Nature is essential to growing healthy, competent children. Time in the backyard, going to a park, gardening, or exploring an abandoned woodlot all count as time in nature. For children under 5, an hour or two daily in the backyard might be enough to meet their needs. For children 5 and up, I highly recommend taking your kids into the actual wilderness, such as beaches, deserts, or forests, as often as possible, though at least several times a year.
Although the list of benefits of nature for kids could go on forever, here are the top 15:
1. Improves Attention Spans
Studies are showing that the average attention span for humans has now dropped to less than that of a goldfish. Yes, those computers that help us think, connect us and bring us news are bringing negative consequences that we’ve all probably noticed – a harder time focusing on one thing.
However, there is a solution. Get outside, slow down, and smell the roses!
2. Encourages Kids to Use All of Their Senses
When children use all of their senses, they build and strengthen neural connections in their brain which will help them form stronger pathways, which encourages memory. In other words, the more senses they use while learning something, the more likely they will remember it later.
3. Reduces Stress
In studies of adults, a wilderness walk reduces cortisol, a stress hormone, by 16%. In my own life, I witness daily how a simple walk in the woods reduces my stress level and my kids are in a better mood for the rest of the day.
Even sitting by a window with a view of a natural area can help reduce stress.
4. Builds Gross Motor Skills
Kids need to be active and taking them outside into a natural area encourages movement. Hiking, games, scavenger hunts, or just going outside without a plan at all will all motivate a child to play and get lots of exercise.
5. Encourages Curiosity
Lately, when my younger daughter sees a hawk or a vulture she gets very excited. I help feed her curiosity by asking easy questions for her, without giving away what species it is. What is the bird doing? What color is it? Why is it circling overhead? etc.
Finding insects, frogs, flowers, feathers, mushrooms, animal tracks, skulls, and bird nests all help kids grow curiosity for the world around them. As a mentor, taking my kids on a journey of exploration, curiosity, and fun is what I am attempting, rather than a quest to memorize the names of every species in our forest.
6. Encourages Imagination
There’s something magical about a trickling stream, a mossy knoll, a pine forest, a mountain, or a swamp. As a child even all the way through college, I’d make up stories for myself based on my forest explorations to help me fall asleep at night. For some kids, it encourages artistic talents, for others, creative problem-solving, such as how can I get this rope onto that branch way up there. For preschool and elementary-aged kids, nature motivates imaginative play, which helps kids practice verbal and social skills, builds empathy, and helps them understand their world. Imaginative play is essential to childhood!
7. A Sense of Belonging
Connecting to a wilderness setting, backyard, or park creates a deep sense of place and belonging in the world that cannot be easily achieved elsewhere. For me, I always felt at home in the forest. I felt so at peace there, I would walk half a mile from my home, navigate through briars and poison ivy, balance on logs through a muddy swamp, and then settle down for a nap under the trees where I could, at last, sleep in peace to the voices of nature. When I woke up, the birds would be singing just a few feet away and a few curious deer would be feeding a few yards away. I’d slip off my shoes and run silently after the deer, hoping to get close enough to touch them. To me, although I grew up in a suburban neighborhood, I spent a lot of my free time in the woods and I felt like the birds, beavers, snakes, and deer were my extended family.
It IS possible for kids to feel a deep sense of connection and belonging in the natural world in modern day life close to what native people used to experience.
8. Wilderness Strengthens Relationships Between Peers, Families, and Mentors
Meeting with other kids and mentors in a wilderness setting adds another layer to the picture, providing children with a community where they feel like they belong. Groups of kids will learn more together by sharing their experiences with each other and feeding one another’s enthusiasm. This creates lifelong friendships born from adventure, laughter, fun, and discovery.
9. Boosts Self-Esteem
Nature boosts self-esteem because you can always step into a world void of human criticism. A world of plants and animals buzzing with life and joy that reminds you whatever happened that week really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. That breakup, that failed test, that nasty rumor will die and be forgotten, just as plants die in winter and spring starts a new season.
