9 Ways to Help Your Child Connect with Nature (no matter where you live!)

Do you want to encourage your child to connect the natural world but aren't sure where to start? You don't need to plan an all-day hike or trip to the beach to help inspire a love of nature. Whether you live in suburbia or a downtown apartment highrise, you can raise a wild child right now right where you are. Here are 9 ideas to get you started.

Notice nature. 
This can be as simple as lingering between the car and the front door. Do you hear any birds? See any plants shooting up through the cracks in the sidewalk? What do the clouds look like today? For places you return to again and again, just notice how trees and plants change over time. Sampson argues that your longing for nature is more important than knowledge or expertise. Share that longing with your child whether you know all the correct names and scientific processes or not.

Go on a listening walk. 
Walk around your neighborhood, school, library, park, anywhere! Encourage your child to use Deer Ears (cup your ears with your hands) and Owl Eyes (look for the farthest thing you can see) on the walk. Note: if you and your young child read together the wonderful and short picture book The Listening Walk by Aliki, your child will immediately want to go on a listening walk. And the picture book Finding Wild will inspire your child to look for wildness in any setting (read my review here).

Capture, observe, and and release bugs.
Try using a loupe or magnifying glass. Optional: try to identify the bugs.

Take photos of nature.
Especially if you have a little tech lover that is a bit challenging to peel away from the screen, hand him a phone and encourage close observation by allowing him to choose natural objects to photograph. You could provide a scavenger hunt type list. If you want to take it a step further, post or share the photos or make a book with them. For additional ideas on how to turn your tech-lover into a nature-lover, check out this post (especially appropriate for tweens/ teens).

Collect and use natural objects to create art.
My favorite, easiest way to do this is to collect objects in a bag, take them home, place them on a blank paper or posterboard, and take a photo (see photos directly above and below). So much easier than glueing bulky objects to a paper! Although my kids also do really enjoy making nature collages with tape and glue. I like to take my kids on a walk around our suburban neighborhood the day before yard clippings get picked up. We sometimes pick up big branches or still green and vibrant leaves from the piles of clippings folks leave in their front yards. A simple fall activity is to make a garland out of real fall leaves (no special materials or skills required! - just needle and thread). Some ideas of what to collect for your artistic endeavors: dirt, sticks, rocks, pinecones, flowers (I let my kids pick up flowers and petals that have fallen on the ground), branches, seed pods, acorns. Find more ideas for using natural objects in art in this post.

Tell stories about nature.
Take advantage of the fact that humans love stories! Read engaging picture books about nature (we love picture books, so you can find many suggestions on this blog). Share indigenous tales from peoples native to your area. Connect the stories to experience whenever possible. For example, after reading the picture book Everybody Needs a Rock, go rock collecting.  Bonus if you read the books outside. And perhaps best of all, tell stories from your own life, especially childhood, where you experienced a connection with nature. An encounter with a wild animal that made your heart race. When you caught your first fish or grasshopper. The first time you got knocked over by a wave. Encourage your kids to tell their own stories about their adventures outdoors whenever they come back inside ("Where did you hide? Did you see or hear anything new?").

Encourage touch. 
Sampson argues that connection with nature is a contact sport and that nature can handle it. He encourages kids to pick leaves and flowers, hold worms, turn over rocks, dig in the dirt, and splash in ponds. Obviously, these behaviors are not welcome in all natural venues (or in neighbors' yards), so make an effort to occasionally visit places where they are acceptable. If you have any kind of yard or even in the local park, your child can certainly dig in the dirt and look for bugs and worms. Nobody will mind if you pick dandelions off their lawn.

Choose a "sit spot" and visit it regularly.
Maybe it's your backyard. Maybe it's a quiet, out-of-the-way park bench. Maybe it's a favorite spot on the walk home from school. Sampson says that the best sit spot is the one you use (think: front porch, backyard, window). If your child is old enough to sit still, sit quietly in a spot and wait for nature to come to you. Use all of your senses to observe and experience. Record your observations if you wish or simply talk about them afterwards. Visit this spot repeatedly and as often as you can until you start to recognize the cast of characters and can begin to recognize certain animal behaviors. Get to know and fall in love with a particular place in intimate detail.

Lead by example.
Develop or rediscover your own nature passion, and invite your kids to do it with you. A few ideas: birding, hiking, gardening, nature photography, astronomy, fly-fishing, or snow-shoeing. If you have the inclination and ability, invite a little nature into your own yard or vicinity with a bird feeder or native plants.

These ideas were inspired by and pulled from the wonderful book How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott Sampson. Scott Sampson is the host, science advisor, and resident paleontologist on PBS's Dinosaur Train (we love this show!). You can listen to a short radio spot on NPR of him talking about his book and why he wrote it here. I first read this book (and took copious notes on it) when it was published several years ago. I love to revisit its chapters (organized by age) for new ideas and inspiration whenever I get the chance.

Sampson emphasizes that kids need experience, mentoring, and understanding to create a deep bond with nature. Mentoring means you don't try to impart your expertise to your children, but instead discover nature playfully right alongside them, modeling important behaviors like observing and asking questions. Which means that most any parent is qualified to be a nature mentor because you can learn right alongside your child (no advanced degrees necessary!).

What is your favorite way to connect with nature?

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