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How to instill a love of nature in kids?

Uploaded: Oct 29, 2023

When I was a kid my family used to downhill ski pretty often. We would be on the mountain for most of the day, shivering on the way up, speeding down, slurping cocoa for lunch, and generally having a ball. It was great exercise and great fun. But despite all that time outdoors, I don’t think skiing did much to instill a love of nature in me. I loved skiing. But if you’d asked me whether to build a new lift, or if we should light a trail at night, I would have said “Yes!” without hesitation. Lawsuits about illegal trails made little sense to me. It’s a ski mountain for crying out loud. Build the trails! More fun for everyone!

I saw nature as a means to an end, as a canvas for skiing. I wasn’t aware of, and didn’t care about, the fact that animals also lived on the mountain or that skiing might not be compatible with a healthy ecosystem. More trails -- good. More snow-making -- good. Faster lifts -- good. More parking -- good.

How much does downhill skiing encourage stewardship of the environment? Image source: FreeRange

And that makes me wonder… If it’s not simply time in the outdoors that builds a love of and respect for nature, then what is it? Does the activity have to be slow? Immersive? Contemplative? Indigenous children have a great respect for nature and learn to nurture it from a young age because their lives traditionally depend on it in numerous evident ways. They get their food, clothing, shelter, and medicine directly from the plants and animals around them, so they want those plants and animals to thrive. They need them to thrive. It is imbued in their culture to care for the environment just as they care for themselves.

But that is not how most of us live today. The animals and plants living in our foothills, forests, and preserves seem superfluous to our existence. That makes it harder for us to instill that same sense of stewardship in the next generation. So how should we do it? I think that summer camps in the woods, or backpacking and camping in the wilderness, can foster a love of nature. When you go for a cool swim in a lake and then lie on a sun-warmed rock, looking up at the trees and the birds, listening to the wind, smelling the pine, and you do that for days on end, it takes root in your soul. You want to protect that place where you spent such quality time.

I also think that hunting and fishing, somewhat ironically, can encourage an understanding of and responsibility for nature. Those activities depend on healthy ecosystems. Skilled hunters and anglers will have a good intuition for the places where they recreate because they spend so much time observing. They may be the first to know when something is amiss with the local fauna and be motivated to fix it. A kid who is taught well to hunt or to fish will learn about ecology and habitat and responsible stewardship.

In our area, organizations like Grassroots Ecology find many ways to encourage a love of nature in kids. Planting and maintenance and watering activities, where kids actively improve the environment, build respect and a sense of ownership. Observational skills are taught through drawing and writing exercises. Kids develop a sense of leadership and stewardship by taking on longer-term projects and giving presentations on topics of particular interest. When a child understands a little more about what they are seeing, when they have contributed to making an ecosystem a little healthier, concern for the environment becomes part of their identity.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because a few days ago I was listening to a board meeting of the Midpeninsula Open Space District (Midpen). Staff was explaining how they go about planning trails, and dozens of mountain bike enthusiasts attended to ask for more and better bike trails in the nature preserves. About two-thirds of Midpen trails are open for cycling, but the speakers -- many of them young racers and their coaches and parents -- said too many of those miles are on gravel roads. They would like to see more single-track open to cyclists. They said roads are less interesting to ride on than narrow and winding trails, they are often less shaded, and they are even less safe, in part because riders go faster on them to keep things interesting. The single-track the speakers have found in Santa Cruz and Truckee is more enjoyable to ride and they’d like to see more of that in our local nature preserves.

A cyclist enjoys a quiet Saturday afternoon ride on the Seven Springs Loop Trail in Midpen’s Fremont Older Open Space Preserve.

One argument that several of the speakers -- both adults and students -- made, and that was echoed by some Midpen board members, is that providing more single-track cycling trails will encourage young riders to care more about the environment. I was wondering about that given my experience with skiing. Will it foster a love of nature and a responsibility for it, or will the kids see our open space more as a canvas for their sport, as was my experience? Are there programs Midpen could offer that would more effectively nurture a lifelong sense of stewardship for the environment? Does trail building, which many riders expressed interest in, fit the bill, or is it too focused on modifying the environment for our own purposes? What about planting trees along trails to provide both shade and habitat, or converting roads to single-track? What if the kids were to help evaluate placement of a new trail by looking for nests and rare plants and counting birds and other animals? What activities would reinforce the mission of these nature preserves and teach the teens about the critical role of biodiversity and the importance of protecting and restoring undisturbed habitat in our preserves?

I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas. I’d also be interested in learning what childhood experiences you had that deepened your love and sense of responsibility for the outdoors. I think for my daughter it was backpacking trips as well as time puttering around in the woods making art sculptures and naming the trees and creeks we saw. For me it was backpacking in the Sierras. What about you?

