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child reading nature book

Raising Nature-literate Kids

A is for acorn, B is for bluebell, C is for clover.

My daughter is holding in her hands a “spellbook of lost words.” The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris captures this moment in time when we’re rapidly losing not only knowledge about the natural world, but even the language with which we can talk about it.

“Once upon a time, words began to vanish from the language of children. They disappeared so quietly that at first almost no one noticed — fading away like water on stone. The words were those that children used to name the natural world around them: acorn, adder, bluebell, bramble, conker — gone! Fern, heather, kingfisher, otter, raven, willow, wren… all of them gone! The words were becoming lost: no longer vivid in children’s voices, no longer alive in their stories.”

Here’s why this book exists: In 2007, the editors at Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped 50 nature-related words from this children’s dictionary as “culturally irrelevant.” ‘Acorn,’ ‘buttercup,’ ‘conker,’ ‘chestnut’ and ‘fern’ and ‘lark’ had to go in order to make space for terms such as ‘broadband’ and ‘cut-and-paste.’ The decision has received a lot of criticism. In 2015, Margaret Atwood and 27 other prominent writers, naturalists, and media personalities wrote an open letter to Oxford University Press, pleading that they reinstate the omitted words. A petition on Change.org drew over 214,000 signatures.

The Lost Words, too, is a protest, a petition, but a visually stunning and lyrical one, an ode to all the beautiful creatures and plants whose names are in danger of being forgotten.

 

Nature Play and Children’s Well-Being

Innumerable studies have shown that decline in nature play correlates with a decline in children’s well-being. A 2009 study by Natural England showed that a generation ago, 40% of children regularly played in wild places; now its fewer than 10%. 40% of children never play outdoors. According to some studies, kids spend on average 6-7 hours a day in front of gadgets. Children can name more Pokémon characters than wildlife species.

The numbers are hardly better for the U.S. or many other affluent countries. The heartbreakingly-titled Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv brings together a growing body of research on the so-called nature-deficit disorder among children, and its links to the disturbing rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

We know children need to play outside more. We know they are not spending enough time in unsupervised play in natural environments. We know they are becoming increasingly disconnected from the most basic knowledge regarding where food comes from, or how things are made, or how to use simple tools to solve problems.

These facts are not up for debate. The question is: what do we do about it?

Parents, grandparents, and caretakers: it’s on us.

Here are 10 things you can do to make nature awareness a daily, ordinary part of a child’s life.

 

#1 Nurture a child’s innate curiosity about the natural world

Little kids are instinctively fascinated by nature’s processes. Tap into that curiosity and give them space to explore: digging for worms and pill bugs in the backyard, observing squirrels and birds, building log cabins out of sticks and creek dams with rocks. Often, all we as caretakers need to provide is the context, the opportunity. The kids will take it from there.

kids playing in nature

#2 Lead by example

Children pick up on the grownups’ vibes. If you yourself are uncomfortable or distracted in nature — not having a good time and instead compulsively checking your newsfeed — you are wordlessly communicating to a child that the natural world is not fun or worthy of our attention. So reflect on your own relationship to nature, and commit to working on whatever it is that makes you unable or unwilling to relax or get adventurous in it. Probably your best teachers in this will be kids themselves.

toddler gardening

#3 Plant a garden

One of the best ways to learn about nature’s cycles is to get one’s hands in the dirt and participate in them. Involve kids in all stages of gardening: preparing the soil, planting seeds, watering, weeding, and harvesting. Give them a little patch of their own to tend. If you have no garden space, a windowsill or balcony container garden works great. Over time, they start to “get it”: they learn to make the connection between soil and sunlight and water on the one hand, and food on our plates, on the other. Gardening also encourages kids to eat fresh produce: often a picky eater who won’t eat vegetables at the dinner table loves to pick snap peas or cherry tomatoes straight off the vine.

 

#4 Make it relevant

Let’s forget about the Oxford Junior Dictionary: What words get used in your home? Does your language reflect an appreciation for the rich variety of life-forms and elements that make up the natural world?

