Do you feel better when you go into a wild place? When you get away from the computer and get a deep breath of fresh air?
I’ve always been a nature lover.
I choose outside over inside whenever I can. For learning, for dining, for getting together with friends. Our backyard was designed to be our living room, and I always shoo guests into the yard even when they might prefer to stay inside.
My strongest childhood memories involve camping, hiking and playing outdoors. I’m full of nostalgia when I remember camping in the Poconos and the smell of the early morning campfire when my gruff bah humbug dad would sweet talk the chipmunks. I shudder when recalling leeches stuck to my legs after sliding down the stream cascades, and my hair was full of worms after falling off the tree swing that crossed the creek.
I climbed as high as I could in the trees around the little lake in our town. I never figured out how to climb down, but I did learn to go utterly limp when I fell, so I only ended up with bruises instead of broken bones.But I loved that wide open view at the top of the tree and kept climbing despite my falls.
At Duke, I ditched premed for Botany. While I never mastered plant identification, I learned to understand interconnected systems, biological processes, and to appreciate beauty of the outdoors. I escaped from the dorm and classrooms to the wild paths of the Duke gardens for daily destressing.
I married a man who is much happier hiking than staying at home or visiting a city. An avid backpacker, our courtship started on the Sonoma County beaches soon moved to the high Sierra trails. (You know you’ve found true love when he still thinks your beautiful after days of no showers and hot sweaty hiking and he can tempt you across the scariest steep slippery slopes of scree with a piece of chocolate and a promise of a massage.) We vowed to share our love of nature with our child, and squeeze in as many national parks per year as we could budget.
Make a Daily Habit of Getting Outdoors
It is not just quality time in nature that counts, like the big trips to the national parks, or a wilderness adventure. Quantity time makes a difference.
Instilling a daily habit of connection with nature, the value that nature is part of us, helps keep us healthy and encourages positive development in many ways. For instance, time outside helps an infant’s eyesight develop. Being outside helps us focus broadly, paying attention to many things in the environment at the same time, to take in and process many sensory inputs. When Dale had colic, nature helped to calm him. When we stepped into the cool evening air, he’d take a deep breath and settle. He always preferred the hiking backpack over the infant car seat.
To make it easy to make a daily connection with nature, we built a house on the biggest property we could afford, a third of an acre on a creek bank at the edge of town. We made the footprint of the house as small as possible to maximize the useable outdoor space. We turned most of the yard into a garden that faced the orchards and hills beyond the creek. I never realized how wild our yard seemed until a mom at a playgroup I hosted shuddered, “My god, my husband and I could never live in this wilderness with no clear edges.”
Mind you, we had a veggie garden, roses, and a bit of a lawn which seemed tame to me. But raccoons from the creek wandered into the yard to raid our grape vines, and we battled the ants and gophers without using poison. We planted an edible landscape, and used companion planting to attract birds and bees and wildlife.
We considered the frogs, lizards, and hummingbirds in our yard our family pets. As a toddler, Dale checked on his pets each day, spent time in the yard, and helped us care for the garden. He played in the sandpile, ran barefoot on the grass, or sprawled beneath the persimmon tree to look at books. From toddler to teen, going out in the yard allowed space for connecting with nature, self and others.
Even when we couldn’t visit a park, we knew we could wander out the back door and explore along the creek. We could sit beneath the fig when grumpy or wanting to be alone. I didn’t need a research study to tell me it was good for us, but I am thrilled to see the evidence to help encourage other families to prioritize getting out into nature.
Why nature is a learning resource
Before getting my teaching credential, I worked with a few environmental education programs. Their philosophy was to inspire love and respect for the whole web of life so that you want to celebrate and take care of what you love. After having lunch with Mrs. T. and learning her special teaching techniques, I was hired to drive the Terwilliger Nature Van one day a week to present programs at schools which included live and taxidermied animals. My smile was just as big as the students as I helped them hold a snake, acted out the flight patterns of birds, or played a web of life game. I loved packing up the van and driving with the California Cougar as my copilot.
Nature was a learning resource even when environmental education wasn’t the goal. Taking kids outside helped them to relax and to notice: to observe, to pay attention and to wonder. Asking questions about what you see and being inspired and motivated to find answers is what we want our children and students to do.
When I taught public school, the first thing I did was buy a class set of clipboards and attach pencils with string, so I could take the class outside. My eighth graders rolled their eyes as they shuffled and jostled out the door.
In your journal take some time to notice:
What do you see?Look more closely? What can you hear? Smell?
They calmed as they sat, observed and sketched and realized there wasn’t just one answer. Now each class period started with the question, can we go outside to observe?
My fifth-grade students eagerly claimed their nature spot and drew, comparing one week’s observations to the last. They bubbled over with questions and new discoveries and began to share what they noticed in their yards and on walks to school.
Choosing a nature observation spot in our yard was one of the favorite activities when I hosted writing summer camps at our home.
Each child picked their particular spot, settled in and wrote or drew for 15-30 minutes. They could also take photos to go along with their drawings to document observations and discoveries and spark questions for discussion or further research. Sometimes they brought back a poem or story. Other times they had new questions they wanted to find answers to.
Do you need a nature curriculum?
All you need to do is go outside, leave time for play, pay attention, and ask:
What do you see? What do you notice?
What do you wonder?
Where can you look for the answers to your questions?
