‘Second nature’ activities

swingset
photo by pixietart

I think the whole purpose of this get-your-kids-outside initiative is to make it effortless. We want our kids to have the joys we did when being in the fresh air was the norm rather than the exception. That said, I think anything you do outside is a step in the right direction. Activities like sidewalk chalk and finger painting are always a hit, and these aren’t things you have to convince your kids to do.

After your kids get tired of all the physical activity in your yard or at the park and they are ready to leave, don’t leave. Let them wind down outside.

Take advantage of what’s around:

• Grab some twigs and, if your kids are at the appropriate age, form them into letters and shapes. Take advantage of them actually being too tired to run and make learning fun. If your kids are a little older, tell them to make something. I’m pretty sure this is where the idea for Legos and Tinkertoys originated; skip the middle man.

• Lie under a tree and look up – find shapes in the sunlight that’s peeking through the network of branches. Or cloud watch and find shapes that way.

• Look for 4-leaf clovers.

• Have a board game close at hand to bring out for these occasions.

• Make flower bracelets or tear a branch into strips and make a crown.

• Look under big rocks and count how many different bugs are under there.

• Be still and just listen. Talk about how many different sounds you hear. Test your kid’s sense of direction and see if they can distinguish which way the sound is coming/going.

• Have paper airplane competitions. To be nice to nature, bring some used computer paper that you’d throw away/recycle otherwise then pick it up when you’re done.

• Kick or throw a ball. The extent of this activity will depend on the age of your kids but the worst that can happen is them gaining more coordination regardless of their level.

• Find a tree. Climb it. Then tell your kids to while you spot them.

• Roll down a hill – a hill that doesn’t have any boulders or cacti.

• Play “I spy…”

These are just suggestions and if you think they’re not going to entertain your kids, I hope they’ll at least act as a springboard for your brainstorming of better ones. However, I’m definitely not the only one with ideas.

Remember that Louv guy? He’s got his own huge list of pretty great ideas.

Fun Attic has some great game ideas for a wide range of ages.

My kids loved making a baking soda volcano.

BoredGourd The Sports/Exercise category is most likely where you’ll find the majority of outside activities, but why not take the “indoor” out? We do.

I haven’t gotten into this with my kids, but we’ve learned a lot about geocaching from family members and they’re crazy about the activity. All you need is a GPS.

From what I’ve seen, (Kevin, you’re awesome) this activity has quality time built-in.

I just want my kids to know that “that tree over there can serve as its own corner of creativity and fun. I don’t want them to grow up and assume that all knowledge is gained by STARING AT PAPER or coloring inside the lines.

These pre-sets that our kids get now from our culture—they’re all things that man created. Some of these are very great contributions to the world – yes, but I bet the men who created those wonderful things had a better relationship with nature than the majority of kids now do.

When we feel like something is a routine we follow without effort, we say, “It’s second nature to me.” Kids today are growing up with a lot of things that rank second in importance… I bet you anything it’s not nature for most.

Where do you and your family spend most of your time outdoors?

Walk the Walk… Really.

boy running
photo by St0rmz

According to Louv and the interdisciplinary field of ecopsychology, being outside has a track record of improving a person’s physical and mental ailments. According to this month’s issue of Fitness Magazine, the supplement provided by the outdoors that allows for improvements in health is the vitamin D gained from simply being in the sunlight. The article, “Super Vitamin to the Rescue,” by Richard Laliberte, reveals that “… 5 to 30 minutes of unprotected exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at least twice a week will give you most of the D you need.”

And if you need more provocation to get out, Popular Mechanics has an amazing article on how vitamin D can help treat osteoporosis. So, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, but going out into the sun today will help you get out of bed tomorrow morning.

The Great American Backyard Campout: June 27, 2009

The National Wildlife Federation deserves some major kudos here. I’ve thought about letting my kids camp in our backyard many times, but I quickly came to the realization that it’d be almost cruel considering the mosquito population here in Houston. This campout idea involves you, and as many neighbors as you can recruit, camping in your backyard.

It’s not just a “Hey, go camping in your backyard” thing, though. Everyone that signs up across the nation will be participating on the same night. Sign up and either find a host campsite in your neighborhood or host a group in your area yourself. The National Wildlife Federation has provoked people all over to participate in this event in June in order to gain a larger feeling of solidarity in the sense that we need a little more nature in our lives.