I can say with some certainty that my daughter is not likely to lose the meaning of “acorn” as long as we forage acorns together or have acorn pancakes for breakfast on Sundays. Nor will “otter” disappear from her vocabulary as long as we make regular visits to the WNC Nature Center, where the two otters swimming in their tank is her favorite highlight. She won’t forget the meaning of “hawk” as long as she has the large hawk feather in her treasure basket, along with her rock and sea shell collection, that she will proudly pull out to show visitors.

 

#5 Look into forest and outdoor educational programs

Forest kindergartens, wilderness summer camps and other kids’ nature programs are a wonderful thing if you can take advantage of them. Through outdoor play, children develop their motor skills, engage in creative play, learn to use their five senses, and start to cultivate a lifelong relationship with nature and wildlife. Learn more about forest schools here.

kids on nature trip

#6 Make outdoor play as inviting as possible

Make the outdoor spaces around your home at least as exciting as the (increasingly addictive and techno-focused) indoor activities. If there’s nothing for them outside except a drab lawn or landscaping they aren’t allowed to touch, no wonder kids don’t want to go outside. Install a rope swing. Set up a sandbox or other area where kids can simply play with soil and rocks. Stop worrying and let them climb trees. Provide really fun outdoor toys (they don’t have to be expensive: think frisbees or balls). Get them biking in the park. True, it’s not true wilderness exposure if you live in urban or suburban areas. But just getting kids to play outside, breathing fresh air, being physically active, is infinitely better than no outdoor time at all. You’re still giving them opportunities for engagement with the natural world.

 

#7 Just dress them properly

Rain gear. Snow gear. Running-under-the-sprinkler gear. You get the point. I grew up playing and walking to school in –30 Celsius weather. It was fine — I simply had warm clothes on. To quote the title of Linda Åkerson McGurk, “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” — only inadequate gear.

 

#8 Dirt is okay

The modern dirt phobia, the overuse of sanitizers and antibacterials, actually weakens our bodies’ own defense systems. Asthma and allergy are lower in farming communities than in urban areas because children who grow up on farms get exposed to a diversity of bacterial species through their interaction with farm animals and farm dirt. These very bacterial and fungal organisms promote a healthy immunological response.

As Maya Sherat-Klein writes in The Dirt Cure,

“It turns out that all the things that are messy and dirty in the world, the very things we thought we needed to control or even eliminate to stay alive, are actually the very elements necessary for robust health. Research says that bacteria, fungi, parasites, insects, weeds — and living, nutrient-dense soil full of all of those elements — play direct and critical roles in the health of our food, and by extension, the health of our children.”

And those muddy clothes can be thrown in the washer afterwards. Let kids get dirty.

kids play in nature

#9 Schedule nature time…

…as something that you do together as a family. Unless you live in a rural area, in the modern world it takes a bit of a commitment to spend time regularly in nature. So plan family activities so that they include that regular dose of “forest bathing.” For our family, a weekend forest hike is a weekly tradition. We meet with friends to go play in the woods or wade by the creek. And in part because of our commitment to eating as locally as possible, we make frequent visits to local farms, orchards, and foraging spots.

 

#10 Read nature-related books together

Head to the library and explore together age-appropriate books on nature. I don’t know any young child that isn’t interested in animals. Let them lead and pick books on subjects they find most fascinating: is it cute puffins or koalas, or dinosaurs, or volcanoes, or slimy sea creatures? It doesn’t matter what the content is: what matters is that you sit down and read together and talk about what you learn. Again, in doing so, the grownup is affirming the child’s sense that this is interesting and worthwhile to learn about.

 

That’s my two cents. Now I’d love to hear from you: What other strategies do you have in your tool belt? What have you found helpful in raising kids to be comfortable in the natural world and engaged in it?

How to deepen your sense of place

We all live somewhere. We’re all from someplace. What does it mean, then, for some of us to have a more awakened sense of place than others? Is a sense of place something that can be deepened, or nurtured, with practice?

Sense of place is hard to describe; it’s often that intangible, indescribable quality that seems to linger in the air but is hard to pinpoint.

