue October day. It requires a shift from ruminating on the negative to touching all that is good about a particular moment. Gratitude is not Pollyannaism; one acknowledges that life is often difficult and sometimes unfair, but chooses to find and embrace joy and goodness anyway. 

A perfect October day in Minnesota.

Gratitude is unique to each of us and our circumstances at a specific point in time. As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, I am grateful for nature’s endless beauty, a stranger’s warm greeting, the radiant smiles of my niece’s baby and preschooler, my husband’s tenderness and patience, our son’s thoughtful calls, my aging dad’s mostly positive attitude, the kindness of my siblings and friends, and the insights and laughter of the women in my spirituality group. What inspires gratitude in your heart?

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).



Winged Beauty

The numerous blue scalings along the wing border identify this as an eastern tiger swallowtail female (Papilio glaucus).

Just before supper on a hot August evening, the air is heavy with smoky haze from Canadian forest fires. I hear the constant whine of cicadas and smell the scents of garden phlox and royal standard hostas. In a corner of our garden a creature of great beauty nectars in the Joe-Pye; its striped wings open and almost glow against a background of green leaves and shades of pink. The deep blue spots lining its hind wings reveal it to be a female eastern tiger swallowtail. She’s oblivious to the numerous bumblebees that gather nectar and pollen around her. At one point a territorial monarch chases her from the Joe-Pye. (The monarch repeats its rounds through the yard many times an hour, and tries to oust “intruders” — especially other large butterflies.) The two dance a quick scuffle in the air and the “tiger” disappears over the neighbor’s fence for a few minutes. She soon returns to the Joe-Pye garden and continues to nectar.

Joe-Pye (Eutrochium maculatum) is a favorite source of nectar for eastern tiger swallowtails.

I like to recall such moments of warmth and beauty in January and February as I mark off the days on the calendar and wait for spring. I’ll think of the gentle humming of bumblebees, the lilting call of a goldfinch passing by, and the delicate, colorful wings of all of the butterflies that sail through the garden, especially the tiger swallowtail. I’ll remember that her progeny will overwinter in chrysalis form — attached to tree bark, a plant stem, or in leaf litter — snug and asleep under the snow. In May, they will hatch to continue their life cycle of beauty.

November Honey Bee

A honey bee visits a 'Henry Kelsey' rose in early November.

A honey bee visits a ‘Henry Kelsey’ rose in early November.

Under the gentle, midday sun, I walked through scads of scarlet maple, golden aspen and lemon-colored apple leaves that dot our cleaned up garden. I heard a steady buzzing and followed it to a group of buds and blossoms on the climbing rose that grows on our garage. Among the roses floated a single honey bee (Apis mellifera), as leisurely as if it had been a sultry August afternoon, instead of early November. The golden bee rolled in the pollen of each rose before heading skyward.

I miss my small garden so much during the winter. Seeing and hearing that tiny creature brought me great joy — the simple beauty of bee and blossom, the presence of life in the November garden, and a wonderful image to remember when winter inevitably arrives.

Most bees that inhabit Minnesota die in late autumn, but honey bee colonies overwinter. This year’s long, frost-free autumn gives them extra time to fortify their hives for winter. To find out more about how honey bees survive the long northern winter, visit:
What Happens to Honey Bees in the Winter?
Do Honey Bees Fly South for the Winter?