Leave No Child Inside, another Louv-inspired organization, offers a great ideas & how-to on raising monarch butterflies. At first, I was thinking, “Yeah, okay… this is impossible,” but it’s actually very simple. The caterpillar does all the work, but it’s an amazing natural occurrence that you can witness with – and explain to – your children.

Just Open the Door

Take a walk and collect leaves and flowers. When you get home (no rush, really) get out a nature guide or encyclopedia and try to identify the plants or trees from which you pulled your samples.

No awesome nature book? Google it. However, if you go the Google route, try to be as specific as possible regarding your region and what kind of plant you’re trying to identify. Otherwise, you’ll end up searching for “tree” or something just as generic and not-at-all helpful. If you want to go a few steps further, get an empty hard bound book or a composition notebook and use it as a field guide.

Take your camera, take notes, take your kids and take your time. You can even start a field guide blog if you prefer to keep your photos digital. Once you and your kids are familiar with the nature around, try a family scavenger hunt. Pick a list of items you know you have identified (maybe with a small picture) and see which team can return home with the correct collection.

Turn off the TV. Turn off the lights. Look up.

A clear night is the perfect chance to get your kids out. Our telescope is a member of the family, but the light pollution here in Houston is overwhelming. It causes quite the glare, but the kids thoroughly enjoy looking at the craters of the moon.

Star charts are a great tool whether or not you have a telescope.

Even on a rainy day, you can explore nature. We recently got a microscope for the kids, and its possibilities are endless. You can collect pretty much any small item (hair, seed, fingernail, leaf, etc.) and reveal the intricacies of even the smallest element of the outdoor world around them.

That rainy day also provides an opportunity for you to research the elements in the atmosphere causing the rain. That way, when they get back outside, they’ll be able to look up and distinguish clouds, wind direction and how likely precipitation will be for the day.

I’m in love with meteorology, and I don’t think I could ever learn enough.

Get your kids curious. Make them ask questions; that’s a telltale sign of their gears turning. As long as they’re turning, it’s hard for them to get rusty. Think of your encouragement and involvement as WD-40 for their inquisitiveness.

“Never lay across the tracks of your kids’ train of thought.” -my dad

If you know of any other fantastic events like the Great American Backyard Campout, please share them! Please sign up: it would be quite the joy to be able to discuss our experiences together after the event in June.

The Need for Nature

Richard Louv has set up a pretty broad picture for us so far. The history of how we, as Americans, proceed through our conquests and frontiers reveals not a mere trend, but rather a distinct characteristic.

Now that we’ve progressed to the third frontier, it is the essence of our nature to move on. If I’m not mistaken, in the whole of this book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Louv is asking us: in which direction, for the sake of our children, do we choose to continue?

This question is rooted in a deep concern for the current status quo.

Based on his life’s passion and writings, Louv consolidated his knowledge and developed the term nature-deficit disorder. He’s very quick to explain that it is not an official medical diagnosis, nor is it meant to front itself as such. He does, however make a strong case for the term:

“Nature-deficit disorder describes the human cost of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”

He continues; his mission is to rid ourselves of this unnecessary malady:

“By weighing the consequences of this disorder, we can also become more aware of how blessed our children can be – biologically, cognitively, and spiritually – through positive physical connection to nature.”

Through his research, Louv came across the hypothesis of Edward O. Wilson: biophilia. This term concentrates on biological shifts based on “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”

Though not all biologists are strong advocates of this theory, the field of ecopsychology has contributed data highlighting the positive response in humans after being exposed to many different aspects of nature.

For instance, one study shows “the mortality rate of heart-disease patients with pets was found to be one-third that of patients without pets.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Louv shares the statistic showing that the steepest increase in antidepressant prescriptions by demographic was a boost… in preschoolers. Yes, preschoolers.

I am not a doctor, nor an expert of anything for that matter. But, perpetual growth and change is the nature of all preschool-aged children. Mentally and physically, through circadian rhythms and coordination skill, logic and imagination, size and weight, children in this demographic are supposed to reveal all emotion and breadth of personality; how else would they know it exists?

How else would they learn to distinguish between right and wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, and tell happy from sad? To me, the diagnosis of depression in a child this young is a stretch.

