The Window Bird Feeder

A great, yet very simple way to connect your kids deeply to nature is setting up a small, window bird feeder. Someone who’s handy with a hammer could make one cheaply. Being too impatient, I bought mine for less than $30. I set it up in the window that we spend the most time near – in the dining room.

It usually takes a couple of days for the birds to find your feeder for the first time, so don’t worry! First come the chickadees, then a tufted titmouse or two. Soon, your feeder will be well-used and loved by the birds in your yard. If your kids can sit still and quiet for a few minutes, they will be able to see one up close, which is an awesome way to learn stillness, quieting mind, and living in the moment.

Have fun and buy or make your kids a window bird feeder for their next birthday!

10 Reasons Why Kids Need Recess

Recess is about more than just exercise. It’s time to calm down and process the learning they just had in class. It’s time to bond with classmates and play imaginative games. It’s time to run, play, and relax.

The other day, I was surprised to find out recess in my own school district for Kindergarten is only 30 minutes a day. They have a full school day too, 6 hours long. Here, I though Kindergarten would be all fun and games and a gradual transition to school.

Here are the top 10 reasons why kids need more recess:

  1. Kid/Teacher Burn Out
  2. Improves Class Behavior
  3. Improves Kids Attitudes
  4. Recess Increases Focus
  5. Kids Need Sunlight
  6. Reduces Stress
  7. Improves Social Growth
  8. Reduces Obesity
  9. Excercise Activates the Brain
  10. Reduces ADD/ADHD Symptoms

The Sit Spot

One of core routines of connecting to nature is The Sit Spot. You may do this alone or with a willing child at any age. I started taking my first daughter out to my sit spot when she was a newborn. This helped me overcome the stress that comes with being a new mother. I still take my second child and sometimes both of my kids, but normally I try to go without them at this point.

The basics of it are this: Find a spot in nature and sit!

A spot you can go to every day or several times a week is best, so make it close to your home. Even a porch can work. Near water or at the edge area is good if you have it nearby. Otherwise, just something that’s close to home.

Try to sit for at least 30 minutes each time and listen to the world around you.

What Do You Do While You’re At Your Sit Spot? 

There are many things you can do at your sit spot, but I’ve written 5 that you should do regularly:

  1. Bring a journal and write down all observations about the trees, plants, birds, and other animals. What sounds do the birds make? What are they doing? Can you identify them? Are the trees deciduous or evergreen?
  2. Offer thanks for the things you have in your life.
  3. Meditate to calm your mind. A calm mind and still body is less scary to wild animals and you will be more observant.
  4. Sit blindfolded for 10 minutes. When you take the blindfold off, notice how still your eyes are and how the world looks more beautiful than ever.
  5. Set up a bird feeder and hold some bird seed in your hand. How many days does it take for the birds to eat from your hand?

 

 

Get Dirty!

To me, being a kid is about getting dirty, playing games, and having no worries.

So often today, kids must follow a laundry list of rules. “Don’t play in the mud, you’ll get dirty.” “Don’t go in the grass. It’s wet.” “Don’t climb that tree. You’ll fall.” I’ve heard all of these phrases and sometimes, I’m tempted to say them myself. But I try to stop myself and let them take off their shoes and run around in puddles and mud. I’m always rewarded by seeing their delight and hearing their squeals and giggles.

Let your kids experience nature first hand. If you don’t want their clothes stained, have at least some cheap, second-hand outfits you don’t mind them getting dirty. Or, let them wear their swimsuits outside during a rain storm if it’s warm enough.

The feeling of wet grass squishing under your feet is unique and kids crave it. Splashing in puddles and getting all wet always makes my kids giggle for the rest of the day and play well together.

My kids and I have many great memories of playing in the rain, which is probably why we usually run outside, not inside, when the rain begins. Rain boots, umbrellas, and rain coats all make it fun even when it’s chilly.

The other day, this allowed up to catch sight of a perfect rainbow, which delighted my girls tremendously.

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The Backyard Camp Out

I’m amazed time and time again by how much my kids LOVE backyard camp outs. To kids who are 2 and 5, simply setting up a tent in the backyard and sleeping in it is a great adventure. If you have a backyard that isn’t quite suitable for overnight camping, you might want to consider setting up a small tent and pretending to camp out for the night.

My older daughter was beyond herself with excitement when we camped out the last time, which was surprising to me since we go into our forest almost every day. To kids and adults, there is something special about sleeping under the trees to the sound of frogs singing and coyotes yipping that helps connect you to the earth and embrace your true self.

