Before you think I’ve got this whole thing figured out, let me just paint a picture for you.
About a year ago, we set out with a friend on one of our very first nature walks at a local trail.
“It’ll be fun!” we said.
Three minutes into our walk, my littlest one (who was two at the time) started clinging to my leg and asking for “uppie.”
“Uppie, mommy. Uppie! I want uppie! UPPIEEEEEEE!”
I didn’t have a hiking pack, my back was sore and I was not about to carry my two year old the entire time, so I said no. He cried and fussed for the remainder of the walk. The rest of the kids were hungry and thirsty. It was so windy, it was hard for the little ones to stand up straight.
It was basically a disaster.
I say all this to say – our nature walks are not perfect and wonderful every time. Some days, there’s a lot of fussing. Some days there are self-inflicted injuries every five minutes. Some days mom forgets to pack snacks and water and sunscreen.
You win some, you lose some.
That being said, here’s what I’ve learned over the past year to increase the likelihood of having a successful nature walk with little ones, and make sweet memories.
This is probably the most important thing you can do to set you and your kids up for success. Tell them what the general plan is, what they are likely to encounter and what you expect from them – BEFORE you even get out of the car.
Are there hazards off the trail? Make sure they understand to stay on the trail at all times. Is it going to be muddy? Tell them beforehand whether they’re aloud to play in it or if they need to keep out. Is there going to be water? Can they play in it? How far can they wander from you? Are we going with friends who are a little slower-paced? When is lunch or snack time going to happen? Are we going to be observing a particular tree species, bird, reptile, etc.?
I find if children know the boundaries ahead of time things go more smoothly and there is much more freedom to play and explore.
Be “Just Prepared Enough”
I’m so helpful, aren’t I? 😉
Here’s my problem with adventuring with little ones – they need a lot of stuff but don’t want to carry any of it. So my job is to figure out the essentials and leave the rest.
For our family, essentials include food – either snacks or a light lunch – (because hungry kids are grumpy kids), water (we often share a big water bottle), sun hats or winter hats/gloves, small buckets for them to carry for collecting “treasures,” (I got tired of stuffing my pockets with acorns, rocks, etc.), a portable magnifying glass and our nature study supplies if we are going to study our curriculum on the trail.
One backpack for mama and that’s it.
When J Bear was really small, I brought my hiking carrier, which had a little pouch for other items. That way when he was tired of walking, I could stick him in the pack and still have my hands free. The hiking carrier was SO much easier than trying to navigate a stroller, or carry him on my hip.
Don’t Try to Set a “Destination”
Take some time right now to go ahead and lower your expectations. Lower. Lower…. keep going. 😉
Maybe it’s just my kids, but walking a quarter of a mile can take an hour.
Stop to pick up a rock. Stop to splash in a mud puddle. Sit down and draw in the dirt for a bit. Lean over the bridge and throw leaves in the river for 47 minutes.
For little ones, nature walks are about experiencing nature. Seeing all of the little bits and pieces. Hearing the sounds. Smelling all the smells. Watching the bubbles in the creek. Chasing the ants around with a stick. They want to fully immerse themselves in every. little. thing.
I think they might be on to something…
So try and choose a spot that has room for them to roam and explore without needing to actually “arrive” somewhere. There will be a season for accomplishing things, like hiking to the summit, but don’t hold high expectations when they are little.
To them, the little things ARE the destination. You may spend two hours on a trail and not really get anywhere. Embrace it. Learn from their curiosity and wonder.
Don’t Force Learning, But Make Space For It
We started following a wonderful nature study curriculum (Exploring Nature With Children), which is pretty easy to incorporate into our Friday nature outings. I’ll usually bring a printout of the lesson (it’s typically a page or two), our little nature journals , a few colored pencils and another resource when appropriate – like a field guide or our bird identification guide, something like that.
Sometimes we’ll see something along our journey that sparks interest and leads into the nature study for the day. I’ll read the lesson while they are exploring and maybe later we’ll find a spot to draw in our journals about what we’ve found. (Nature journaling post coming soon!)
Just having these things handy allows us to seize the learning opportunity when it arrives. Sometimes, it never arrives. Sometimes we are all too busy splashing in the river and building a dam to do a lesson on bees. And that’s okay. At least for us, following the spark of interest, rather than trying to force learning when they are engaged in something else, sets us up for a much better experience.
Try to Loosen Up a Bit
I’m preaching to the choir here.
I tend to cringe when my kids slosh through the mud, spread sap in their hair, pick up spiders, etc. etc. (Ahem, boys.)
Recovering helicopter parent, here.
I try to let them explore as much as possible without saying things like, “be careful!” or “don’t climb on that!” or “don’t touch that!”
It’s really hard to walk that tension between keeping them safe and letting them be wild and free. I mean, how can you really, fully enjoy playing in nature when your mom is firing off warnings every five minutes? I know I wouldn’t enjoy it.
So take a deep breath. Try to really, fully consider what the consequences might be. If they fall and get a scrape? Not the end of the world. Most kids tend to be more careful and aware of danger when they are playing outside, in natural surroundings. Try to let go and let them be little.
Lastly, Just Do It.
There are a lot of really important things us homeschooling mamas have to fit into the school week. It’s easy to push things like nature walks and nature study to the bottom of the list because they are so NOT measurable.
I totally get it.
(Sort of. I have a kindergartner and a preschooler so our actual “school” time is pretty short.)
But can I just say this? When our kids are little, what do they really need? I’m talking three, four, five, even six years old.
Do they really need to be spending hours on math worksheets? Do they really need to have perfect handwriting? Spell all the words?
I know all of us mamas have differing opinions on this – but here’s mine.
One of the major reasons we are homeschooling is so that our boys can have more TIME. We are fiercely protective of their childhood. We want homeschooling to give them more time to run and play outside, climb trees, collect bugs, play in the dirt – all of the things that they were designed, as children, to do.
Yes, they need to learn how to read and write and count. But these little years – they will never get them back. Childhood is fleeting.
So, for us that means playing outside is a priority, right up there with math and reading. It is an essential part of their development. Even if we didn’t finish the lesson plan for the week; even if the house is a pit; even if the weather isn’t great or we’re all feeling a little grumpy…
We try to make it happen.
For the most part, we make nature day a non-negotiable. It’s an appointment on our weekly calendar. If we don’t make it a priority, it’s too easy to let it go.
Do you make it a habit to regularly explore nature with your kids? What have you found helpful?
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