Fostering a love for the outdoors starts with building an awareness of nature—and right now is the perfect time to encourage your little ones to notice the natural changes around them!
Here are some engaging, knowledge-building, and fun ways to track the daily and seasonal changes. They range from ridiculously simple to more involved, but all follow my promise for high quality nature activities.
1. Become Daily Arborists- Choose a tree or other plant that you can see outside of your window and one you are able to visit frequently. Make it a daily ritual to look at the tree together and talk about what you see. This sounds super simple, and it is—but those daily conversations will build an awareness of the natural world and the daily changes occurring.
Every day, I take my little one to the window to look at our giant maple tree in the back yard. We started when she was barely a month old. I narrate what is happening with the tree. Although the changes happen slowly, every day I have something to say and something to show her: buds emerging, seeds developing, seeds dropping, leaves changing, leaves falling, blue jays hopping about, squirrels playing, etc.
Talk about what you see, what you saw, and what you expect will soon happen. Go into detail about how the tree is part of the ecosystem, what is happening inside of the tree, or why the changes occur. As your child grows, your conversations will change, as will the content discussed. In my case, I’m looking forward to the days when our conversation is just that—a conversation and not a daily soliloquy!
2. Keep a Nature Journal- Keep a sketchbook journal for your child in your car or exploration backpack. Visit the same outdoor space frequently (once per season at minimum) and give your child time to freely draw and write what s/he sees. If possible, keep your own journal, so you can model the types of things to notice and draw and so that you can share and discuss it with your little one. You may find that nature journaling is calming and restorative—no matter your artistic ability level!
This is a learning activity with indescribable potential and one that I’ve used with students spanning K-6. I participated in the same activity myself as a middle schooler, and I attribute it to opening my eyes to the natural world. Recently, as part of the Nature and Me: Explorations in Ecology workshop through Boston University’s School of Education, I engaged in training regarding using nature journaling with elementary-aged children. Then, my colleagues and I took our classes of second graders to Arnold Arboretum three times during the year to visit their special tree and journal about it. The types of changes children noticed and the questions raised from simply observing the same tree over time is remarkable. It also fostered a connection with their tree akin to friendship—they truly cared about its well-being. The same experience can be had by visiting and journaling about any natural space over time.
3. Take Inventory of One Square Meter- Take four meter sticks and bind them together to form a square. Find a square meter of land that you can visit frequently and that has some diversity of life, such as the edge of a forest, part of your garden, a muddy area near a pond, or a tidal flat. Place the square on a plot of land and use magnifying glasses to explore the living and nonliving elements of the one square meter of ecosystem. Document what you see by drawing and counting. Use field guides to research what you see. Do the same exploration in the same location throughout the year to observe and discuss changes.
This summer, I took part in the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s One Square Meter of Tidal Life Inventory in the tidal flats of Duxbury. Our guide Doug put us in teams to inventory the life we found in a square meter of the tidal flats. The meter was sectioned into a grid, and we carefully counted each periwinkle, mussel, clam, crab, snail, and even barnacle that we saw. The Audubon Society plans to use the data as a baseline to study future changes in the ecosystem. They consider this to be a sort of citizen science project, and boy was it fun to take part in! This was an all-ages event, and it felt great to help with a meaningful experiment. They plan to hold this inventory again in the future, so keep an eye out for it if you are interested!
You can replicate this type of inventory in your own natural space. If creating the square meter frame seems too difficult, cut an inch of cardboard all around a box of any size, and use that instead! You and your child will be amazed at what you might find under your feet when you look very closely!
However you do it, just do it: get outside and observe the changes taking place all around you. Encourage your children to do the same, and you’ll be setting them on the path to becoming explorers, thinkers, and nature lovers who understand that they are part of the nature all around them.
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What natural changes have you noticed around you? What activities do you suggest for fostering an awareness of these natural changes?