By Chantal Bufe
April 22nd marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and it seems like Southern California's nature just waited for this milestone in order to celebrate with an explosion of sunshine, vibrant colors, and the sweetest smells. It is truly quite incredible to witness. We can not believe that these flowers are growing in our garden right now! Together with my beloved palm trees, of course.
But here is the deal: while I count down the minutes to our daily family walk, finally getting out into nature after long mornings of homeschooling in front of computers and iPads, our kids have become much less excited about our daily outings - for we have taken more or less the same route for weeks now. And there are of course good reasons for this, as we keep explaining to our children: Southern California's strict lockdown rules stipulate staying close to home when outside and to not go into other neighborhoods for recreation as this is said to increase the risk of virus spread. And in order to help everyone, our family firmly obeys these rules. Especially since we are incredibly lucky to have a beautiful 5km trail (which is still open!) nestled inside a gorgeous canyon right in front of our house!
And while I don't care much for - or indulge in - my kid's complaints about the monotony of our daily route (our children are so lucky during these times in every respect) I worry at the possibility of them growing bored of nature, of ever not wanting to explore it and worse of all... of forgetting to appreciate it for all that it is and for all that it offers us.
So. Since I have am currently wearing a big fat teacher hat anyway, I have been looking for fun and educational ways to mix up our route routine. And in hopes that they will help your little ones rediscover a bit of flora & fauna fun, I am sharing four activities that we are currently exploring.
1. ...go on a basic scavenger hunt
Since the point of our nature walk, these days is first and foremost a bit of exercise, we need activities that don't slow us down too much but allow us to keep moving. And a basic scavenger hunt offers just that and - in the spirit of sibling rivalry - even encourages going faster than intended. And this is what our kids definitely need right now: ways to release their energy! We used below scavenger hunt chart template (and adjusted it a little) and the kids loved it. Fini (8) and Flo (5), especially, rode their bikes up and down the trail yesterday eager to find all they needed to complete their scavenger hunt. Their highlight? The 159 lizards and 49 snails they encountered (and dutifully counted) during their walk/ride.
Download the chart here at teachstarter.com
2. ...use your senses!
In the below chart the children are encouraged to note what they see but also what they hear, smell, and - most importantly - feel when they are outdoors. Do you hear the birds chirping, leaves rustling, or water gurgling? And if so, can we find out where the sounds are coming from? Do you smell the scent of flowers or fresh-cut grass in the air? And how does being outside make you feel (also compared to how you were feeling before)?
This is a really sweet activity to encourage children to pay attention to their environment and understand that our external surroundings have the power to influence our internal state. When I recently asked Fini how she was doing on one of our nature walks - this was after a particularly difficult day of homeschooling during which she was unable to let go of her negative emotions - she simply replied: "I am better now, mummy, the wind made it better."
When we are stuck in a negative mental place, before going inwards the key is to also check our external environment. Am I surrounded by what I know I need in order to feel happy? If not, what can I do right now that I know will make me feel more positive? We can teach even our young children, that there is usually a thing or two that we can actively do to feel better. This can be as easy as going for a walk, taking in the fresh air, hearing the sound of birds, and letting the wind take care of the rest...
Download the chart here teachstarter.com.
3. ...find your treemate
This activity is a fun and hopefully meaningful one, as it is all about connection: each child picks a tree he or she likes and then start to inquire. Why did I choose this tree? What makes it so special to me? What kind of tree is it and/or how can I find out? The tree can be visited again later when the child can see if anything changed. Is the color still the same, are new leaves growing, are the same birds living in it?
We found that this is a sweet bonding exercise for our children who - at this point - really miss their friends as well as the daily connections with the people they are used to having around, be it their amazing classroom teacher or the kids from their soccer team. And while nothing can replace a best friend's embrace, it is a lovely way for children to express their care and compassion for a living element outside of their home.
Oh, and if your kids are old enough, check out Judi Dench's documentary My Passion for Trees (2017) which provides a beautiful insight into the magic of trees.
Download the leaf id sheet here: woodlandtrust.org
4. ... take responsibility and action!
Lastly, we want to encourage our children to think of ways of how to play an active role in protecting our environment, and with this in mind, the below chart provides a fun game. It lets the child identify a plant or an animal and asks why is it important to this earth? and how can you take care of it? On our last walk, for instance, the children saw a swarm of bees and we spoke about why they were significant and how we could protect them, or more, help them thrive. We could start cultivating bee-friendly plants or supporting our local beekepers?
We find that once we heighten the children's awareness of what is around them in nature, a larger conversation about human responsibility naturally opens up (given our children's age).
Last week, Fini asked about whether our family should be eating less meat (she was concerned about the animals and then happily surprised to hear that this would also help lower the emission of greenhouse gases, i.e. be better for our planet). We talked about how to recycle more effectively - which we find much harder to do in California than in Germany! - and if there is a possibility of creating a compost pile (also tricky here).
There are endless reasons why children should spend time outside in nature and our family believes that these are not only benefits but a necessity. While it is still unclear (to me, at least) how exactly nature manages to influence our cognitive functioning while improving our mood, I do know this: our children seem more confident in nature, less tired and anxious and simply free (for a lack of a better word). They show tremendous creativity and imagination, playing with leaves and rocks, cones, and sticks, designing little shelters for bugs in the most inventive ways. They seem to care more for the plants and animals around them, whether big or small, than ever before.
So just remember when your kids whine about having to go outside, along the same route, again and again, that they will feel better the minute they start walking for in every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks. - John Muir
(Photo: Noah Buscher/ Unsplash)