Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Tips for Connecting with Nature in Your Neighborhood

This is my second in a series of posts for Nature Rocks, a wonderful movement that encourages families to spend more time outdoors connecting with nature. It's an idea that my family tries to live out each and every day. Next week, I'm their featured ambassador, so Nature Rocks will be posting some of my tips for enjoying time outside with kids, and I'll be posting more detailed posts that correspond with each tip. Read my first post about making backyard play more fun here.

Today's tip is to connect with nature in your backyard and neighborhood.

I'll be the first to admit that when we head outside to play, I often get out the sidewalk chalk or let my oldest son play with his beloved basketball. But I also try to incorporate little nature lessons during our outdoor time whenever possible.

You should also know that I'm by no means a nature expert. I majored in journalism, not botany or biology. I couldn't tell the difference between a sparrow and a chickadee. I only know about 4 types of trees by sight. I'm lost when it comes to identifying flowers. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of things I can teach my sons about the natural world.

So here are some ways that even a novice nature lover like myself can help their kids learn more about nature.

Keep your eyes open and be curious. The best nature lesson we ever shared with our son was when a mama bird built a nest in our fern plant. I got the plant down from its hook one night to water it, and I noticed there seemed to be a thinning area of the plant. I took a closer look and saw the nest, full of eggs.
Each night, when my husband got home from work, we would gently take the fern down off its perch and check on the eggs. Soon they began to hatch. I've never seen my son so completely captivated by something. We watched their progress for weeks, until one day the babies were gone. Now whenever we see some birds romping around our yard, my son asks if it's one of the babies all grown up. It was truly so amazing. Had I not been paying attention, the moment could have completely passed us by.

Take a walk and get your neighbors involved. You might be bored with the scene in your own yard, but there's probably different plants and treasures to discover just down the road. If you think they're ready, try ditching the stroller and let your kids explore on their own two feet. Maybe your neighbors will have fun things to share. I'll never forget the night that our neighbors called down to us because they had just found some baby rabbits along their fence.

Notice the change in seasons. This is a great time of year to point out all the changes that spring brings. Each day, my son and I have been counting the blooms on our pussy willow plant, and checking on the daffodils' progress. In the fall, I had him name the colors he saw on the trees, and we talked about why the leaves were piling up on the ground.

Kids love animals. My son could watch the squirrels for hours. We talk about what they eat and where they sleep. And we often find frogs and bugs on our hikes. Even when we're indoors playing, if I notice a rabbit or bird on our porch, we'll check them out through the window (and because they're not as easily scared off by us when we're inside, we often get to observe them for a while this way).

There's always the weather. Sometimes we fill the time it takes us to walk to the playground by chatting about the weather. Is it windy today? Is the sun shining? Are there puddles from the rain earlier? Should we wear our winter jackets, or is a sweatshirt enough to keep us warm?
    My sons are quite young (almost 3 years old, and 4 months), so I would imagine that our nature lessons will get a bit more complex as they get older. Maybe we'll plant a garden. Or I'd love to get their help starting a compost pile in the next year or two. Learning to identify birds would be fun for all of us someday. For now, we keep our nature lessons pretty simple and at their level of understanding.

    How do you and your kids more deeply connect with nature? Please leave a comment!

    Next up: Later this week, I'll be posting about incorporating the great outdoors in your family vacation.


    1. What a cute little frog! Great ideas too!

    2. Thank you for these lovely reminders of what we can do with what is already here for us!

    3. Great post. I think you mention one of the best ways to learn about nature (and a lot of things, really) in your first example - just taking time. Time to sit, time to focus, time to think. Just sitting in the middle of the front yard for 20 mins with my daughter the other day gave us time to talk about things crawling under us and flying around us and, of course to bond. Thanks for the reminder of how important this is.

      1. It's so true! Sometimes I read a magazine and sort of zone out when we play outside, but I find when I really engage it's a much livelier experience for all of us.

    4. These are some great ideas. I also agree about taking the time - even 15-20 minutes can be refreshing. We can train ourselves and our children to notice things; it's a skill that can be learned. Another thing we love to do is follow up with what we are learning by checking out books from the library. There are so many good books these days for every level of learning, from toddlers on up. My son even likes to go the adult non-fiction section of the library and check out nature books, guide books, and whatever else is the subject of the week. Right now we have out a bunch of books about spring, from a simpler science perspective for my 5-year-old, to poetry for my 9-year-old, to the spiritual aspects of spring (for me!). We delve as deeply as we want. You can do the same thing learning about worms, ducklings, clouds, flowers, or anything else that catches your interest.

      1. Wonderful suggestion! We are HUGE fans of the library! Great (and really cheap) way to expand kids' knowledge. I plan to do a lot of this particularly when my sons get older and ask questions I need to research... that way we can research together.

      2. Jennifer,

        That's a great point about the follow up. That kind of deep processing - seeing things in different contexts and from different perspectives - is really important.

        We use online videos quite a bit for follow up as well. We try to avoid as much screen time as possible, but that's one case where we make an exception.