Wilderness also allows kids to push their boundaries and take risks, which boosts their confidence and self-esteem because they can prove self-worth to themselves. Nature, especially wilderness survival skills, motivate goal-setting, which boosts self-esteem and confidence tremendously as each goal is achieved and a child’s sense of resiliency rises.
10. Initiates a Love of Science and Improves Academic Performance
Spending time in nature, especially with the guidance of a mentor, can help grow a love of science and questioning. Studies show that kids who have science classes outside have improved science scores.
11. Improves Eyesight
Studies show using your eyes outside reduces myopia, or nearsightedness.
12. Improves Social Skills
Kids often play more cooperatively in green spaces. It encourages peace, self-control, and self-discipline for inner-city youth, especially for girls.
13. Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder Symptoms
Outdoor play has been shown to reduce attention deficit disorder (ADD) symptoms in kids. Getting exercise, taking classes outside, learning to track animals as a stepping stone to learning to read, and using all of their senses might just be what ADD kids need!
14. Teaches Grit
What is grit? The ability to withstand discomfort. Grit is an important ability that will help kids get through difficult times in grade school, college, and in the professional world.
Backpacking and hiking are great examples that teach kids grit with each difficult hill. But you can start them close to home too. Sitting in the backyard during a rainstorm or at night can be a great teacher of grit to preschool or elementary-aged kids.
15. Improves Self-Discipline
Studies show that the more natural an inner-city child’s backyard is, the more self-discipline he or she will have. The results of these studies are most notable for girls.
Nature makes kids calmer and less likely to have disciplinary problems in school.
Violet (Violaceae Viola spp.) is blooming early this year. I already saw some of the flowers yesterday. You can collect the flowers and eat them raw or if you can collect 5 – 6 cups of them, you may want to try making violet jelly by following the mint jelly instructions in your pectin packet.
They also make a lovely, edible topping for a cake or salad.
Identification: The flowers have 5 purple, white, or blue petals. In our area, I only see the purple one, common blue violet, or Viola sororia. The leaves are heart-shaped with slightly serrated edges and have obvious veins on them. You can eat the leaves raw or cooked as well.
I hope you take the time to hunt for these easy to identify plants in your yard or a nearby park. The best time to find them is while they’re in bloom since the purple flowers are easy to spot.
If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to my free e-book, 10 Easy and Delicious Wild Edible Plants in Central VA or look for an upcoming wild edible plant walk in Richmond, Virginia.
My kids love to pretend to be other animals. Playing a simple role-playing game with kids outside can be an excellent and easy way to teach them about wild animals. In fact, many hunter-gatherer cultures would dress up like, walk like, and dance like wild animals. This actually is an extremely beneficial activity to help people of all ages learn TRACKING.
When tracking an animal, you must know how it walks. To truly get the feel of an animal’s movements down in your mind, it’s good to try to walk, run, or hop like that animal. How does a coyote trot? When a racoon walks, do the hind feet line up with the front feet, or not? What about a deer? Do they walk silently or stomp their hooves a little when they think there is no danger? What would all of this mean in their tracks? What happens of the animal stops suddenly? What about if it sees a predator and runs really fast?
This also is, of course, a great way to help get you moving. To me, running on all fours is very hard. To my kids, it’s something they do every day until age 6 or so and seems as easy as walking upright, but that’s probably because they’ve built up the muscles to do it just like any four-legged creature.
It’s fun to watch kids play, but I’m also a huge proponent of grown-ups letting go of their inhibitions and embracing their more playful, childlike natures. There are all kinds of benefits to the brain, happiness, and your likely success in life if you learn how to play. When in the woods, you’ll also see more wildlife if the animals think you’re a deer, raccoon, rabbit, or even a fox rather than a human. So, go outside and pretend to be an animal for the day! You might be amazed by what you discover!
