We don’t have to trick kids into liking nature. They already do.
A couple years back, I was presenting to a group of landowners on ways to steward their land for the long term. One person asked, “What about the next generation? How do we get our kids and grandkids to enjoy nature so they’ll care about the land when we’re gone?”
It’s a tough question. People smarter than me have written whole books about it (see, for instance, the excellent Last Child in the Woods). At the workshop, I recommended some family-friendly MyWoodlot activities that can get kids outside.
I wasn’t a parent then. Now I am. If I gave that workshop again, I would answer differently, thanks to something my two-year-old daughter taught me this April.
The two of us were playing in the driveway. Not deep in the woods, just in front of the house for those precious few minutes between dinner and bedtime. The spring flowers in the garden had started to come up. Crocuses had bloomed, and daffodils had sprouted. My daughter saw a crocus and ran to it. She knelt and shoved her nose in the flower to smell it. She reached out and ran the petals between her tiny fingers. She moved on to the daffodils and rubbed her whole hand over the new growth. She giggled at the feeling of the soft green tickling her hands.
A dried up oak leaf from last fall lay beside the flowers. She picked it up and showed it to me with a big grin. “Leaf!” she shouted.
Watching my daughter, I realized something. How do we get our kids and grandkids to enjoy nature? We don’t have to. They already do.
You don’t need remote wilderness to explore nature with a child. My toddler finds plenty to discover in the flowerbeds and lawn in our front yard.
Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I got one of the weird ones. She has a weird enough dad. But I don’t think that’s the reason. A couple weeks after the flower evening, our family went to a kids’ store to buy spring clothes for Miss Growing Up Way Too Fast. As luck would have it, a local reptile rescue was there requesting donations. They’d brought along some of their rescues, including a tortoise. They gave the tortoise some lettuce and let it roam on the floor.
Do you know what happened? Every kid in the store ignored the toys and other kids’ stuff and swarmed this poor reptile. They touched his shell. They poked his face. They hugged him.
Kids love nature.
So what would my new answer to that group of landowners be? We need to reframe the question. Instead of figuring out how to “get” kids to like nature – as though we had to trick them into it – we should ask, “How do we keep kids from losing the wonder, curiosity, and joy for the outdoors they already have?” Here’s my answer: get them outside and exploring as early and often as possible. Let them touch plants, pick up rocks, swing sticks, and get muddy. Equally important, let them see you do those same things. Children watch us all the time. If they see you addicted to your phone, they’ll become addicted to a phone. If they see you and cheer about salamanders, they’ll turn over logs and cheer about salamanders.
Find nature wherever you can. Maybe it’s on your land. Maybe it’s your backyard. Maybe it’s a local park or vacant lot. It doesn’t matter. Find it, then get the kids in your life out in it. If you do that, you won’t need to get them interested in nature. Instead, you’ll encourage the outdoor lovers they already are.