Fracking. Climate change. Mountaintop removal, overfishing, shark finning, oil spills, poaching, poisoned water, toxic air, deforestation, extinction. We’re constantly bombarded with bad environmental news, and it’s easy to become despondent, to feel helpless, hopeless. What do we do? What should we do?
Besides living an environmentally conscious lifestyle, one of the most important acts we can do as parents is to instill in our children a sense of wonder, curiosity, and guardianship of the natural world. There are many ways to accomplish this, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. In fact, simple activities that combine fun and learning are but one way to get kids outside.
You don’t have to visit Yosemite, explore the Amazon basin, or trek the Himalayas; the backyard or a local park are good places to start. All you need are a few fun activities that both challenge and invite kids to think more deeply about the natural world around them.Take a blind walk: In pairs (older kids can lead each other, but for younger kids an adult leader is better), blindfold one of the children (old neckties work great) and guide him or her along an interesting route, stopping to have the “blind” child touch objects and bringing them within range of sounds and smells. Take them across a bridge, along a stream, through a thicket of ferns. When sight has been eliminated, children become in tune with less obvious aspects of the world – the sound of water running over stones, the prickly feel of pine needles, the scent of rotting leaves, the peeling bark of a birch tree – all of the things that we normally skim over or tune out suddenly come to the fore. Touch a tree: In another blindfold-themed activity, lead kids to a tree, which they should then explore as thoroughly as possible. At the tree, prompt with specific suggestions. Feel the bark. Is it rough or smooth? Can you get your arms around the tree? Is there moss on it? Is the tree still alive? Can you hear any birds or insects in it? When children have finished exploring the tree, lead a circuitous route back to where you started, remove blindfolds, and ask participants to locate “their” tree. Where once there was just a forest, now there is a collection of distinct, individual trees, each with very different characteristics. Take a micro-hike: This activity is easily done in your own yard, local park, or school play field. Take lengths of string, one per child, anywhere from three to six feet long, and lay on the ground in areas with lots of vegetation. Give each child a magnifying glass and tell them to “hike” the length of the string, on their bellies. You’ll be amazed by how absorbed kids become in this miniature world, finding bright beetles, pollen-covered bees visiting flowers, crawling spiders. As a follow-up with older kids, you could watch the marvelous French documentary ‘Microcosmos.’ Follow the tracks: Snow still on the ground? Take advantage of the season by arming yourself with either a book or pocket guide and a stretch of reasonably undisturbed snow. You’re almost sure to find animal tracks, and depending on where you live these might include squirrel, deer, wild pig, rabbit, raccoon, skunk; the possibilities are endless. No book? Take photos of the tracks and look them up online when you get home. P.S. This also works well with mud.
Former Vice President Al Gore said, “I cannot stand the thought of leaving my children with a degraded earth and a diminished future.”
Mr. Gore, neither can I, but it seems that most of the larger issues are out of my hands. I can, however, get my kids engaged and involved in the natural world. Will it be enough? Almost certainly not, but it’s the least I can do, and it’s a start.
Matthew Treadwell is a writer and editor based in Sitges, Spain. Having lived in half a dozen countries over the past 20 years, he gives a sidelong view of travel and parenting in his popular blog Field Notes from Fatherhood . When not writing, Matthew can usually be found with his wife and two boys, ages 8 and 4, tramping around the forest, turning over logs and stones, scuba diving, climbing a mountain, bird watching, and generally poking, prodding, and peering at the world around him.