Tree climbing is another classic, outdoor activity that never will grow old! It’s a great activity for adults and kids alike and is an easy way to start getting your kids out of the house on their own. They’ll even get some exercise in the process! You don’t need a fancy gym, class, or playground to build upper-body strength. In fact, kids usually get more exercise and work more muscles in their bodies during free play in the woods on logs, trees, and vines that are all shaped slightly differently than on an evenly balanced playground set or gym. As a childhood pull-up and swimming champ, I should know! All you need is time to play in nature every day in order to have superior upper body strength (think Tarzan!).
As a kid, I would spend an hour each day in an old oak tree in my backyard. It was great to have my own place I could go that was quiet. As an added bonus, I’d see and hear birds in the branches around me, calming me down from a stressful day at school.
To start tree climbing, all you need is a good tree and to let go of your fears (of you or your kids falling!). A tree with low branches is best. If you don’t have any good climbing trees in your yard, why not plant one now? For toddlers and younger kids, dogwoods and Japanese maples are ideal. They have smooth bark and their branches sprawl out in all directions.
Grapevines are also great! Be sure the vine isn’t hairy since it might be poison ivy. I’ve never fallen or pulled one completely off a tree, so it’s pretty safe. When you watch these videos, think about the strength and coordination that is required to hang on and balance on a vine!
You also can build a treehouse if you have very tall trees. I LOVE treehouses and hope to build one for my own kids. Treehouse-building, however, will have to wait for another post!
One easy and fun activity my kids love is taking their “pets” out for a walk. In our case, that means bringing stuffed animals outside and it’s a great way to get them out the door. The world outside, especially in our forest, is a huge playground for their tiny animals. Sometimes they want a leash put on a toy dog or treats to bring, but all can easily be improvised.
This activity will get toddlers talking to themselves, helping them improve their communication skills. It also encourages creativity and independent play, which will help your job as a parent because the more your kids can play alone, the more time you’ll have to do chores or relax.
Did you know that there is free, over-the-counter medicine waiting just outside your doorstep? Plants!
We all probably learned that medicinal plants were used by people all over the world before modern medicine? Many of these herbs have fewer side affects than prescription pills and will save you a ton of money, plus help get you through a hard time if your insurance ever lapses.
One medicinal plant that’s local is jewelweed (in the photo above). This gem will speed up the healing of a poison ivy rash and even reduce its size and swelling if used early enough. Just collect the plant, simmer it for 10 minutes, and pour the liquid into ice cube trays. Once it is frozen, you can put it in a ziplock bag and save if for when you need it. If you think you may have touched poison ivy, put several jewelweed cubes into a bath and rub a few over you skin where you may have touched it. You can also make jewelweed soaps or salves.
Another example of a great medicinal plant is peppermint, which is a mainstay of gardens and often found straying into wooded lots. Peppermint cools your skin, so if you put it on your forehead, it will help relieve a fever and a headache. It inhibits the growth of bacteria, so it’s also great in a salve for cuts. If you have a sprain or a backache, it will help reduce the swelling and speed up your recovery.
To make peppermint oil, just soak fresh mint in olive or for 1 week in a window that faces the sun. Peppermint is used for the common cold, coughs, sinus infections, and respiratory infections. It is also helpful for most digestive problems, such as heartburn, nausea, vomiting, morning sickness, and stomach aches.
This year with the extreme temperatures, even the toughest nature-lovers and survivalists may find themselves devolving into winter hermits, huddling under a fleece blanket by the fire. Over a decade ago, I learned the hard way how to dress warmly for the cold. I initially had this “toughen-up” attitude, as though I thought I should be able to survive nude in the winter. I took it to extremes, taking cold showers, going outside in thin cotton shirts, and taking polar plunges in frigid streams during snow storms. It seemed everything I did just made me dislike winter more and feel the cold more acutely.
