“Trees are all different, as you know, and I am sure some tiresome person must have told you that there are no two blades of grass exactly alike. But in streets, where the blades of grass don’t grow, everything is like everything else. This is why so many children who live in towns are so extremely naughty.” – E. Nesbit, The Five Children and It
Even a century ago when Ms. Nesbit was writing, people were concerned about the amount of time children spent in nature, unobserved by adults and free to explore as a child will (and should). Seemingly nothing has changed as we have now coined terms like “Nature Deficit Disorder” and “Free Range Kids” to attempt to better understand our own society’s tendency to keep kids inside and “safe”. While social scientists worry about the how and why of children and outdoor time, as parents we look at our children and wonder how to have them spend more time outside without turning it into a forced march, especially given the attractiveness of modern day indoor activities. I’m looking at you iPad.
Some children seem to be innately timid about all that “outside” might mean. From the toddler who doesn’t like for grass or dirt to sully their skin to the seven-year-old standing forlornly on the porch whining, “There’s nothing to do!”, a parent can feel they’ve failed. You might think your child is just not the outdoor type or that you have somehow missed the “nature” boat for your children. But don’t worry—it’s all normal, and there are ways to help even the most reluctant explorer to find their way in the backyard or park.
Most importantly, figure out a way to know in your own heart that your children are safe in whatever area they’re exploring. Your feelings about the safety of the space, whether that’s your yard or a state park, even unverbalized, will be communicated to your child. Some children will withdraw from exploring in the face of their parent’s discomfort; others will push and push and push to try to figure out what exactly the problem is. Either scenario can ruin an outing.
You can set parameters for your child’s outside time. They might want to know how long they have to be out there or exactly where you expect them to go. Even very little children enjoy an assignment, like finding a certain color of flower or types of grass or bugs or leaves. When they bring you their treasures, you can talk with them about what they’ve found. This is a chance to engage them further with nature. It’s important to not overdo this; your interest is probably enough without turning it into an unwanted lesson. You can follow their lead on how involved to be.
Sharing a chore is a nice way to be outside. Children usually love bathing dogs or washing cars. Sweeping a walk or working in a garden are ways to add beauty to your space, and they can be very short jobs done in the midst of a busy day. Let your child wander away from the work if they suddenly begin following an ant trail or get fascinated by the bark of a tree.
You and your child can create a nature table; they can display their treasures or artwork inspired by their time in nature. They can try to capture the season in this little spot with leaf rubbings, paper snowflakes, pressed flowers or locust shells. Keeping the table fresh through the seasons can provide an impetus to get outside again.
Make sure you have your own outside work to do. In this way, they can participate in your work or show you their treasures, then continue their explorations. Your presence can increase their confidence while your purposeful activity lets them feel unsupervised.
Finally, at least some of the time, be very present with them outdoors. Going hiking or canoeing or trekking aimlessly through a park while you point out clouds or animal scat or fall leaves shows your child that you value nature. Taking this kind of time is more valuable than any direct lessons on the importance of being outside.