Besides getting out in nature, a sketchbook, a camera, and letting kids find books or use a computer to look up answers to their questions is all the curriculum you need.
The secret is, you don’t need to control it. You will need to model that you value nature and spending time in nature. You certainly can guide the discovery by where you live where you take your kids. Start with building the love of nature with daily connection and play. Start by wandering and wondering.
Then, you can build on the questions and discoveries. You can look for places to go. Are there museums or exhibits about the topics of interest? Is there a citizen science program? An environmental organization? A festival? A community effort? A political process surrounding your child’s interest? There are many directions for the learning to unfold.
Nature is a fabulous learning resource. You just have to go outside.
Spend time nature daily.
Focus first on instilling a love of nature by wandering, wondering, being and playing in nature.
Choose a natural place for repeated visits, connection, and observation.
Over to you:
What fond memories do you have of time in nature?
Do you have a yard or live near a place that makes it easy for you to get outside on a daily basis?
How do you think time in nature would help with learning for you or your kids?
Reading the book brought back memories of the activities I used to do with kids when I was working with environmental education programs, that I brought to my classroom teaching, and things we did with Dale since we loved to be out in nature as a family.
Sampson does a thorough (327 pages) job of detailing the science behind why we need to immerse ourselves in nature and the best ways to instill a love of nature in our children.
From the inside flap book description:
The average North American child currently spends about seven hours a day staring at screens, and mere minutes engaged in unstructured play outdoors, a dramatic transformation within the past generation. Yet recent research indicates that experiences in nature are essential for healthy growth. Regular exposure to nature can help relieve stress, depression, and attention deficits. It can reduce bullying, combat obesity, and boost academic scores. Most critical of all, abundant time in natural settings seems to yield long-term benefits in kids’ cognitive, emotional, and social development.
To date, no book has offered teachers, parents, and other caregivers the necessary tools to engender a meaningful, lasting connection between children and the natural world. How to Raise a Wild Child is a timely and engaging antidote, showing how kids’ connection to nature changes as they mature, and empowering grown-ups to be strong mentors.
Distilling the latest research in multiple disciplines, Sampson reveals how adults can help kids fall in love with nature—enlisting technology as an ally, taking advantage of urban nature, and instilling a deep sense of place along the way.
It is a dense book with many great examples of activities to do with children geared for their developmental stage. It also explains and gives tips for how to be a great nature mentor;how to not over focus on facts, how to encourage questioning and connectionwith the big ideas of how our natural world operates in ways that don’t become lectures, and suggestions for how todevelop habits of exploring nature and extend the learning in ways that will work for your family culture.
What are the secrets for raising a wild child?
Spread throughout the book are what he terms 10 secrets for raising a wild child.
Here are his first three secrets which coincide with my values about learning that could be applied to many topics.
A deep connection with nature doesn’t arise through only periodic trips to national parks or other wilderness. While such trips can leave deep impressions, even more important are abundant experiences in wild or semi-wild places, typically close to home.
Children will tend to value what you value so start noticing nature yourself taking a few minutes each day to become more aware of the other than human world around you.
Pay close attention to the child’s interaction with nature and follow their lead. Tailoring experiences and questions to kid’s specific interests is the best path for inspiring passion for the natural world.
One of the benefits of the books is the detailed advice on how to be a great nature mentor.
(from pages 89-90)
“Effective mentors are almost invisible. They deepen connection and learning in their mentees wihtout even appearing to be teachers. They start by using the longings of youngsters as both bait and distraction.Foryoung kids those longings likely revolved around free play.For kids in middle childhood, passions might be directed toward playing a game or showing competency of some sort, so you might ask them to head out to gather berries or apples.For teens, longings revolve more around pushing personal limits in the company of peers. As a mentor your role might be to organize an outing that meets these goals – perhaps ziplining or backpacking.
When referring to the daily habits of using the activities he terms wanders and sit spots
“Coyote mentors build excitement by modeling the right attitude and engaging in the same activities. Afterward they exchange stories and ask questions that build confidence and probe the edges of understanding. Nature mentors are also active unconditional listeners, watching body language and facial expressions to determine where interests lie, and when to insert a provocative factoid or another confidence boosting question.”
These are good pointers for mentoring learners in many situations.
The book is full of useful actionable advice, though a bit unwieldy to carry along if these kinds of activities and mentoringare unfamiliar for you. I was hoping to find a section of his website that had some useful downloads as cheat sheets to more easily be carted along and referred to. ( I am thinking of the resources that the Heath Brothers provide for Decisive or some of Gretchen Rubin’s downloads for the Happiness Project.)
The book is well worth a read. The most important action is to round up your kiddos and go outside to experience and fall in love with nature each and everyday.
You can see the book trailer here:
Have you read this book? What did you think? How do you enjoy nature with your family?
Here is one of my core beliefs: to improve parenting, learning, and taking care of yourself, make sure you go outside each day.
Let nature nurture.
Fresh air, sunshine, feet and hands in the dirt help cure a lot of what ails us.
Need help with stress? Sleep? Moods?
Take a walk.
“In beauty may I walk. All day long may I walk. Through the returning seasons may I walk. On the trail marked with pollen may I walk. With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk. With dew about my feet may I walk. With beauty may I walk. With beauty before me, may I walk. With beauty behind me, may I walk. With beauty above me, may I walk. With beauty below me, may I walk. With beauty all around me, may I walk. In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk. In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk. It is finished in beauty. It is finished in beauty.”