Finally, after three years of miserable winters, I decided to simply dress warmly for the weather. I’m sharing with you the winter tips I developed to keep me warm all winter long:
This one tip is the MOST IMPORTANT point here. From your long underwear to your hat and coat, all of your layers should be snug. You do not want the breeze to sweep under your pants, coat, boots, hat, etc. stealing all your body heat. It’s like leaving a door open in your house.
Have you heard that saying that you should never wear cotton in the winter? It’s true that wool, fleece, buckskin, and down all insulate much better than cotton and still keep you warm when they are wet. And yet, I prefer not to wear most types of wool right next to my skin. I put on a simple, tight tank top first, every day, all year long. This one small action has made a huge difference in keeping me warm inside a chilly office, at home, and even outside. If the weather turns and starts to feel too warm, or I’m working up a sweat building a debris hut, I can always take my outer layers off so all I have on is my tank top.
Staying warm all night has made a big difference in my body temperature during the day. I wear a fleece, hoodie-footie to sleep in, then an extra fleece bathrobe. My husband bought the hoodie-footie for me as a gag gift one year because it’s an extreme measure to take, but it’s been one of the best presents he’s ever given me.
Letting your body temperature drop may make it hard for you to feel warm for the rest of the day. Pay attention to that chill running down your back and grab a sweater before you let you body temperature fall too low.
If you overheat, you’ll start to sweat, which will make you feel cold. That being said, exercise in winter will help keep you warm, just change out of anything wet or remove a garment or two to prevent sweating.
Vests are one of my best winter investments. For a whole week this year, I was reluctant to do dishes because I’d lost my favorite, thick vest and had to wear thick, bulky sweaters that impeded arm movement instead. Wearing a vest keeps you warm while also freeing up your arms.
There’s a reason for that long underwear in your drawer. Wear it under another layer. If it isn’t tight against your skin, buy one that is. Jeans and leggings aren’t the best, but with a great pair of long-underwear and tall, warm boots, you might not notice too much.
Many outdoor stores sell great coats and at the end of the season the prices drop dramatically. L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, Columbia, and Patagonia are all great brands and there are many others. Make sure it’s for single digit temperatures if you’re serious about staying warm. Long, down ones are especially good. In addition to a great coat, I also put on a thick, tight fleece underneath right before a leave the house. I sometimes even pull it on inside the house if I feel chilly.
Is this one obvious? Well, there is a reason for sweaters and many are good enough. I don’t actually love regular wool because it’s itchy and you have to wear your long underwear under it all winter long. Alpaca wool is awesome, but most sweaters I find are adequate as long as they are tight enough and long enough. With the option of throwing on a vest and a fleece, a super warm sweater doesn’t become quite so necessary and opens the door to whatever fashion you prefer.
This idea just occurred to me this year. It was a cold, rainy day and I didn’t even feel like going out very much, but I really wanted to work on a shelter I’d started. So, I told my daughters to put their snow pants on and grab their umbrellas. We were very comfortable outside for the entire morning and could have stayed out the rest of the day.
You can find warm, inexpensive gloves, hats that cover your ears, and warm fuzzy boots these days. For boots, make sure they are waterproof, have some fuzz inside, and the higher up your calf the better. Warm, dry socks are also a must. Scarves also make a big difference in keeping the heat inside your coat when you’re outside.
Going for a run, walk, swim, or doing some yoga in the morning will help keep that blood flowing and raise your body temperature for the rest of the day.
I hope this helps you brave the unusually cold winter this year and helps you get outside once again. It’s important to know you don’t have to be miserable just because it’s cold. Buying a few warmer, tighter layers will make a huge difference.
And, remember, winter is the easiest time of year to observe birds because the trees are bare and you can see farther in the woods.
Good luck and enjoy!
Have you ever had a persimmon? What about a North American persimmon, Diospyros virginia?
These persimmons are similar to the Asian persimmons, but much smaller – only about an inch in diameter.