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Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Oct 29, 2023 at 12:07 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

As a child, my elementary science classes centered around nature study. I remember studying about birds, nests, eggs, about trees, the difference between deciduous and evergreens and why they differed about losing leaves in fall and changing color. I remember studying tides, waves, and beach creatures with field trips to the coast to see rock pools, cliffs and sand hills. I remember having to learn about little creatures that lived locally, bugs, birds and other wildlife. We had a nature table in our classroom and we could bring in things we found, a bird feather, a broken bird egg, a pine cone, seeds from trees, etc. We also learned about weather, types of clouds, rainbows, rain, fog and snow.

Because I was learning about these things in school, I started looking at them and for them when out on family outings. A trip to the beach or a family hike took on different perspective when I knew that I could talk about my finds in school.

I would like to think elementary school classrooms still emphasized nature in science classes.

Posted by SRB, a resident of St. Francis Acres,
on Oct 29, 2023 at 3:05 pm

SRB is a registered user.

Forest kindgergaten schools have exploded during Covid and clearly are here to stay. Definitively a great way to instill that love of nature.

Posted by Michael Austin , a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Oct 29, 2023 at 9:12 pm

Michael Austin is a registered user.

Don't limit yourself to earth.
Go to space.
Log into the NASA website. Scroll Around.
It is loaded with learning resources for kids K through 12.
Adults too.

Posted by Jesj, a resident of Barron Park,
on Oct 30, 2023 at 1:44 pm

Jesj is a registered user.

I agree that WALKING trail allows for a better appreciation of the surrounding nature, rather than zooming along on a bike with the intent to go as fast as possible. Walking/hiking is the natural way and a more enriching way to experience your environment. Also isn't sharing a trail with bikers problematic for both walkers and riders? I have yet to see a biker on a trail slowly riding along a trail.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Oct 30, 2023 at 5:57 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Bystander: What a good memory you have, and what sounds like a great experience in elementary school. You know, I remember learning that stuff, but learning for me was different than caring, and I think I took a lot of things for granted. Good teachers would know how to do more.

@SRB: I agree, the forest kindergarten is a terrific way to instill a love of nature in little kids. But unfortunately it is not typically a public school option, at least in the US. I wish it were!

@Jesj: FWIW I've definitely seen bikers slow down when near pedestrians. They are taught to do that and also to smile and say hi. But some of the speakers did ask for dedicated bike trails to minimize conflicts. One also expressed a wish that pedestrians would take off earbuds, so they could hear better.

Posted by eileen, a resident of another community,
on Oct 30, 2023 at 7:45 pm

eileen is a registered user.

I got my love of nature in college in Vermont. We had a Mountain Club and did a lot of trail maintenance and revegetation. Pl
us I was a biology major. I carried this appreciation of the outdoors as a teacher in the classroom and on field trips. So it is never too late. Being out in nature is my solace still.

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on Oct 31, 2023 at 9:49 am

Alan is a registered user.

I particularly like what Bystander said.

I always appreciated nature to some extent, but what made the biggest difference for me - as an adult - was learning a lot of the plant and animal names, along with some details. When you know what something is named - you notice them. Otherwise, it can all be just a blur. The more I noticed things, the more I was pulled into paying greater and greater attention. Nature becomes more and more complex the closer you look. Realizing how infinitely rich nature is helped me appreciate it better. Besides feeling awed - in a good way, knowing I'd never understand it all - it also helped me feel a part of it all, because I had an inkling of how it worked.

Of course, you can appreciate things without naming them; but this made a big difference for me.

Having a native plant garden also helps, because you can go for a hike and think: "This flower I'm growing in my yard, here it is, surviving without human intervention, because it's in its native habitat, as part of a ecosystem. That's really cool. I have a little piece of this at home."

I was always exposed to this things as a child - in boy scouts, camping with friends - but a bigger shift happened as an adult. That childhood exposure set the stage.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 1, 2023 at 12:54 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

I appreciate these comments that these values can come later, they don't have to be attained in childhood. And exposure when you are a kid can help to set the stage for that. Makes a lot of sense. I also agree, Alan, that it's really fun to see on a hike what is also growing in your yard.

Posted by TripleLMember, a resident of Triple El,
on Nov 4, 2023 at 9:39 am

TripleLMember is a registered user.

The slower one moves, the better the chance to appreciate nature. I've been a life-long hiker and backpacker and thought I appreciate nature as well as anyone. However, it's only after I took up birding that I realized how much I was missing. When one has to stand still and use all senses to notice a bird hiding somewhere, one becomes aware of everything: the foliage, the wind, objects near and far, and anything that moves. The birds are also ambassadors from the wild that live their lives in parallel with us. One doesn't have to travel to a distant wilderness to witness wildlife in our midst.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on Nov 4, 2023 at 10:18 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Triple: I love that thought. My gardener notices things all the time in my garden that I just do not see. I spend so much time outdoors but feel like I am often blind. My dog, like my gardener, is not, and she points things out to me. I think there is an aspect to this of patience that is hard for many of us... Anyway, thanks for the lovely comment.

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