How to let your kid fall in love with nature

Dear parents, aunts and uncles, big brothers and sisters, and anyone else with kids in their lives. 

Please. Please. Please. I implore you. Do not take your kids hiking! Do not take your kids on an interpretive nature walk to learn about trees. Do not take your kids to do a trail clean-up in a park they have never visited. Do not take your kids to a trail just to walk and get exercise. Take your kids exploring!

The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

Dear parents, aunts and uncles, big brothers and sisters, and anyone else with kids in their lives. 

Please. Please. Please. I implore you. Do not take your kids hiking! Do not take your kids on an interpretive nature walk to learn about trees. Do not take your kids to do a trail clean-up in a park they have never visited. Do not take your kids to a trail just to walk and get exercise. Take your kids exploring!

Take your kids to the Pennypack, Cobbs Creek, the Wissahickon or the Boxers’ Trail and let them touch and climb on things. Flip rocks and logs to see what lives underneath. Let them catch bugs, worms, crayfish, toads, salamanders, butterflies and minnows! Teach them to skip rocks or just let them throw rocks in water to see the splash. Toss a few sticks or leaves in the creek and have “boat races”. Climb over fallen trees or even, gasp, climb a living tree! Let them build forts. Let them jump from rock to rock. Let them swing on branches. Let them walk through the creek. Oh, and let them ask the questions!

Take your kids into the woods to explore and they will fall in love. They will learn about trees, rocks and crayfish and be curious to learn more. They will get exercise jumping from rock to rock and develop better balance and coordination. Their confidence will grow. Their love for climbing trees and skipping rocks will turn into interest in conserving trees and creeks. They will develop greater self confidence. They will learn to solve problems. They will take part in creative play and turn a fallen tree into a playground or a leaf into a ship.

All you need to do is bring granola bars, water, a few Band-Aids, shoes that can get wet, kids that can get muddy and your common sense. Leave the hand sanitizer at home (or at least only break it out before lunch!). Oh, and don’t scare your kids. Yes. It can be scary to let your kids explore. But if you bring your common sense, then wet shoes, muddy shorts, bumps, bruises and scratches will, most likely, be the extent of “negative” outcomes from letting your kids explore.

As a kid I broke bones and bled profusely on several occasions playing basketball, baseball and even tennis. I spent just as much time, if not more, exploring in the woods and did not once break a bone or bleed profusely and I was not the most coordinated child (I broke bones playing tennis).

Need a larger sample size? The organization I run took 1,000 kids exploring last year an average of six times each. That’s 6,000 explorers. We had six bee stings, four confirmed cases of poison ivy, zero broken limbs, 12 Band-Aid worthy cuts, and a ton of minor bumps, wet socks and muddy shoes.

We have three rules on trail: Respect yourself. Respect others. Have fun.

I should warn you. My colleagues and I are constantly bombarded with questions like: “Can we bring bags to clean up our trail?”; “Why do some people mess up our woods?”; “What kind of tree is that?”; “What do the crayfish eat?”; and, “When can we go back to the woods?”

Take your kids exploring and they will learn all the lessons you hoped to teach them on your interpretive nature walk, trail clean-up, or hike. They’ll just learn those lessons better and they will actually want to go back at the end of your adventure.

Eric Dolaway is the Executive Director of Urban Blazers, a nonprofit that partners with middle schools and other entities to offer outdoor adventures for kids in under-resourced areas. 

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