co-founder and Chairman Emeritus, Children & Nature Network.
Author, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age."
What’s a grandparent to do?
Marti Erickson makes a practice of keeping two collapsible chairs in her car trunk. If she’s having a particularly stressful day, she drives to the closest patch of nature, sits on one of those chairs, and is soothed. She always carries two chairs in the trunk of her car. “My oldest grandchild likes nature breaks, too, and joins me when we’re out together.”
Last year, for an article in the AARP Bulletin, I quoted Marti about the potential benefits of nature experience, including stress reduction, better health, and family bonding.
Without early positive attachment to a significant adult, a child’s psychological and physical health is likely to suffer, even as an adult. Marti, a member of the C&NN board of directors, is a noted expert on attachment theory. She believes that elders and nature can play a vital role in forming the bonds that every child needs.
Today, C&NN is in the initial stages of launching a new effort, Grand Ideas in Nature for Grandparents and Grandfriends. Avery Cleary, who leads the charge, explains: “In addition to grandparents, we wanted to include folks of grandparent age who might not have grandchildren or whose grandchildren live far away.”
So, here’s an early primer.
I recently asked Facebook friends and others to contribute ideas from their own experience. Here are some of their ideas, and a few of mine, for how grandparents and grandfriends can connect kids to nature:
1. Keep it simple, especially at first. Barbara R. Duncan takes her three-year old grandson outside to “do small things…that capture his attention, like picking up rocks…and feeding the ducks.” Jeffrey Willius advises: “It’s the very simplicity that stymies some folks. My grandpa would plop me down on the lawn, turn on the hose and have me watch for night crawlers to be flooded out of their burrows. Then we’d go fishing.” A twofer.
2. Stake your claim to nearby nature. In some cases, that’s easier said than done. If you live in a dense urban area, nearby nature may be hard to find — but it’s there. You and your grand progeny can grab a daypack filled with magnifying glass, binoculars, notebooks, a compass and snacks, and then go on a hike in your own neighborhood. You’ll find nature, even in the sidewalk cracks, alleys, parks, and on the high window ledges where raptors live. Later, together, you can write and illustrate your Explorer’s Report.
3. Get out of Dodge. If you can, introduce your grandchild to nature outside your city. State and national parks and national wildlife refuges are eager to see you. In fact, the National Park Service offers you a lifetime pass ($10 onetime fee) if you’re age 62 and older. That’s a deal, especially if you’ve entering a park by car with children under 16. They get in free, too.
4. Invite the grandkids over for a backyard campout. Buy a tent or better yet help them make a canvas tepee. Leave it up all summer. Join the National Wildlife Federation’s Great American Backyard Campout. You’ll not only be helping your grandkids, you’ll be giving the parents some private time to spend as a couple. As result, you may receive an added bonus. Another grandchild.
5. Watch the sky. There’s something out there. During a meteor shower, or on any night with a clear sky, look at the stars together. Or identify and track clouds together; check out “The Cloudspotter’s Guide,” from the founder of the Cloud Appreciation Society.
6. Birding beats tweeting. Birding is the new stamp collecting. Stamps used to bond the generations. Still does, but birding is catching on. “My dad takes my kids bird watching all the time,” writes Jennifer Reimel Kleeman. Birding apps for smartphones attract young eyes, and they’re great, as long as the eyes don’t get stuck in the app.
7. Go wildwatching. “Salamander crossing nights are great to inspire my grandkids,” writes Sue Cloutier, referring to those special warm evenings when you can see critters crossing the road. “There is something to do in each season and in any weather,” she adds. “Night walks for owls and woodcocks. Take time for quiet observations. Not directed but mentored.”
8. Build a tree house or clubhouse together. It’s best when kids do most of the heavy lifting and design with a little help from adults. But here’s a report on a particularly fancy tree house built by grandparents, and it’s irresistible. But someone should nail a sign on the front door that says: “Abandon Electronics, All Ye Who Enter Here.”
9. Create a Grand Garden. “From an early age, I remember being in the garden with my grandparents,” writes Penny Ellis Maurer, “weeding, watering, learning…Then the fruits of our labor were brought into the kitchen where I learned the finer points of canning, preserving and preparation from my grandmothers.” Got land? Great. No? A container on a patio or balcony will do, or an urban community garden. “It’s the joy of sharing it with someone that makes it special.”
10. Help create a Homegrown National Park. Ask your grandkids to help you: a.) research native plants of your bioregion; b.) tear out your lawn; c.) plant the plants; d.) keep a record of all the native insects and other critters that show up to rebuild the food web. To learn more, read Doug Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home.”
11. Go on a Techno-fast. Studies suggest that spending time in nature can help children and adults recover from mental fatigue, restore attention, and reboot the brain’s ability to think. So take a break today. With your grandkids (and your kids) rent a cabin and leave all the electronic gadgets behind. Withdrawal symptoms do pass.