So let’s start with its opposite: we’ve all been to a place that lacked a sense of place. How many times have you driven through a strip mall that looks so identical to every other strip mall you’ve ever driven through that you feel disoriented, unsure of where you are? The same chain stores, the same chain restaurants, the same gas stations, the same anonymous, nondescript look that we’ve come to associate with an office building, a bank, a shopping center — or with a suburban neighborhood, for that matter. You could be anywhere.

A special or unique place, then, is the opposite: a place that communicates to you — unapologetically and through all your senses — that you couldn’t be anywhere else but here.

It’s a place that embraces its specialness, that which sets it apart. Maybe it’s its natural features, maybe it’s the pulse of the street life, maybe it’s the smell of salty sea air or spicy traditional foods cooking or the legacy of who and what was here before you. Maybe it’s the energy of the people who call it home. It may be gritty industrial or sophisticated elegance or the mossy moisture in the air in a mountain holler. But it’s someplace special.

If you live in one of these places with character, with its own vibe, consider yourself lucky. But wherever you are, you can absolutely deepen your relationship to your place. It doesn’t have to be your forever home. (And I say this as someone who has moved 26 times in her lifetime. I’ve often been transitional, nomadic, yet found that these ways helped me get a fuller taste of where I was.)

16 Ways to Deepen Your Sense of Place (and Have a Great Time While You’re At It)

Get rooted where you are

  • Look at all different kinds of maps of the place… not just street maps! Visit the library or Google Images for old maps of your place. Look up your watershed map. Many counties have a free GIS database for maps that show the topography, water bodies, main natural landmarks and natural resources.
  • Learn about the history of your place. Who was here before you? Who was here before them? How did they live, what did they eat? Plan a trip to your nearest museum or heritage center that celebrates the stories and lifeways of people who used to inhabit the landscape.
  • Take the Bioregional quiz.
  • Find ways to enhance your connection to nature and the seasons. Keep a local seasonal produce calendar taped to your fridge and plan meals around what’s in season when. “Bring the outdoors in and indoors out”: bring natural greenery into your house in all seasons — winter greens during the winter holidays, wild flowers in the summer — and take more of your daily activities, like coffee and lunch, outside during the warm seasons.
  • Get a bird feeder, place it close to your window and notice how you simply start to develop a relationship with local bird life.
  • Get to know one local wild plant a month. No, you don’t need to memorize the Latin names, and you don’t need to feel embarrassed if you don’t have your plant ID’ing game on yet: there are now tons of free plant ID apps to choose from that identify the plant for you. Tip: I find it much easier to remember a plant if I learn what it can be used for — for example, if it used to be a medicine for headaches, or if it’s an edible that can be thrown into a salad.
  • Explore the natural world. Move in whatever way moves you: hiking, biking, canoeing, swimming, rock climbing. Find a hiking buddy and make a monthly date. At least a couple of times a year, plan a longer, ideally overnight or multi-day, trip to a special place like a national forest or state park.
  • Find your own special place. You don’t need to explain it to anybody. It’s any place that makes you breathe in a little deeper, feel a little more grounded, the place from which you return invigorated and feeling more like yourself.

 

Get to know your foodshed

  • Farmers’ markets are great places to soak up the local vibe. You’ll be find local delicacies and special food varieties to sample, enjoy the sense of community, get to know who here grows what.
  • Get to know your farmer in other ways. Join a CSA, visit farm stands, go apple-picking and pumpkin-hugging in the fall, join in on farm volunteer days.
  • Get to know and celebrate your region’s specialties, heirloom foods, foods with terroir (“taste of the land”). If you need ideas, check out Slow Food’s Ark of Taste or the place-based foods lists from RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) Initiative.
  • Join the local chapter of Slow Food International.

Harvest your own local edibles

  • Plant a garden if you haven’t already. There is no better way to connect with the land! If you don’t have access to land, join a community garden, trade with someone who does have land, or plant a windowsill/balcony garden.
  • Join a local guided edible wild plants walk or a mushroom foraging club.
  • Check out Falling Fruit to see what other edibles might be growing in your neighborhood, yours for the pickin’.
  • Find other local initiatives to tap into the abundance of locally grown food that might otherwise go to waste, like fruit gleaning clubs.