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Practical ways to connect children to nature

By Cathy Jordan

More and more parents, health care providers, and educators, in both formal and informal settings, are recognizing the value of connecting children to nature. It's good for their physical and mental health and academic success.  It's also good for the planet - children with meaningful, frequent nature-based experiences develop attachments to nature that lead to a desire to take care of the environment.

The question is: How can we best provide these nature-based experiences? The answer depends on the age of the child and the benefits you desire.

There has been more practical guidance for connecting young children to the natural world than older children. Early Childhood Activities for a Greener Earth and Connecting Animals and Children in Early Childhood (Selly) and Wilson’s Nature and Young Children are just a few examples of engaging popular books offering strategies for parents and educators of young children.  Another, Vitamin N, was written by Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods, which 10 years ago launched a vibrant movement to reconnect children to nature. Providing 500 activities for children of all ages and adults, as well as essays and resources, Vitamin N is one of the most comprehensive resources for any age.

To support connecting older children to nature, here are some suggestions for the young teen to young adult, inspired by Vitamin N. I've embellished these ideas with information about ways that these activities align with some of the developmental “work” children are tackling during this stage of development. Throughout adolescence youth are changing rapidly in the physical, cognitive, emotional and social realms.

Some important developmental tasks during this stage include:
  • Accepting and understanding one’s body and keeping it healthy
  • Engaging in more complex and abstract thought
  • Becoming more self-sufficient
  • Exploring academic and vocational interests
  • Clarifying values to guide behavior, and becoming socially responsible
  • Strengthening sense of identity
  • Developing stable and productive peer relationships

Some specific activities for teens, and the developmental benefits they afford:
  1. Design, build and tend to a vegetable garden: Requires creativity and problem solving, physical activity, stress reduction and offers a source of nutrition. 
  2. Embark on a wilderness adventure: A multi-day to multi-week canoeing or backpacking trip can develop outdoor skills, form bonds with a peers, offer leadership roles, experience a deep connection to nature, restore attention and emotional function and test physical skills and emotional resilience.
  3. Build a treehouse or fort: Apply design and engineering thinking and skills, negotiate roles and collaborate with a small group. 
  4. River clean-up: Youth learn about the impact of human activity on a river and its plant and wildlife, develop a sense of responsibility for protecting the environment while working in a small or large group.
Broadly speaking, nature-based activities for the teen should provide some combination of the following: social interaction, exploration and appropriate risk-taking, opportunities for complex thinking and problem-solving, physical activity and challenge, emotional and spiritual connection to the natural world, and the opportunity to practice environmental stewardship. Parents, educators and youth workers can offer these and many other nature-based learning and recreational activities that facilitate youth development. What activities might you try to engage teens with nature?

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  1. Hello Cathy,

    Thank you for your blog. We need lots of folk like yourself encouraging more youth into nature.

    In Scouting we use many types of activities to engage teens in nature. It varies a lot from group to group and individual to individual and there are many resources all over the web for these activities.

    However, in my Nature Smart Kids programs, some of the activities I have seen that young teens seem to enjoy most, include:

    1. Building a forest/bush obstacle course, only using local natural materials with rope and axes. This can take a half day to full weekend (or even more). Then we set up individual/group competitions, sometimes across different courses built by different groups. A lot of fun for teens.

    2. Building a camp village in the forest somewhere near a river/stream, including; sleeping shelters, camp beds, kitchen shelters, food storage shelters, eating areas, first aid areas, lounge/chill-out zones, etc etc. They need timber, sticks, branches, leaves, rope, axes/knives and (maybe) cloth (old sheets).

    3. Conduct a rescue mission for a friend or two who have been injured in the forest/bush. They build rescue stretchers out of sticks/ropes, navigate their way into a location, provide emergency first aid, plan and execute their exit (using stretchers). This can take up a whole day. Once we even incorporated rural ambulance and remote helicopter rescue.

    4. We also get groups to set up hidden treasures in the forest and then design codes and/or trail signs that other groups have to decipher to navigate their away along hidden/secret trails. Sometimes there are point systems to earn or lose points for reaching check points or missing a danger/trap along the way. Easily a half to full day activity. They love making it hard and getting creative with their codes, signs and secret trails.

    5. Finally, building bridges or ladders to overcome a major obstacle (river, gully or rock wall, etc). Again, sometimes helpful to set up as a game or competition with timber/sticks and rope. Hours of fun.

    I have fond memories of Minnesota... I am Australian, although worked at F-UMC (hospital) for a couple of years.

    Regards, Michael
    Founder / Clinic Leader


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