Just the other day, my four-yr-old daughter became very emotional very spontaneously. Call me crazy, but I didn’t call the doctor. I took her on a long, long walk and let her act monkey-esque at a park for the afternoon. I don’t know why the sudden changes in either direction, unusually sad or immediately content, but it looked to me as if taking the little lady out into the fresh air and sunshine fixed whatever was ailing her that morning.

Louv says:

“You’ll likely never see a slick commercial for nature therapy, as you do for the latest antidepressant pharmaceuticals. But parents, educators, and health workers need to know what a useful antidote to emotional and physical stress nature can be. Especially now.”

Have you personally witnessed your child(ren) change demeanor after a change in their indoor/outdoor status?What do you think of Louv’s assessment regarding the current state of our kids’ culture?

Labor of Louv

illuminated forest

For me to even assume that a post of mine will inspire readers, I feel it is only right to first expose one of the main inspirations for this entire blog endeavor: Richard Louv.

Mr. Louv is the chairman of the Children & Nature Network, an organization created to provoke more of a connection between our children and the outdoors.  I have felt many of the sentiments of the program, but not until discovering the C&NN have I been able to fully understand what is wrong with our current educational approaches.

Louv’s most popular work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, has provoked a widespread movement – aside from co-founding the C&NN – that includes the creation of the Leave No Child Insideinitiative and the Nature Child Reunion.  Both have been created in the wake of Louv’s book.

Last Child in the Woods

Louv Book Cover

In my affection and excitement, I cannot help but expose the tip of the iceberg for you.  However, I will not go into too much detail, because I hope that you will join the Sound Mind, Sound Mom book club over at Simple Mom when they begin reading and discussing this book in June.

“As far as physical fitness goes, today’s kids are the sorriest generation in the history of the United States.  Their parents may be out jogging, but the kids just aren’t outside.”

Louv is describing what he calls the “third frontier” in our societal progression. The first being actual colonization, the second involving farm culture and the pastoral, the third frontier is defined by five distinct attributes:

  • a severance of the public and private mind from our food’s origins
  • a disappearing line between machines, humans and other animals
  • an increased intellectual understanding of our relationship with other animals
  • the invasion of our cities by wild animals (even as urban/suburban developers replace wilderness with synthetic nature)
  • the rise of a new kind of suburban form

Severance From Food’s Origins

I believe this attribute to be true and very telling of our culture.  However, with the rise of awareness and progress in the health and wellness sector, I can see this disconnect on a downward slope.  Farmer’s markets and health food stores are becoming more popular, as is the frequency of vegetarian and vegan restaurants and menu items.  With all of these moving in the right direction, I think we could still do a much better job of personally producing more than we consume; there’s no mistaking the viability of “organic” claims that way.  I love being able to go directly from a garden to the kitchen for meal preparation — that’s really making it from scratch.

Blurry Divisions Between Machines and Humans

“Even the definition of life itself is up for grabs.”

Think of Dolly the clone, stem-cell research, the pro-life/pro-choice stances, and how the field of genetics is taking off in countless directions.  I understand that many of our children (including my own) are not quite ready to discuss or grasp the social intensity surrounding some of these issues.  But our children’s perception of all of them depends on how we approach their education of such difficult topics. I have to admit: I’m having a hard time keeping up… I mean, Pluto isn’t even a planet anymore.

An Ever-Expanding Knowledge of Animals

In many ways, this is one of our greatest hopes in getting kids outside… even if it is just a trip to the zoo.  The only animals that live inside are the ones you get to know quite well, and the curiosity wears off eventually.  Channels like Animal Planet and the Discovery Channel have pure intentions and offer wonderfully honest programming.  But, you have to be watching television… inside… most likely eating on the couch… to take in the messages.  Let’s get our kids to take a book about animals outside.

Not-So Wild Life

When I drive through the suburbia we live in, it’s pretty easy to imagine its development: bulldozing the entire landscape to build the houses; finding empty places to plan and manufacture a landscape for the parks; filling in the rest with brand new trees that still need braces to survive.  To be sure, having trees is better than the alternative, but I can’t help but wonder what my street looked like before it was “developed.”

Richard Louv had the patience to wrap his mind around all these factors and verbalize it so we could see it all in one place.  In the next post of this series, we’ll go into his thoughts on biophilia and how the effects of what he calls Nature-deficit disorder are devastating, but surely reversible.

How do you encourage your children’s relationship with nature?  Are you inspired by what Mr. Louv has to say?  What other attributes of our daily lives can you see as factors in how little children are outside?