The natural world is a playground and place of discovery for adults and children alike. It is a place for adventure, exploration, and imagination as well as generating a deepening care and connectedness with our environment. Some of my fondest, most magical childhood memories include exploring at the Garfield Park Conservatory, feeding the geese and running down the hills at the Arboretum, and spending hours swimming and sifting through pebbles on the shore of Lake Michigan. While I am a born-and- raised city girl, I have always felt at home in nature and still, to this day, find the forests to be enchanting, the coast lines to be breathtaking and am continually amazed by our planet. I attribute much of this, if not all, to the fact that I had so many opportunities as a child to play, explore, create, and imagine in a variety of places, both natural and manmade.
It’s no secret that fewer children are having direct experiences with nature. They are spending more time playing indoors, in front of the computer, television, or connected to a variety of other devices. We also know that early and frequent positive experiences in the natural environment have a major impact on the healthy growth of a child’s mind, body, and spirit. That being said, I encourage you to set aside some time to get outside and explore with your children. Here are some suggestions for ways to engage your children and continue to build critical thinking skills in the great outdoors.
Spending time exploring nature with your children is about having fun and encouraging their natural curiosity. Take time to pause and look more closely. Welcome questions and ask them yourself. You don’t need to have all the answers. Ask open ended questions to encourage your children’s curiosity and thinking whether at home or out and about:
Why do you think . . . ?
Where do you think . . . ?
What else might be affected . . . ?
What do you think has happened here?
How are they alike? How are they different?
Play “What If . . . ?” games
“What if” is an excellent filler game while walking to the park and it generates alternatives, opens up possibilities, and encourages inventiveness and experimentation. Keep it playful and have fun with it!
Go on a nature scavenger hunt
For younger ones you can keep it simple – for example – find something that: is a certain color; is shiny; is fuzzy or rough; is tiny or huge; can be blown by the wind; crawls.
For older children – Try finding things in categories, such as items with bark, items that are up high, or items with branches.
Observe and sketch
Imagine that you are scientists observing and documenting what you see. Choose natural items to examine closely and draw what you see. Encourage your children to pay attention to texture, veins, and different shapes. You can also teach about symmetry by creating mirror image drawings. Affix half of a leaf or flower to a sheet of paper and complete the image on the other side.
What are your favorite ways to explore nature with your children? I would love to hear about your adventures. Post your comments here or on Facebook or Twitter.