12. Don’t forget the basics; add a twist. Traditional outdoor sports — fishing, hunting, camping, hiking, sailing, horseback riding — are the nature activities baby boomers are most familiar with, but these can be updated. For example, some can be combined with geocaching and digital cameras learning to track (with GPS). Stream reclamation can be especially fulfilling — and helps the fisheries.
13. Start a Grand Family Tradition. Families that fish or hunt tend to maintain those traditions across the generations. Even if fishing and hunting aren’t for you, use them as a model for other outdoor activities; turn your multigenerational adventures into family rituals that last multiple lifetimes.
14. Record the nature skills you learned as a kid. Make a video, tape or book for your grandkids. “I’m thinking of the old Foxfire books, in which Appalachian high school students interviewed the elder generation to capture fading traditions,” says journalist Anita Palmer. Why not do that on a community basis, with the help of local schools and libraries? America’s demographics have changed dramatically since the Foxfire days of the ’70s. Because of increased diversity, such a project could be especially fruitful.
15. Tell your grandkids about your own childhood nature adventures. That time you saw a mountain lion, the fish that got away, your own tree house. Ni Ke, who lives in Tonga, described how her 84-year old mother “tells her grandchildren the songs they sang” in hard times, and the simple skills they learned, including “how to make garlands and how to keep pressed flowers.” Ni Ke’s father told his grandkids “about riding from his village in the mountains in Cyprus on a donkey to help work the fields” and he taught his grandkids how to cook outside.
16. Learn a new outdoor skill together. It’s never too late to learn to camp or hike. Take a tracking course together. Sign on with a dinosaur dig. Ni Ke’s sister, who is 58, recently “learned to ride a bike herself” alongside her four-year old granddaughter. “That’s something they did together.” (Interesting factoid: today, because fewer people learned to ride bikes when they were kids, REI is providing bike-riding classes for adults.) Ask your grandchild about snowboarding. Be brave.
17. Start a Grand Family Nature Club. Take the lead. Offer to organize families into a multi-family, multi-generational nature club that brings families together for outdoor adventures. Another approach: start a Grandparents or Grandfriends Nature Circle to overcome your own nature-deficit disorder. A Nature Circle is kind of like a support group, but more fun and without the whining.
18. Become a Citizen Scientist or Master Naturalist: Learn about and help protect your bioregion, and pass that knowledge on to your grandchildren and other kids. Stephanie Hardin Amaya describes how her mother, a former science teacher, became a certified Master Naturalist (many states offer their own programs). As a volunteer, she “teaches elementary students about native fish and their ecosystem, and then how to fish.”
19. Keep a Grand G.O. Bag in your car. Remember the folding chairs that Marti Erickson keeps in her trunk? Here’s another idea along that line. Stash two or more packed daypacks in your trunk for emergency fun, for those times when you and your grandchild just gotta G.O.! (Get Outside.)
20. Reignite your own sense of wonder. You don’t have to be a Master Naturalist to know which way the wind blows. Mary Burton Willis suggests: “Find something you like to do, and they’ll do it with you.” Sometimes just introducing a child to the wind is magic enough. You may even discover that you haven’t really listened to the wind in years.
21. Respect family boundaries. A cautionary note about family dynamics: depending on the situation, grandparents should take care to offer nature experiences in a way that supports parents. Multi-general outings of the whole family often work best. You’re the mentor, not the boss.
By doing these and other activities with your grandkids or other children, you’re building the ground beneath their feet. You’re giving the gift of resilience. “Thinking about this brought to mind walking/riding scooters to the library last year,” writes Dennis W. Schvedja. “My grandson fell down, and instead of crying, began naming and talking about the insects he saw as he was lying on the ground!”
No doubt about it, elders are essential. They often have the time and money that are in short supply for too many young parents. In fact one child in 10 in the U.S. lives with a grandparent; that number has risen sharply since the onset of the Great Recession, according to a Pew Research analysis.
By sharing nature with children you’ll also be receiving the same benefits to health and well being. In “The Nature Principle,” I report on how nature experiences can help rejuvenate all of us. In your personal life or as part of a larger movement to connect people to nature, you’ll be making a powerful difference. As I wrote in the AARP piece, “Boomers could be the last generation to remember a time when it was considered normal and expected for children to play in the woods and fields. When we leave this earth, will the memory of such experiences leave with us? Reconnecting the young to the natural world (as we reconnect ourselves) could be our greatest, most redemptive cause.”
And it’s fun.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and the author of THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
NATURE: A Grandparent’s Best Friend, by Avery Cleary
Leadership Writing: Shared Nature Experience as a Pathway to Strong Family Bonds, by Martha Farrell Erickson, PH.D.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF BEING OUTDOORS, AARP Bulletin, Richard Louv