Another benefit that surprises me is how much exercise I get every time I do this. It’s a small hike from our house to our designated fire circle and campsite, but I need to carry down a lot of gear for a proper, two night camp out. So, the last time I did this, I walked back and forth probably 10 times carrying a cooler of food, cooking pots, sleeping bags, tent, and water. Then, I carried 2 dozen rocks to build up our fire circle, logs to sit on, and firewood to start our fire. I realized this was more fun and just as much exercise as I normally get from going to the gym. Plus, I was spending time with my kids!

After eating a dinner the kids loved helping to prepare, I quickly made up a story about an owl who was waking up that very moment in the forest and would soon be hunting for food. My older daughter’s eyes grew big and she excitedly asked me what the owl would do next.

I couldn’t believe it! Telling a simple story in the woods over a camp fire also made her enjoy my stories more. Normally, she barely reacts to my real-life stories of near-death experiences or where I was close enough to touch wild beaver kits or deer.

Immediately after the story, my older daughter said, “I’m tired. I want to go to bed now.” This too is unusual for her. We hadn’t adjusted well to daylight savings time and camping out corrected our circadian rhythm. The next morning, by the time we cooked pancakes over the fire and headed back up to the house, it was only 8:30! I realized it might be easier to camp out there every night and make it to preschool on time.

 

 

The Treasure Hunt

One activity I use with my kids to help build observation skills, map reading, and get them into the forest is The Treasure Hunt. I use a combination of reality and fantasy to get them excited. We have a Dora The Explorer book, where pirate piggies steal a treasure chest full of costumes from Dora and she has to use “Map,” who talks and sings, to find them. My younger daughter is just 2 and loves acting out Dora. It encourages her to speak Spanish, so I play along. I sing the silly songs from the TV show and try to say the Spanish phrases, which she always corrects me on.

So, the first time I did a treasure hunt with them, I told them, “The pirate piggies have stolen your treasure chest and have hidden it in the forest! Map will show you the way!”

They unrolled the map that showed only a few key landmarks – the barn, a bridge, and a pig statue to represent the “pirate piggies” and an “X” to mark with the treasure chest is. I included a few words to help my 5-year-old practice her reading skills. After discussing the map a little, out they flew, leaving the fight-inducing playroom for the calming woods.

To make it a little bit of a challenge, I put the treasure chest in a partially hidden location, under some leaves. As they gain confidence in this game, I’ll add more and more landmarks and detail to the map as well as hide the treasure better and better.

This game has so many benefits and is just plain fun! For me, playing with my kids makes me feel more connected to them, happier with my role as a full-time mother, so often filled with chores, and keeps me feeling that spark for life.

And, just stepping foot out the door usually will encourage my kids to play in the outdoors for a long time. My main goals with getting them into the woods at the preschool age are to encourage them to love nature and science, push their boundaries, and be able to overcome fear, discomfort, or a challenge, but there are all sorts of other benefits of wilderness– they almost never fight outside, they play imaginative games almost non-stop, and the fitness and agility skills gained by playing among boulders, logs, trees, swamps, and creeks are similar to paying $100 a month for gymnastics training, without any commitments or driving.

If they are ready to come back, I usually try to convince them to stay a little longer by playing with them, but I try not to push it too hard because I want to keep it fun for them.

 

This activity can be done in a backyard for preschoolers. After age 5, a park with some forest cover is best to make the activity more powerful and feel more real to them.

What You Need for This Activity:

A Small Treasure Chest (You can make one with your kids out of a shoebox.)

A Hand-Drawn Map Showing Key Landmarks

Plastic Necklaces, Chocolate Money, Real Money or Little Toys

 

TRACKS AND ROOTS

Explore. Play. Learn.

Join us in this outdoor classroom in Glen Allen, VA.

15 Reasons Why Kids Need Nature

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.

 

The Benefits of Nature for Adults

Does it need to be said that nature is beneficial? Well, I thought I’d write a little about it here.

Walks in wilderness lowers cortisol level, a stress hormone, by 16%. Even sitting by a window facing a garden will lower stress levels more than sitting by a window facing a parking lot.

There’s also something about spending time in nature with others that is different from any other experience that spurs lasting friendships, playfulness, and aliveness. The fresh air, sunshine, and ample opportunities to run, jump over logs, and take long walks on forest trails make it a healthier experience than a gym alone. It helps alleviate seasonal depression, fatigue, and anxiety.

I believe adults need to play in the woods just as much as kids do.

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