Introducing Kids to Nature

27 06 2012

How to Turn Kids On To Nature

I can’t tell you how many times one of my middle school students has melted down because he or she could not find his or her cell phone. They just come unglued.

Most kids are hooked on their screens. In fact, many of them are better named “screenagers,” addicted to digital images and text. They bounce from their cell phone screen to their television screen to their computer screen to their iPad screen, and in many cases their screens are all on at the same time. It’s quite an exciting existence to the average teenager. They can’t think of anything more interesting than laying on a comfortable couch in front of a satellite-connected high-definition TV, with their smartphone and X-Box controller on the coffee table, their iPad on the lap, and the computer nearby (just in case). If you think I am exaggerating, just ask a teenager if they think that sounds like a nice way to spend a summer day.

These screens are more like screen-doors or screen-windows than windows to the real world. You can see and hear things to some extent, but the clarity and depth perception is inferior. You are not fully in the world, even though you can hear and see and maybe even feel some of what’s happening out there. These digital doorways are virtual experiences at best.

The best way we can unhook them is not to take away all their screen time and tell them to go read a book. The answer is to get them hooked on something even more interactive and real than what’s on their screen. And what better antidote for digital addiction than fishing, hiking, or hunting?

Jake Hindman, an agent with the Missouri Conservation Department and a true outdoorsman, speaks to adults around the state about how to get kids interested in the outdoors. Here is a summary of his 3-point sermon:

Prepare

Go overboard in prepping for a day on the lake or in the woods. It’s not about you – at all. It’s all about fun and making good memories. You have to set aside your self and focus on the kids. Don’t plan on fishing. Be the guide. Be the entertainer, the host. Make sure you have the bug spray, favorite snacks, fun music for the road trip, and anything else that can make the day special (catching your first fish) and free of problems (bug bites). Bring walkie-talkies, some fireworks, paintball guns, or water balloons. Just make sure that the kids have a good time and are safe. So even if the fishing is a failure, being outdoors can still be a blast. All of that takes fore-thought, shopping, and packing at least a day in advance. In fact, the prep work may take more time and energy than the outdoor adventure itself, but it’s the most important thing of all.

Patience

Don’t push hard. Let the experience flow on its own. Keep your experiences short and sweet. Leave before the kids are tired, hungry, or cranky. “Leave the party while you’re still having fun.” Again, this is not about what you want to do. You are the host. Make sure all the kids are having fun, and in the end, you’ll have a great time too. One great hour outdoors with kids is better than a whole day in which the kids have a few too many bad experiences. Keep it short and sweet.

Praise

Celebrate every little success. Exaggerate your excitement about every little thing that you see as a good. Take the good and make it seem great. Putting a worm on a hook for the first time should get a high five. Catching a fish should get photographed. Retell the events of the day with enthusiasm. Brag about it for days. Put the pictures on the fridge. Etc.

Taking Harry to the Woods

My son invited his buddy Harry to join us on our day trip to the woods. Harry is a hockey player who plays video games, does well in school, and lives a very suburban lifestyle. He had never spent much time in the woods and had never shot a firearm of any kind, so this little trip would be a new experience. From the time we picked him up at his Dad’s house on Saturday morning to the time we arrived in the woods, Harry played with his iPod and said nothing unless directly asked a question. There was no life in Harry until we showed him how to shoot a shotgun safely, and he hit half the clay pigeons thrown for him to destroy in midair. Then he and my son spent a few hours exploring the creek and damming up a few pools of water to sit in on that hot day. On the way home, Harry was energized and wouldn’t stop talking, and his iPod was nowhere to be seen. The boys chatted the whole way home, full of life.

We’ve seen this before. Kids who spend a lot of time in front of screens will be far less social and show much less imagination than those who play in unstructured settings. And when you get them on the lake or in the woods, they warm up to it quickly and come alive.

The key to the day was that I had planned it with the kids in mind. Everything from the time of departure (later than normal) to the order of activities to the snacks and lunch – planned with only the kids in mind. I spent the day teaching, supervising, and running the activities. I gave some ideas about what to do in the creek, but for that time, I let them do their own thing. And we left the woods while we were still having fun, so that the next trip would be anticipated.

The next time we took Harry to the woods, he left his iPod and headphones at home and had a great time from start to finish without a single electronic device. He knew that it was going to be a real-world adventure.

Nature is the antidote to digital addiction / isolation / depression. So, take a kid outdoors, and remember to prepare well, have patience, and offer lots of praise. The kids will grow up well, if they get enough sunshine, fresh air, and all things natural.

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“How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes – our daily lives.” – Richard Louv


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