Some of you are seasoned birdwatchers, hikers, campers, naturalists or even all of the above. Many, of course, are just beginning your outdoor adventures. Whether you are comfortable in the outdoors or simply wish to develop a new family interest in spending more time outside, parenthood can bring new opportunities and new challenges to something as simple as a walk in the woods.
Old habits or practices may need to be adapted in order to facilitate the children’s needs and new approaches explored in order to discover which goals are realistic. How far can you expect a child to walk independently, for example?
We’d like to share a simple idea that can help children connect with the outdoors in a way that responds to their age and developmental stage. Having something to carry on a walk or a short hike can help a child find meaning in the experience, particularly if your family are new to this. No, we don’t mean a favorite toy or even a nature guidebook! We chose two common items for very different reasons. Here’s Part 1 for a child between the ages of 3 and 6. Read on to find out more about older children!
A walk with a child between 6 and 9 years old.
A child of this age exhibits characteristics that are somewhat different than that of a 3-6 year old. To begin with, there is a far greater interest in pursuing a trail in order to reach a destination, which can open up more possibilities for exploring nature. Now that a child is clearly experiencing a growth spurt, their legs are getting stronger, and longer walks will become more appealing. Eyes will become more discriminating when it comes to tiny treasures from nature and so a bucket will likely lose its appeal around the age of five and a half.
Six year-olds are emerging as morally conscious young people, who are ready to debate what is fair and unfair, as well as learn more about their wider environment and the life cycle in nature.
At six, their capacity to appreciate the abstract is developing and learning can now begin with informational facts that are followed up by research. At six, a child is also evaluating role models. Lead by example, and take the time to provide reading opportunities where role models can be discussed; consider a book such as Small Wonders, by Matthew Clark Smith, which introduces Jean-Henri Fabre and his interest in the insect world.
If a young child has been shown how to respect insects from early in life, this topic can take on a much more hands-on approach at this point. Consider acquiring a bug carrier, or, better still, make one if there is a woodworker or a crafter in your home. Your child will enjoy being involved in this activity, and it can complement a whole series of discussions about insects populations, their role in the ecosystem, their unique behaviors, as well as their life cycles and their physical capabilities. Unlike a preschooler, who is by nature somewhat egocentric, a child at this age appreciates conversation and social engagement.
This is a great time to invest in a subscription to a nature magazine aimed at a young audience, and to pay close attention to local nature centers where weekend workshops may be held to engage children in nature-related activities. From the age of six a child is becoming ever more social and will be seeking a peer group that shares common interests, making it an ideal time to connect with other young naturalists!
Once your bug home is ready to be taken out on a hike, the child should already be aware of some of the insect species that may be encountering during the excursion. There will also be sufficient understanding of the need to provide appropriate shelter for any creature hosted in the bug carrier, as well as an appreciation of why it is necessary to release insects back into the wild after a few minutes of examination.
With the passing of time, a sketchbook or a camera could enhance this kind of natural adventure, but for the moment remember that a child instinctively lives in the present and will connect best with nature without too many external distractions.
Observe your child, watch how they learn and encourage their independent interests along the way, happy trails!
About the Author
Susan Shea promotes early literacy through nature at phoneticplanet.org. She’s a trained Montessori guide and enjoys creating vocabulary building materials to share with children and families.
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