Short on Vitamin N? Here’s a brief list of nature activities to help you connect your kids, and yourself, to the health and cognitive benefits of nature time. (For a more complete collection of 100 actions, for families, schools, and communities see Last Child in the Woods, from which the following suggestions are drawn.)
- Invite native flora and fauna into your life. Maintain a birdbath. Replace part of your lawn with native plants. Build a bat house. For backyard suggestions, plus links to information about attracting wildlife to apartments and townhouses, see the National Audubon Society’s Invitation to a Healthy Yard. Make your yard a National Wildlife Federation (NWF) Certified Wildlife Habitat.
- Revive old traditions. Collect lightning bugs at dusk, release them at dawn. Make a leaf collection. Keep a terrarium or aquarium. Go crawdadding — tie a piece of liver or bacon to a string, drop it into a creek or pond, wait until a crawdad tugs. Put the garden hose to good use: make a mud hole. (Your kids will sleep well later.)
- Help your child discover a hidden universe. Find a scrap board and place it on bare dirt. Come back in a day or two, carefully lift the board (watch for unfriendly critters), and see how many species have found shelter there. Identify these creatures with the help of a field guide. Return to this universe once a month, lift the board and discover who’s new.
- Encourage your kids to go camping in the backyard. Buy them a tent or help them make a canvas tepee, and leave it up all summer. Join the NWF’s Great American Backyard Campout.
- Take a hike. With younger children, choose easier, shorter routes and prepare to stop often. Or be a stroller explorer. “If you have an infant or toddler, consider organizing a neighborhood stroller group that meets for weekly nature walks,” suggests the National Audubon Society. The American Hiking Society offers good tips on how to hike with teenagers. Involve your teen in planning hikes; prepare yourselves physically for hikes, and stay within your limits (start with short day hikes); keep pack weight down. For more information, consult the American Hiking Society or a good hiking guide, such as John McKinney’s Joy of Hiking. In urban neighborhoods, put on daypacks and go on a mile hike to look for nature. You’ll find it — even if it’s in the cracks of a sidewalk.
- Be a cloudspotter or build a backyard weather station. No special shoes or drive to the soccer field is required for “clouding.” A young person just needs a view of the sky (even if it’s from a bedroom window) and a guidebook. Cirrostratus, cumulonimbus, or lenticularis, shaped like flying saucers, “come to remind us that the clouds are Nature’s poetry, spoken in a whisper in the rarefied air between crest and crag,” writes Gavin Pretor-Pinney in his wonderful book The Cloudspotter’s Guide. To build a backyard weather station, read The Kid’s Book of Weather Forecasting, by Mark Breen, Kathleen Friestad, and Michael Kline.
- Collect stones. Even the youngest children love gathering rocks, shells, and fossils. To polish stones, use an inexpensive lapidary machine-a rock tumbler. See Rock and Fossil Hunter, by Ben Morgan.
- Encourage your kids to build a tree house, fort, or hut. You can provide the raw materials, including sticks, boards, blankets, boxes, ropes, and nails, but it’s best if kids are the architects and builders. The older the kids, the more complex the construction can be. For understanding and inspiration, read Children’s Special Places, by David Sobel. Treehouses and Playhouses You Can Build, by David and Jeanie Stiles describes how to erect sturdy structures, from simple platforms to multistory or multitree houses connected by rope bridges.
- Plant a garden. If your children are little, choose seeds large enough for them to handle and that mature quickly, including vegetables. Whether teenagers or toddlers, young gardeners can help feed the family, and if your community has a farmers’ market, encourage them to sell their extra produce. Alternatively, share it with the neighbors or donate it to a food bank. If you live in an urban neighborhood, create a high-rise garden. A landing, deck, terrace, or flat roof typically can accommodate several large pots, and even trees can thrive in containers if given proper care.
- Invent your own nature game. One mother’s suggestion: “We help our kids pay attention during longer hikes by playing ‘find ten critters’—mammals, birds, insects, reptiles, snails, other creatures. Finding a critter can also mean discovering footprints, mole holes, and other signs that an animal has passed by or lives there.” (For inspiration, take a look at the finalists and winner of Clif Kids’ 2012 Backyard Game of the Year contest.)
For more suggestions, in addition to Last Child in the Woods, a number of recent books offer great advice, including Fed Up with Frenzy, by C&NN’s Suz Lipman, I Love Dirt! by Jennifer Ward, and the free booklet A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play by Ken Finch. Also, the classic Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell. Online, Nature Rocks is another good resource.
And of course visit the Children & Nature Network for more ideas for your family and community, including an action guide for change, toolkits to create a Family Nature Club or become a Natural Leader, resources for Natural Teachers and pediatricians — as well as state and national news and the latest research. Connect with the grassroots campaigns and efforts of others around the world. And please tell us how your own family, school, organization, or community connects young people to nature.
Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and the author of ”LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” and ”THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age.”