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Raise a Nature Lover

girl running outside in the grass

Skipping stones. Climbing trees. Lying in the grass and looking for patterns in the clouds. They're among the most iconic images of growing up. Unfortunately, they no longer represent the way most children spend their weekends.

During the past several decades, childhood has largely moved indoors. Instead of building tree forts and chasing butterflies, kids today are far more likely to spend their downtime in front of a screen. According to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, kids use electronics for nearly eight hours a day. Compare that figure with a University of Michigan study, which found that kids are engaged in unstructured outdoor play for less than 30 minutes per week.

That represents a genuine loss for our kids. Humans evolved in the outside world, and we have an inborn affinity for it. "Without fostering a deep connection to nature, we can't truly flourish as individuals or as a species," observes Peter Kahn, Jr., Ph.D., director of the Human Interaction With Nature and Technological Systems Lab at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

Being outdoors can help energize and inspire us. A University of Illinois study, for instance, showed that children with ADHD had noticeably milder symptoms when they played regularly in "green" settings. Researchers speculate that kids with the disorder tend to pay attention more acutely in a natural environment -- taking in the myriad sights and sounds freely and easily -- than in a classroom.

Indeed, all kids can benefit from being outdoors. "There's a limitless playground outside, and it doesn't come with an instruction booklet, so kids have to use their imagination," notes Meri-Margaret Deoudes, vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. They also need to use their hands, which may explain in part why a recent scientific thesis done at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, in Blacksburg, found that spending time in the outdoors enhances young kids' motor skills, social development, attention, and activity level. Exploring also helps them make sense of the world. "Being outdoors tends to enrich children's perceptual abilities and to boost their confidence," says Neal Halfon, M.D., professor of pediatrics and child health policy at UCLA and advisor to the Too Small to Fail campaign, which aims to raise national awareness about the state of America's kids.

Getting your child outdoors might even empower her in the classroom. Researchers at Hope College, in Holland, Michigan, discovered that preschoolers who participated in weekly nature lessons for six months did better on tests of early literacy than kids who didn't take the lessons.

Spending time in nature with your child may also benefit her health (and yours). Research on adults from Japan's Chiba University showed that the simple act of walking through a forest can significantly reduce a person's blood pressure, pulse, heart rate, and production of the stress hormone cortisol, while improving mood and lowering anxiety. Doctors in Portland, Oregon, have even started prescribing that stressed-out families get outdoors in order to improve their emotional well-being.

It's surprisingly easy to ignite your child's inherent enthusiasm for the outdoors, even if you live in an urban environment. "Nature is everywhere," says Deoudes. "You don't have to travel far and wide to find it. Just open the door." We rounded up great ideas to inspire your child to tap into nature.

Take your to-do list outside. If you don't have time for a daily hike with your kids, move your regular routine outside as often as possible. Have playdates at the park. Read aloud to your kids on the porch. Enjoy a picnic lunch in the backyard. Even taking out the trash can turn into a nature excursion, as Becky Morales, of Houston, has discovered. "We have a worm bin, and my four kids love feeding scraps to them," she says. Vermicomposting has taught them about the circle of life and made them more aware of environmental protection and sustainability.

Cultivate a sense of wonder. Nature is full of mysteries to solve, and parents and children can unravel them together: What's that beautiful yellow bird? Where did this amazing seedpod come from? Who left those footprints? It also offers surprising treasures, from glittering branches encased in ice after a winter storm to a tiny speckled robin's egg left behind by a hatchling. "The trick to getting kids connected to the outdoors is piquing their curiosity," says Elaine Wilkes, Ph.D., author of Nature's Secret Messages.

The Hamel-Hodum family, from Tacoma, Washington, accomplished that by hanging a hummingbird feeder so their daughter, Alexandra, 3, could watch the tiny hovering creatures through the window. Rebecca P. Cohen, author of 15 Minutes Outside, used a similar approach with her two young kids, planting milkweed in her garden to help attract egg-laying monarch butterflies. "Nothing is more awe-inspiring than seeing a caterpillar form its own chrysalis and then transform into a butterfly at the beginning of the school year," she says.

