How to Help Children Connect to Nature
If you’d like to help a child appreciate the natural world, then this guide will introduce you to the need for nature connection and offer resources to get started.
What is Nature-Deficit Disorder?
Playing outside used to be a central component of childhood. Aside from spending time with friends, a child also had direct experience with nature, whether getting poison ivy from running through the woods or discovering a robin’s egg. What may seem like simple memories also sink into our bodies as formative experiences that affect the quality of our adult lives.
So, what happens when children no longer interact with nature? What happens when children become inactive, preferring television or other screens to natural interaction?
These questions plagued Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. In 2005, Louv coined the phrase “Nature-Deficit Disorder” to describe what he believed was ailing modern children (and this was several years before the introduction of smarthphones). Louv explains that he meant the term to serve “as a description of the human costs of alienation from nature and it is not meant to be a medical diagnosis.”
Some of the effects of our detachment from nature include:
- a diminished use of the senses
- difficulty in paying attention
- rising rates of obesity
- higher rates of emotional and physical illnesses
Nowadays, we might blame the iPad or other technologies for these symptoms, but Nature-Deficit Disorder predates the iPad by 5 years, and there are other concerns beyond a lack of nature connection. Modern culture has favored scheduled activities over independent play, and when children are left alone, their activities are generally inactive. Compare the memory of running around on a playground or playing sports with the modern child’s habit of staring at a screen or chatting online.
Luckily, since the publication of Last Child in the Woods, a variety of nature-based programs have arisen to help kids connect to nature and their resources can help you on your journey.
Why Do Children Need Nature?
Richard Louv believed that many of these challenges were directly linked to children being kept inside and not allowed the chance to play freely in nature. Unlike other disorders, there is no pill to cure the symptoms of Nature-Deficit Disorder.
The cure is to get outdoors and connect with nature.
Nature play not only makes people happier, but it helps them become better citizens, people who will care about and protect the natural world.
Famed ecologist Aldo Leopold once wrote that “[w]e can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love or otherwise have faith in.” He was primarily concerned with inspiring conservation and preservation efforts, but the catch is that if you never experience nature’s beauty, then you will not care enough to behave ethically towards it.
Formative experiences in childhood can impact behaviors for the rest of one’s life. If we want children to care about nature, then they need direct interaction with the outdoor world.
Learn with a Child
It’s been several generations now since a majority of people had an outdoor childhood, not to mention nature mentoring, so don’t feel bad if you’re not sure where to start.
Keep this in mind: nature connection is not really about knowledge. It’s about developing relationships with the natural world.
You don’t have to know anything! But you do have to be willing to learn with your child, and that means allowing yourself to feel curious and passionate. Perhaps you’ve forgotten these feelings, let modern life overrun how good it feels to go outside to wander—and wonder—but those feelings are still within you.
Time with a child gives you permission to open up and rediscover the world.
Curiosity and passion are contagious. Have the courage to show that you care, and your children will too.
Resources for Helping Children Connect to Nature
Okay. You’re curious but you still don’t know what to do, because you weren’t raised with this knowledge either. Most of us did not have nature mentors, but there are other ways to learn.
Luckily, by this point, there are plenty of free resources out there. Here are a few that can help you get started:
- The Children & Nature Network offers a variety of guides for families. Their Resource Hub has resources for families, schools, and children of all ages. Pick one of their ideas and run with it.
- Coyote’s Guide to Connecting to Nature – the definitive guide for nature-based activities. Written by famed trackers and naturalists, this book is a comprehensive resource for mentoring people in nature and is especially useful for group activities. If you send your child to a nature camp, many of their activities are likely found in this book.
- Start a nature journal with your children. This guide will teach you the basics of seeing and drawing, and it also provides inspiration.
- Check your local parks and programs. State parks frequently offer Ranger-led activities, but you can also find local options through city parks and libraries. You’d be surprised how many places now offer nature-based activities.
Want Help? Call a Local Outdoor School or Outfitter
Most nature-based schools and outfitters are happy to provide suggestions. We do this work because we believe in the value of loving nature, so even if you cannot afford our service, our knowledge is generally happily shared.
Or if you want more structure, most outfitters will happily put together a Custom Program.
Figure 1: Students at Emerson Waldorf School exploring Saxapahaw Lake with The Haw River Canoe & Kayak Co.
If you’re in central North Carolina and would like to put together a Custom Program, give us a call. We work with groups of all ages to not only get them on the water but to mentor students in nature connection.