Whether you live in the middle of the woods or the middle of New York City, facilitating a relationship with nature while your kids are still young is vital.
Kids should understand why trees are important, what kind of plants they should never eat or touch, and the animals that live around them, at a minimum.
The most important way to connect your eager explorer with nature is to encourage them to go outside. If you live near a park, make it a point to take them there at least once per week. If you have private property to enjoy, discover everything it has to offer — the best tree branches to make forts from, the neatest leaf shapes, the sounds and habits of furry and winged neighbors — together.
Once you’ve developed a tiny tree hugger (we need more!), watch their interest in the world grow! Here are a few other ideas for encouraging your eager explorers to connect to their natural environment.
1. Find a guide book that’s age appropriate
There are so many books and resources out there for young people on topics including mushrooms, leaves, and animals. National Geographic offers kid-friendly learning guides on its website, like this one about tree identification.
The key is finding one that you and your child can engage with together. Use the links provided above, or do your own searching. Pick up a few books and print-out resources to get armed with information as you start exploring the great outdoors.
2. Get up close and personal with trees
The best way for a small person learn to start identifying one tree from another is by examining the bark! On a walk, lead your child to the nearest tree and ask them to take a look at the bark pattern and identify whether its bark is “shaggy” like a hickory or “papery” like a birch tree.
Here’s an interactive questionnaire from the Arbor Day Foundation that you can pull up on your phone while on your hike. Asking kids these questions and deducing the answers will make them feel like mini detectives!
3. Learn the butterfly life cycle
Mama Miss has a great post on her blog all about how she taught her kids the life cycle of a butterfly.
Depending on where you live, the first thing you’ll want to do is take kids to see monarch butterflies in action. See if there’s a butterfly habitat near you, or head out to your nearest milkweed field. If you’re not sure about either of those options, you can always opt for a YouTube video like this one.
After you’ve seen the butterflies (or chrysalis or caterpillars), talk to your children about the butterflies’ life cycle and try the fun pasta craft on Mama Miss’ blog!
4. Learn about the fungus among us
In the right seasons,mushroom hunting can be as fun as Easter egg hunting — just don’t eat anything and make sure your kids don’t either! This is strictly a look-but-don’t-touch scavenger hunt.
The great news is, mushrooms are everywhere, and once you start looking for them, you’ll see them everywhere. They even grow on old tree stumps and at the bases of trees in sidewalk plots.
Get out your guide book — we recommend Humongous Fungus for kids and this National Audubon Guide for adults — and head into the woods or for a walk in the park. Look at the base of trees, under rotting stumps, and on the trunks of oaks and other deciduous trees. You’re sure to learn something and have a ton of fun(gus).
Again, unless you know what you’re doing, do not eat any mushrooms you find while exploring.
5. Make leaf prints
This is a fun and simple Autumn activity that mixes art with education in the best way. You will need tracing paper or wax paper and crayons for this activity.
Have your budding botanist collect their favorite leaves along a walk or from the yard. When you get home, lay the leaves out on a table. Cover one leaf with wax or tracing paper — affixing the leaf and the paper to a clipboard is preferable to avoid sliding — and color over the leaf’s imprint lightly with a crayon. As the leaf begins to emerge on the paper, you and your child will have fun seeing the its unique stem, veins, and shape.
Here is a simple illustration of the parts of a leaf to point out as you’re coloring. For more information about leaves, try this kindergarten-friendly book by Ken Robbins.
6. Grow something!
The best way to learn about how nature works is by seeing it from start to finish, whether that means inviting your child out to help in the garden or planting a seedling in a pot inside.
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