In my life I’ve worked as a farmer and a biologist. Both jobs immersed me in the outdoors nearly every day to work with animals or to study nature. But my perception of nature changed forever when I became a mother.
As a new mother I worried about everything, especially the variables I couldn’t control. Taking my son into nature triggered my overprotective side. Was it too hot? Too cold? Too windy? Would he eat dirt, roll in poison ivy, or attract disease-carrying ticks and mosquitoes? By the time I applied sunscreen and insect repellent and determined how to dress him for the weather, the spontaneous joy of going outdoors had been lost.
For the first time in my life, I had more reasons to stay inside. I forgot how the benefits of time in nature always outweigh the negatives. I forgot that no matter how tired I felt, if I managed to drag myself outside I was always refreshed afterwards. I forgot how nature blessed my own childhood. My parents owned more than two hundred acres of farmland, woods, and fields. That acreage became my childhood playground and teenage refuge.
Looking back, the time I wasted on TV and computers grates on my nerves. Those unremarkable moments are now a big blur of pixels. My most vivid memories are the ones created in nature. I learned about life while eye-to-eye with a doe who crossed the creek toward my hiding spot before catching my scent. I learned about death from the red-tailed hawk and its bloody meal. I learned independence as I traipsed through quail-laden meadows or lay on the autumnal forest floor, the leaves spiraling around me. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be.
But somewhere in the sleepless nights and frequent illnesses, I lost my connection to the wilderness. That deprivation only amplified the stress of motherhood.
I didn’t realize the error of my ways until I read the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. With its wealth of evidence, it convinced me that nature-deficient disorder is a serious concern. Louv points to studies that suggest “exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.” Nature lengthens our attention spans, enhances our physical and emotional health, and heightens the way we experience our world with all five senses—making us feel more creative and alive.
If our generation fails to save wildlife and natural areas, the burden passes to our children. But they won’t fight to save nature unless they feel connected to it. This emotional bond, crucial to future conservation efforts, isn’t likely to form unless parents initiate the process.
Here’s the good news: You don’t need a science degree or special training to introduce kids to nature. As environmentalist Rachel Carson said, “It is not half so important to know as to feel when introducing a young child to the natural world.” Simply set a goal to be outside every day, even if it rains or snows. Once you get out the door, the hard part is over.
Start with exploring your backyard or a nearby park. Tiny ecosystems are waiting in a garden, under a tree, and even in a ditch. My five-year-old son and I discuss every plant and animal we find. Sometimes we lie in the grass and look for shapes in the clouds. Then I tell him to close his eyes and touch-hear-smell-taste the world around him. When he says he can’t taste without food in his mouth, I urge him to taste the wind.
The wonder of nature is calming and inspiring to even the youngest of children. Enjoy a brisk walk under the moon and stars. Follow animal tracks in the snow. Take weekend excursions for sledding and skiing. Local wilderness areas offer a change of scenery and more opportunities.
If you want help teaching your kids about nature, consult Louv’s wonderful book or many others. From gardening to natural history, from camping to craft ideas, you will never run out of ways to connect with the wild. For a child who shows interest in a specific area—such as zoology, botany, geology, or astronomy—check out appropriate field guides from the library until you find one that best suits your needs. Some kids may prefer to take pictures, sketch, or write about their experiences. Nature welcomes scientists and artists alike.
Since making my own goal to reconnect with nature, I’ve created many vivid memories with my son. Like the time we went sledding in a snowfall, with flakes swirling down and spraying up until we tumbled off the sled in a fit of giggles. Or the time we chased after butterflies in our yard until the neighbors probably thought we were crazy. Or, just recently, when we catapulted into mounds of fragrant, multicolored leaves. These are moments we will cherish for the rest of our lives.