Recently the UN issued a 525-page document outlining in depth the environmental status, and the projected future, of our planet. It’s pretty grim stuff. It would seem that entire interconnected ecosystems are on the verge of collapse, and unless humans change the way we go about the business of living, the whole house of cards could soon come crumbling down upon us. I won’t go into the political, economic, and social reasons why news that “abrupt and possibly irreversible changes to the life-support functions of the planet are likely to occur, with significant adverse implications for human well-being” ended up buried in the back pages of most newpapers’ environmental sections, but the imminent destruction of the planet kind of seems like front-page news to me.
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds,” wrote the eminent scientist, environmentalist and author Aldo Leopold, and indeed when we look around us at this world’s wounds it’s easy to become despondent, to feel helpless, hopeless. We reduce, we reuse, we recycle, but then we read about overfishing and fracking and shark finning and mountaintop removal and the Maldives becoming another Atlantis and we begin to despair.
Well, besides being as environmentally conscientious as possible, one of the most important acts we can do as parents is to instill a sense of wonder, of curiosity, of guardianship of the natural world in our children. There are many, many ways to accomplish this, but I’m going to outline just a few simple outdoor activities that are both fun and educational. These come from a slim volume called “Sharing Nature with Children” that I picked up at a used book store, and it has some wonderful ideas and projects.
First of all, get your kids outside. You don’t have to go to Yosemite or explore the Amazon basin or trek the Himalayas – your backyard or a local park are good places to start.
- Take a blind walk: In pairs (older kids can lead each other, but for younger kids an adult leader is better), blindfold one of the children (sleep masks work great, but I’ve found that old neckties can be just as good) and guide him or her along an interesting route, stopping to have the blind child touch objects and bringing them within range of sounds and smells. Take them across a bridge, into a stream, through a thicket of ferns. When sight has been eliminated, the kids become more attuned to less obvious aspects of the world around them.
- Touch a tree: In a forested area, tell the kids you’re going to blindfold them and lead them to a tree, which they should explore as much as possible. At the tree, prompt them with specific suggestions – Feel the bark. Is it rough or smooth? Can you get your arms around the tree? Is there moss on it? Is the tree still alive? Can you hear any birds or insects in it? When they’ve finished exploring the tree, lead them by a circuitous route back to where you started, remove the blindfolds, and have them try to find ‘their’ tree. Where once there was just a forest, now there is a collection of distinct, individual trees, each with their own very different characteristics.
- Walk a blindfold trail: Go out ahead of time with a long length of rope, and set up a path that the kids can follow by holding onto the rope. Keep in mind that they should always walk on one side of the rope, and try to vary the terrain and habitats as much as possible. You can also make a knot in the rope or tie a rag to it to indicate that the hikers should stop and explore an interesting smell or object nearby. Blindfold the kids, and before you set off give them a few things to hold and examine with their fingers in order to get them in the mode. After they’ve finished the trail, take off their blindfolds and have them retrace their steps with open eyes.
- Camouflage trail: Like the blindfold trail, this activity requires some setup on your part. Take a short section of trail – fifty feet is usually plenty – and place 10-15 man made objects along it. Some should be easy to find – a shiny CD dangling from a tree branch – but some should blend in with their surroundings – a small brown paper bag half-obscured by dead leaves, for example. Have them walk the trail, counting but not picking up the objects. When they’ve finished, they should whisper the number of things they’ve found in your ear. If they haven’t spotted all of them, tell the whole group the number of objects, and set them off again to find them. When they’ve finished, ask the children about animals that use camouflage, and how cryptic coloration helps them. Then go on a search for camouflaged animals – chances are they’ll mostly be insects and spiders, but depending where you are you may spot frogs, lizards, birds, or other animals.
- Take a micro-hike: This is something that’s easily done in your own yard or local park. Take lengths of string – one for each child – anywhere from 3 to 6 feet long and lay them out in promising-looking areas. Give each child a magnifying glass (Backyard Safari makes super-cool gear for kids, including large plastic magnifying glasses), have them get on their bellies, and tell them that they are going to ‘hike’ the length of the string. You’ll be amazed by how absorbed the kids become in this miniature world, finding brightly-colored beetles, seeing pollen-covered bees visiting flowers, spotting freaky-looking spiders. As a follow-up with older kids, you could watch the marvelous French documentary ‘Microcosmos.” (And as long as you have those magnifying glasses, you can show them how to use them to concentrate the sun’s rays to ignite dry leaves, because that’s something that’s really cool and fun and reasonably safe under adult supervision.)
“I cannot stand the thought of leaving my children with a degraded earth and a diminished future.” Well, Mr. Gore, neither can I, but it seems that most of the larger issues are out of my hands. I don’t get invited to Earth Summits (and those who do can’t seem to get much done either), I can’t propose a magic alternative to fossil fuels, and I can’t stop the world from having lots and lots of babies. One of the things I can do, though, is get my kids engaged and involved in the natural world. Will it be enough? Almost certainly not, but it’s the least I can do, and it’s a start.