There are so many benefits to nature play-- the unrestricted outdoor play that's so frequently missing from the lives of today's hyper-scheduled, plugged-in children. Today's parents are nostalgically looking back at their own childhoods and thinking about how it doesn't resemble the modern day lives of children in the least. Yet, the benefits of nature play are increasingly documented through research. I touched upon these benefits in my last post called Nature Play-- Its Importance and Why You Need to Be Present, which you can read here.
The problem is that sometimes, our children-- who are used to our fast-paced world full of instant gratification-- may act bored outside. "Where are the buttons?" they wonder. When we compare this to the freedom we likely felt outside as children ourselves, it is truly a sad thing. "There's nothing to DO out there," they say.
While nature should be a child's playground where they are free to explore, imagine, create, and run, sometimes children simply don't know how to play in a natural environment. They don't know what to look for or how to do interact with what they see. They need increased exposure to nature-- and importantly, practice honing their powers of observation. When they become better observers, they'll be more interested in what they see. The boredom will subside and evolve into engagement.
Here are some ideas to try with children to help improve their observational skills:
1. Point out and explore your own observations as a model. Your child is never too young or too old to benefit from this. It's super simple and super easy, but you have to actually do it aloud for it to work. As a teacher, every book I read is the best, every game I play is my favorite, and everything I learn is so interesting-- that is how I present it to my students. Do the same with everything you notice outside. Draw attention to it and teach your child how beautiful and interesting it really is.
2. Go on nature scavenger hunts with your children. There are so, so, so many types of nature hunts to try, and you're bound to find one that is perfect for your child or group. Knowing what to look for will help your child increase awareness of what they can find. You absolutely should not do organized nature hunts every time you are outdoors, but this activity really helps teach children what they can find if they focus on observing.
3. Practice observational skills in a different environment-- indoors. Practicing noticing things and remembering what you see in your everyday world will hone those observational skills so that next time you're out on the trails, you and your child will see and remember things you never before noticed. You can play simple games like "I spy" and "Do you Remember?" Read more ideas in a post here.
4. Spend time nature sketching with your child. Nature sketching is different from artistic drawing. When you draw artistically, you use what you see as inspiration and mix it with your prior knowledge and your imagination to make something new on your paper. When you nature sketch, you draw exactly what you see, focusing on size, texture, color, angle, proportions, and all the details. Start small, and find out what really looking at something in order to draw it will make you see!
5. Give your child a camera. Unleashing the excitement of using a camera in nature will give your child a reason to see new things-- to document it. I wrote all about how photography can help children capture their world in a Nature Photography Activities for Kids, which you can read here. Looking back on the photos your child took will provide you with a second chance to observe and discuss what you saw, too.
6. Learn more about nature. Take out books from the library, attend guided hikes, enroll in nature programing, talk with more knowledgeable others... the more you learn about the outdoors, the more you will notice when you're out there. I've seen this with both children and myself. The more we know, the more we see, and the more we simultaneously care about nature and enjoy ourselves!
It may not happen all at once, but every time you intentionally practice observing nature with your children, they will increasingly enjoy being outdoors. What once may have seemed boring will open into an enormous world of living and nonliving treasures that make up nature's physical and mental playground where kids can be free!
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What will you try? What has worked for you in the past to engage children in the natural world?