Natural Life Magazine

nature hike with children

Exploring the World in Your Own Backyard
Planning a Nature Walk for Kids
By Carolyn Ross

It’s a Saturday afternoon. You’ve heard about Nature Deficit Disorder and you’re determined that your kids aren’t going to spend their time mired inside, pouring their energy into the latest new video game. You’d like to get them outside, so you propose a hike, but not a drive-to-the-Nature-sanctuary-and- walk-on-the-trails kind of hike. This one is a neighborhood exploration hike!

Nature is everywhere, and discovering your own nearby Nature is a key to helping children develop the sense of place necessary to build more sustainable communities. The natural spaces within walking distance of our homes are surprisingly busy, filled with any number of plants and animals that can serve as vehicles through which we can learn how to better belong on this planet.

What a great neighborhood exploration takes is a bit of planning, a backpack containing a few tools to enhance the experience, and an adult or two who love the earth and have a desire to share that love with young people. When planning a hike for kids, it is helpful to make sure the kids will be comfortable. Dress for the weather, make sure everyone has had enough to eat and that no one is too tired to go out. Bring a refillable water bottle and a snack in case someone gets hungry. The goal is to develop a feeling of ease in the outdoors, but no one will want to connect with Nature if they are cold, thirsty, hungry, or tired.

Along with a water bottle and some snacks, a few tools will help to enhance the experience. A glass jar with holes poked into the lid makes a great bug trap. A few field guides and a magnifying glass are great tools for discovering species you’ve never seen before. A digital camera is a great way to capture the image of a bug, bird, or plant that you want to identify after the walk. Finally, binoculars – the quintessential tool of any good naturalist – will help locate the many small creatures that are too shy to come close. Making sure your backpack is filled with any number of these tools will help provide a myriad of opportunities to observe the many species with whom you share your community.
Nature is a key to helping children develop the sense of place necessary to build more sustainable communities.

Ideally, a neighborhood exploration walk would become a habit. An after-dinner walk two or three times a week will do more for our sense of place than a five-day camping trip once a year. The first few neighborhood Nature walks will likely involve a lot of identification. It is important to know the names of the most common creatures in your area. In my community, squirrels (of all colors), robins, chickadees, sparrows, groundhogs, starlings, garlic mustard, and maple trees top the list.

However, once kids have gotten to know how to identify some of the most obvious species, it is helpful to then choose a theme to help focus the walk. At best, a neighborhood exploration is about grasping how humans fit into the environments that we inhabit. Young children are fascinated with where their water, energy, and food come from, and what the schools do or don’t teach can be either reinforced or taught by parents who in turn increase their own ecological understanding.

Here are some possible neighborhood exploration hike themes to increase ecological understanding:

  • Electricity
  • Heating our homes
  • Air quality and pollution
  • Where our water comes from
  • Where our food grows
  • Wild edible plants
  • Soil
  • Population
  • Culture and language
  • Biodiversity
  • Waste management
  • Photosynthesis
  • Weather
  • Native vs. non-native plants
  • Seasons
  • A night hike

Ask your child to choose one of these themes and focus the walk around the theme. For example, you could do a walk about how your neighborhood makes, receives, and uses energy or how water flows into your home, identifying all the landmarks that show how humans interact with that element.

Joseph Cornell, author of Sharing Nature with Children, is a wise outdoor educator who created a simple format for planning a Nature walk called “flow learning.” He advises structuring any outdoor adventure in four parts to account for how children learn.

Part 1 is designed to awaken enthusiasm

Part 2 is designed to focus attention

Part 3 is designed to experience directly

Part 4 is designed to share inspiration.

It’s good to start a hike with a fun, active game or activity that gets you and your child excited. Try tag, British Bulldog, a rousing dance party – anything that will get your blood pumping and make you laugh. Once you’ve “awakened enthusiasm” and burned off a bit of energy, you and your kids will be more open to listening and experiencing an activity that involves “focused attention,” like closing the eyes and identifying all the sounds in the area. The third phase of “direct experience” involves games or activities that open children to connecting through their senses with Nature. Activities like “becoming” a tree or playing animal charades help children to empathize with other living things. Finally, the fourth part of the walk, called “sharing inspiration,” involves bringing along poetry or a book. Reading together in a beautiful outdoor setting is a nice ritual for a parent and child to develop.

Choosing a theme and then keeping in mind Joseph Cornell’s flow learning are two perfect ways to build a bit of structure into your neighborhood exploration walk. As an adult, this will give you a sense of how the walk will unfold and you will therefore be able to lead the kids through an adventure that will take on a life of its own.

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder … so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years.”
~ Rachel Carson

Many parents are intimidated about leading children in Nature because they are worried that they won’t know the answers to their children’s questions. But it’s okay to position yourself as a learner alongside the children. The field guides, as well as the camera, allow you to gather information and find the answers later in a book or on the Internet. This practice also helps demonstrate that learning is a lifelong activity and that the only way to learn is to admit that you don’t know.

Wonder is another essential ingredient of a good neighborhood exploration. Wonder is the art of observing and asking questions. Your child comes across a spider web and you pause together to look at the web. You leave some space for her to ask her own questions then begin to discuss it: I wonder what that web is made of? Why do spiders make webs? How long does it take to make a web? If the theme of the day is water – how does a spider drink? What happens to the web when it rains? Wonder is what keeps life interesting, as demonstrated by Rachel Carson’s quote about the good fairy (left).

Wonder keeps things fresh and helps to humble us with the knowledge that there is always more to learn. Unfortunately, many children of this generation are not being mentored into knowing and appreciating the natural world. Schools are busy places in which teachers are overworked and burdened by tremendous liability issues that prevent them from taking their students outside to learn as much as they would like to. Education geared towards knowing and respecting Nature therefore needs to come from conscientious parents, guardians, grandparents, and friends who know the value of Nature connection and make sure the children in their lives get outside and engage with Nature regularly. Good education ought to be a door into knowing one’s place in the Universe, as a human connected to the web of life.

As adults, we need to make the time to develop our own Nature connection and share that with young people. It may be challenging to make it a priority, but in the joy of Nature lies the motivation to live more lightly and to protect, through our habits and actions, something profoundly sacred that cares for all our needs.

Learn More

Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell (Dawn Publications, 1998)

The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv (Updated version, Algonquin Books, 2008)

Childhood and Nature by David Sobel (Stenhouse Publishers, 2008)

Into the Field: A Guide to Locally Focused Teaching by Clare Walker Leslie (Orion Society, 2005)

Carolyn Ross is an environmental and outdoor educator and an advocate for connecting people (especially children) with Nature. When she wrote this article in 2010, she was working at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where she was helping build a Back to Nature Network and movement to address Nature deficit disorder and re-connect people with Nature.


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