This misunderstood Virginia-native fruit can turn even the most adventurous eater away, and yet, they are also well-loved by those who understand them. They weren’t named the fruit of the gods for nothing, after all. The trick is knowing how to harvest and prepare them!
First, you’ll need to find a persimmon tree. It can be a tricky endeavor because they are rare in most Virginia forests today. But, luckily, it’s easy to recognize even at a distance.
Its bark is slate gray, almost black – which alone is unusual among trees in Virginia. It also has blocky, imperfect squares in the bark. The closest bark to it in Virginia are dogwood and loblolly pine, but dogwood has opposite branching and pine trees are, well, evergreen, with easily distinguished needles!
Persimmon Pudding Recipe
If anyone wants persimmons and wants to try this, please let me know! We collected a lot this year! If you do try this recipe, please comment on your results below . . .
This video from The Wilderness School says it best:
One of my favorite activities that can be done year-round is tracking. Tracks are EVERYWHERE. However, it’s easiest to track in mud, sand, or snow.
Kids love learning to read the earth and it’s also a great stepping stone to reading. Tracking, after all, is the original form of reading and many believe it led to written language in the first place. People used to read the earth like a book – the weather, the movement of animals, how long ago did they pass, and much, much more. This meant survival to many groups of people across the world.
For a snapshot into what tracking was and meant to our ancestors, I highly recommend watching this video:
All a beginner really needs to start tracking is to find a muddy or sandy surface. Along streams, rivers, beaches, and roads are perfect. It’s also beneficial to wait about 24 hours after a rainstorm to head out. The rain acts like an eraser on the ground, clearing the previous tracks, making it easier to read new ones. With lots of dirt time and study, you can learn to read tracks in leaves, on hard surfaces, and on chaotic patches of earth. But when starting out, I recommend sticking to mud and sand the day after a rainstorm. You can then go out each day to watch what happens to those tracks you saw on day one – how they age and how weather changes eventually wipe them away.
If you’re ready to jump into tracking, you’ll want to put together a Tracking Toolkit with the following items:
If you find a perfect track while you’re in the field, I recommend taking a photo of it, drawing it, then adding the dimensions of each front and hind footprint. You’ll also want to add the stride length and the width from the outside of the outermost tracks. If you don’t know what species it is, record as much as you can. The following questions are helpful:
If you don’t know what it is right away, which is expected in the beginning, you can try knocking off families from your list of possibilities. Such as, if one footprint has five toes, you know it can’t be a canine or a feline.
After drawing the track and taking notes, you can make a caste of it by mixing your plaster powder with water. I use Plaster of Paris from the hardware store. Don’t make the mix too liquidy or your caste will be too thin and may break. Too thick will mean you’ll miss details in the track. Use 4 small sticks to form the frame of you caste and keep the plaster in place. Wait about an hour for the caste to dry, then use a stick to pry it out.
It’s especially fun for kids to have something they can bring home and put in their room on a shelf to help them remember and show off to their friends.
Can you make a caste of every mammal species in your state?
Before you move on to the next post, what is the track in the header photo? What about in the photo of the caste? Please put your guesses into the comment section below.
Creating a giant leaf pile with your kids is an old favorite that most people have probably heard of. But, don’t dismiss it. Getting outside, smelling the leaves, running around, raking, and jumping in leaf piles makes this one of my most memorable fall activities from childhood.
Raising happy, self-assured kids means teaching them happiness. And happiness stems from play. Everyone knows kids play and most recognize the benefits of it. But, did you know that it’s extremely beneficial for grown-ups to play too? It keeps that feeling of aliveness present, makes you happier, helps you regulate your emotions, reduces stress, fosters creativity, and helps form bonds with friends and family. I’ve heard it said that successful people don’t work, they play. It can apply to any field or hobby.
