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Pushing Mum on the Rope Swing

This is an excellent time for parents to use the power of nature and available resources to nurture children into creative, confident, and healthy individuals. Parents exemplifying good stewardship and nature appreciation will see tremendous benefits for themselves and their children’s mental and physical health.

Why Now?

With COVID-19 still looming, children still face uncertainty about the future and the lingering aftereffects of rapid changes in the past year. Researchers that examined the impact COVID-19 has on children, all agree that the pandemic has severely affected the overall physical and mental well-being of children.

This altered environment has resulted in a lack of concentration and increased anxiety and irritability among children. These behaviors may also stem from stress that parents experience as well. For example, decreased social interaction influences the development of a child’s social skills, confidence, and self-esteem. Luckily, researchers have noted that spending more time in nature can lead to an increased ability to focus, improved creativity, decreased levels of stress, enhanced development of confidence and social skills, and other physical and mental health benefits.

Impact of Nature

It is evident that the younger generation is more detached from nature. Children spend more time on digital devices and less time observing the natural world around them. This is a major concern because it means children may not understand environmental issues and are not connecting with the ecosystems in which they live. The basic necessities of life – clean water, air, and food – depend on a healthy environment. It’s important to recognize this principle and the importance of protecting natural resources.

People are also beginning to understand more about the effects of climate change in the United States and the world. As children learn more about this phenomenon, they could become anxious about the planet they are inheriting. Their inability to affect change themselves could lead to disheartenment and a detachment from nature.

The Parents’ Role

As families experience stress and anxiety due to COVID-19, parents want to ensure that children are not severely impacted in the long run. That’s why they are encouraged to model healthy coping strategies.  Healthy coping strategies come in many forms, but one notable and proven strategy is spending time in nature. Studies have shown that spending time outside in nature can make people feel calmer and less irritated. Something as simple as a short walk through a forested park can achieve great benefits.

It is also the parents’ role to acknowledge the climatic changes in weather. Children will inherit what their parents leave behind. Therefore, it’s important that parents help to preserve the environment for future generations. This is a big, but critical responsibility. Contacting your child’s school to ask about recycling and composting programs or working with your child to write letters to elected official on investing in renewable energy are great ways to express concern about environmental issues.

As children learn to explore and connect with nature, this task must not feel like a burden. Instead, parents are encouraged to foster a sense of joy and wonderment, and model respect for nature when spending time outdoors with children. They must practice this positive behavior so they feel pulled rather than pushed into these activities. Parents are also not doing this work alone. Local nature centers, teachers, and community groups, including the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, can be tremendous resources when encouraging children to engage with nature.

Ideas to Engage Children

The possibilities to engage with nature and to nurture stewardship are endless. Following are some activities that parents can use to initiate their children’s curiosity. More ideas will come as families spend more time in nature.

Use Technology

One way to bridge the gap between nature and technology is to use technology. While there is no substitute for the real thing, there are many resources to use when spending time outdoors.

 Two nature apps are: 

  1. iNaturalist, which allows you to upload pictures of plants, animals, insects, etc. and use crowd sourcing to identify what you saw. While sifting through the information, take time to map all the places you have seen and observed in nature. Also, check out Alabama Extension’s iNaturalist training using the Ecofriendly Fridays series.
  2. The Merlin Bird ID by The Cornell Lab allows you to go through a series of steps describing a bird you saw (even if you didn’t snap a photo), and it helps you identify it. It is a great way to learn what birds are in your area and to listen to the various calls and songs they make.

Nature Parks

It isn’t necessary to travel out of the way to state or national parks to get the benefits of experiencing nature. Local, state and national parks can serve as a muse for imagination. It may even be more beneficial to connect to the environment and establish a sense of place by frequently visiting one natural area rather than different places. This way, families can observe the season changes and get to know the finer details of one place that might be missed with occasional visits.

Nature Walks

Parents can also focus on specific aspects of nature. For example, when going for a walk with children, make it a challenge to find as many different colors (in nature) as possible. Parents and children could also try imitating a bird call they both heard. However, make sure activities do not feel like more homework for children. Think about what sparks their enthusiasm, such as challenges, art, or sports. Use these interests to initiate a conversation about the surroundings. Parents can also ask children to come up with at least five questions about what they saw or heard. Research the questions when after returning home if you don’t know the answer.

Biologist Elain Brooks once said, “Humans seldom value what they cannot name.” So, an easy way to facilitate environmental engagement could be to learn something new every week, such as a new tree or animal. Talk about a different aspect of it each day and dedicate it to memory. Reading is also a good way to bring nature into the home when there is no opportunity to do so physically.

Most importantly, parents and their children should do things they find enjoyable. Follow their interests and passions and facilitate the connection while enjoying your time as well.

Extension Environmental Activities

Look for Urban Extension environmental activities on the Alabama Cooperative Extension System website.

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