Girl and boy watering plants

Be a hunter-gatherer. Dylan Tomine and his family take trips near their Bainbridge Island, Washington, home to search for mushrooms, fish for salmon, and dig for clams. Then they enjoy the fruits of their labor together. "Children have a natural instinct to search for food," says Tomine, who wrote Closer to the Ground, which chronicles their experiences.

Introducing your kids to foraging isn't as daunting as it may seem. Many local nature societies sponsor guided expeditions. If you're leery of venturing into the wild for food, you can provide a tamer but comparable experience at pick-your-own farms.

You don't need to limit yourself to the edible, either. Marina Koestler Ruben, of Washington, D.C., and her 2-year-old daughter collect a variety of outdoor treasures, including pinecones and seashells, then use these finds to make ever-changing exhibits on a designated nature shelf. And when Lauren Beihoffer and her husband, Jim, of Nashville, take their three boys on hikes, they try to set up scavenger hunts to keep them interested. "We give them crayons and paper and ask them to log in the specific birds or leaves they spot," she says. The boys have no idea that they're getting a nature lesson in the process.

Take advantage of today's technology. Although it sounds counterintuitive, one of the simplest paths to furthering kids' appreciation of the outdoors is to play off their affinity for smartphones, tablets, and cameras. David FitzSimmons, a professional photographer in Bellville, Ohio, teaches young children how to photograph nature. He's found that the process of homing in on a subject helps students observe things that may be hiding in plain sight. "A kid might kneel down to take a picture of a fern and discover a centipede, a flower, or an interesting rock," he says. Once your child gets home, encourage him to e-mail his photos to family and friends or help him upload them to an online site so he can share his discoveries.

Join the club. There's fun, and strength, in numbers. That's the idea behind nature clubs, which hold outdoor "playdates" for families. These excursions encourage kids to make up their own games and play independently. Chances are, one of the groups listed on the Children & Nature Network website (childrenandnature.org/directory/clubs) is near you. If not, you can arrange outings to a local or state park with friends and take turns being the "nature parent."

Feel the earth. When Jennifer Hanes, of Austin, Texas, takes her kids, Darby, 7, and Jameson, 4, into the backyard, the three of them like to go barefoot so they can feel the grass under their feet. "When the weather's nice, we play Frisbee in the morning until the school bus comes," Hanes says, adding that skipping shoes seems to make her kids happy and calm them down. There's science to support her observation. A study conducted at Bristol University and University College London (both in England) found that exposure to soil on the skin releases serotonin, a mood-modulating neurotransmitter. So when you see your child splashing in mud puddles, keep in mind that she's not just making a mess -- she's also feeding her soul.

To help kids reconnect to nature, many schools are incorporating outdoor learning by having them plant gardens, take hikes, or forecast the weather. And a select few are literally bringing their classrooms outside.

  • "Forest kindergartens" like The Butterfly Garden in Cedar Park, Texas, and The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs, New York, allow kids to spend part of the day exploring in nature. Students go outside, rain or shine, cold or warm, and use the objects they find to create their own toys and artwork.
  • At the Juniper Hill School for Place-Based Education, in Alna, Maine, a majority of the pre-K through second-grade lessons take place outdoors year-round on the 42-acre campus of fields, woods, marshes, and gardens.
  • The K-through-4 students at the Garlough Environmental Magnet School (GEMS), in West St. Paul, Minnesota, sometimes have their science, math, and technology lessons in "wonder learning stations," which include a tree-identification trail, a rain garden, and a "chamber of repulsion," where students can witness the process of decomposition.
  • If there are no comparable outside-learning opportunities in your area, lobby your school to get kids out more. Also encourage administrators to contact Outdoor Classroom (outdoorclassroom.org), which can help principals implement customized programs.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of Parents magazine.