So, start initiating play in your life today by building a leaf pile and jumping in it! If you have kids, you can play hide and go seek in leaf piles or have them bury you in leaves. Your kids will have wonderful memories of fall and playing with you that will last for the rest of their lives!
One activity I do every year as soon as the grass is covered in leaves is a leaf maze. It’s easy and the kids love it! All I do is rake the leaves away from where I want the maze to be. I add dead ends and put in little obstacles. You can be really creative with this if you have the space and time by turning it into an obstacle course in a maze by including logs to balance on and jump over, tunnels to crawl through, rope swings, and/or toy monsters they have to avoid or fight off.
For kids who are competitive, you can put bean bags at one end of the maze and have them race to see who can grab the bean bags and run back to the starting point first.
You can also do this same thing by letting your grass get tall and mowing the grass in a maze design.
When my older daughter was two, I had her in a gymnastics class. We didn’t live in the woods back then and it seemed like a great way to allow her to get the exercise she craved. I’m a big proponent of exercise and sports for kids and adults, but I didn’t like that she had to be stuck inside for that class even on beautiful days and the drive was 25 minutes each way! Later, I signed her up for soccer and the commitment of taking her to soccer every Saturday morning became a burden that none of us enjoyed.
Now that we live in the woods with a big yard, I encourage her to build her muscles using the landscape. It saves money plus we’re all happier when we can relax in nature and play on our own terms.
Now, at 5, she climbs trees on her own, balances across fallen logs, and sprints down the trail. My younger daughter, who is almost 3, does her best to keep up with her big sister, almost always preferring to run and play barefoot, which builds muscles, tendons and ligaments in her feet to develop a more natural gait. Running barefoot also helps build smaller muscles in the feet, ankles, legs, and hips that are responsible for better balance and coordination. Her growing ability to catch herself on her short, toddler legs and feet and avoid injury is amazing to see.
We also play an array of chasing and hiding games in the woods and in our yard that keep us bonded as a family and keeps our fitness up year-round.
Sports, in contrast, seem to come hand-in-hand with emotional distress, disconnects between parents and their kids, and injuries. According to the US National Library of Medicine, there have been 2.6 million emergency room visits a year for kids ages 5 – 24, with a 70% – 80% attrition rate by the time the child is 15 years old. It recommends waiting until age 6 to begin organized sports. (Oops!) Often coaches, parents, and kids overemphasize winning rather than having fun, leading to stress, family discord, and a greater potential for injuries.
It’s not all bad to play sports, of course. Reducing child obesity and teen depression, improving cognitive development, and setting children up to live healthier, longer lives are great reasons to encourage your kids to stay active.
But, what’s amazing about the great outdoors is it can meet nearly every need a child has. It can be a sport without the over-competitiveness. Or, a team sport without the stress. Spending time in nature boosts the self-esteem and a feeling of belonging. It’s fun, exercise, and an academic pursuit all in one! It teaches grit, which means the ability to get through difficult or uncomfortable situations, a trait that leads to career success.
What better way to teach strategy than capturing the flag with a group of kids at night in a wooden setting? Or teach grit by taking a backpacking trip with friends and family? Or teach preschoolers science by catching frogs together and looking for frog eggs and tadpoles?
As I teenager, I ran long-distance and loved taking my runs to the forest. Hopping over and running across logs, navigate over and under foliage, and avoiding wet spots all make for a great physical and mental workout that leaves you energized and connected to the world around you.
On the nature connection side of this, when running the woods (or anywhere outside), you’re more likely to see deer, foxes, owls, opossums, and raccoons because you can run so fast the animals don’t have time to hide or run. Then, you can find their tracks, trails, and den!
You can never LOSE when you’re racing against yourself in the woods. Nature is your coach, opponent, and referee. Your spiritual guide and your science teacher.
In addition to, or even in place of, competitive sports that can lead to over-scheduling, parent-child disconnects, and injuries, kids need time to play, have fun, and learn to problem-solve with their peers and family in the great outdoors.