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Simple ways to Explore Nature with Children and learn to LOVE it

Adjust Your Mindset so You and Your Children can Enjoy Exploring Nature Together

family of four holding hands, smiling and looking at mountains
Tasha Boin Photography

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Henry David Thoreau, 1854

Why is exploring nature with children important?

Today new research on brain science supports Thoreau’s theories! So let’s get outside and help our children enjoy time in nature! As you know if you read my About Me page (you can check it out here), my son is atypical and has sensory differences and anxieties. I noticed that when we were out in nature, not just at a playground, but really out. Away from crowds, in the woods or by a river, just away –he was his best self. I saw his anxiety melt away and joy and creativity shine. He thought, he investigated. He could climb, jump and discover with fewer rules and restrictions. It felt magical to me. So I started researching and we started gravitating to all outside things, we started hiking, camping, visiting state parks. Even our family vacations changed to outdoor adventures!

The secret to exploring nature with children:

It’s not the right gear, or right location…

The secret ingredient is YOU!

Yep, as scary as this might be, it starts with YOU. You have to make the conscious choice to be calm, curious and to BRING THE JOY to outside time. If you are scared, anxious, or uncomfortable during nature exploring your kids will know and they feed off your energy. So who feels calm now?! 

graphic about the secret to exploring nature with kids, collage of photos of family exploring nature

How to start exploring nature with children if you feel worried

Pick a nature location you feel comfortable and start exploring there. If you feel comfortable on your deck, then get a blanket and sit on your deck! It’s ok if thats where you want to start. If you feel comfortable in your backyard, then start there. If you feel comfortable at a local state park, then start there. Just start.  Work up to different adventures as you are ready.  Don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t feel comfortable exploring far into the wilds yet. Every parent feels inadequate at some point in some area, but we learn and grow and try. So start where it feels safe to you, which will make your kids feel safe. Then once you have conquered that take the next step from there. The important part is just start somewhere so you can start connecting with your children and reaping the benefits of nature.

How to prep BEFORE heading out to explore nature:

  1. Nourish you first. You are an important part (arguable THE most important part). Try to have eaten, be as rested as you can and be in clothes that are comfortable, weather appropriate and you don’t mind getting dirty. This all helps you feel comfortable and by taking care of you, you are more able to handle any feelings, anxieties or sillies from you kids. Now some of you are rolling your eyes because this is impossible. Believe me, I know! My main point is just don’t forget yourself as your prepping for nature time.
  2. As needed repeat to yourself the mental state you want: I am calm, I am curious, I am bringing the joy!
  3. Acknowledge your own feelings: I find it helps to acknowledge any difficult feelings to myself “hey i am tired today and I know i am more grumpy because of it, I am going to do my best. I am still so excited I get to spend the day with you!” then do a small thing that helps center you. I just take a minute to plant my feet on the ground, close my eyes and breathe, then I repeat that activity or mental mantra throughout our activities. See my post on how to stay nourished as a parent for more tips
  4. Always accept help from your trusted support system so your own needs are met as much as possible. If you have an option to nap, don’t tough it out…take that nap for all of us!
  5. Remember getting outside is GREAT for your mental health too! It saves me on my tired days.

Four tips to remember while exploring nature:

First: Understand nature time is FREE time. I love structure and routines, in fact, structure for kids and families is vital- SO IS FREEDOM: freedom to think, explore, go your own way, make choices. These are all needed life skills we can build in through nature. Here are the strategies I use.
  1. Let them lead and you follow: good news, you don’t have to be in charge or direct play for once! Give them the space to think and create using their own little brains. If they want to walk in a certain direction then let them, they want to stop and dig, let them. They think of a silly game they want to try, play it with them. It looks like this: Them: “Can I dig in the sand box?” you: “great idea lets do it!”. Them: “Can we follow this path today”, you: “Yes, let’s do it!”
  2. Pause to let them think. If you are walking and they see something or hear something and they pause, let them. Don’t jump in to explain it right away or hurry them along. Allow the pause, allow them the moment to think and allow them the time to wonder. You might be surprised what they can figure out or what their little explanations are. It helps if you plan in enough time so that you are not rushed, and you can actually take your time. I think kids always know when there is a time limit. 
  3. EXPLAIN safety boundaries: again don’t just make a blanket statement: “don’t swim over there!”. Explain the why: “See how the river gets darker over here that means it’s getting deeper, make sure you stay in this part where it’s lighter and shallow. Does that make sense? If you have a question about where it is safe let me know.” Next time you go swimming they might look for and understand what darker water means. My son starts problem solving when we talk about safety boundaries. He will often run and get a stick so he can test how deep the water is before he goes in. Always encourage them to participate!
  4. Practice “stop” and “wait” before you need them to listen right away. You don’t want the or the edge of a river or the top of a mountain to be the place they learn to stop as soon as you ask…yikes! We started practicing this young! As soon as they are able to start going on walks around the block or in the yard you can start. Just say, “Ok we are going to practice waiting, this is important to know how to do when we go on adventures together, it keeps you safe”. Then have them walk, and you say “wait!” and they stop right away. Just practice a few times and praise any time they wait. Once they understand the direction I expect them to be able to listen when I say “wait”. If they forget, dont stress, it’s just time for more practice. If we are out on the trail and I say wait and they don’t stop and wait right away, then we practice right there on the trail. This doesn’t have to involve guilt or a punishment, just practice. “Hey I said wait and I saw your feet keep moving, I need to know you will stop right away when I ask you to wait. I am asking you to wait to make sure you are safe. If I know that you can wait/stop as soon as I ask then you can keep exploring. If that is too hard for you to do right now, that’s ok, but we need to stick together and hold hands right now. Let’s practice”. I then say we need 3 good practices before you can explore again. You can tailor the language so it fits the age of your child. I rarely have a problem with these directions after a few practices. 

5 Easy ways to explore nature with your children TODAY!

  1. A simple nature walk is always our favorite. Go at their pace and enjoy the walk.
  2. You can take it up a notch and do a family hike, again go at their pace and take time to explore along the way. Check out my post on family hiking here, and the best gear for family hiking here.
  3. Visit a state or national park. Often times these parks will have trails, lakes/ponds to explore, and grills for cooking. Many also have playgrounds! You could spend a whole day exploring!
  4. Garden together! Gardening is not just nature time but it is a wonderful opportunity to teach your kids about where food comes from and how things grow. My friend Jamie, from Green Garden Cottage, has a great list of super low-maintenance flowers. In cases, you are like me and don’t have the greenest of thumbs! Check it out here!
  5. Visit any body of water! Kids love running in and out of lakes, rivers, ponds, and the ocean. Even if it is small, it gives them something to think about and experience.
Boy exploring nature, jumping through grass with mountains in background
Tasha Boin Photography

STOP saying “No!”

Stop saying “No!” and don’t assume your kids’ feelings are your own. I have to constantly remind myself this. It’s almost an automatic reaction to yell “no!”.

No, don’t take your shoes off! Don’t sit in the mud! Don’t jump in that puddle! You’ll get wet, you’ll get dirty, you won’t like that!

This does two things we don’t like:

  1. Makes your feelings their feelings (even if they weren’t originally, they will adopt your preferences if you don’t let them have their own).
  2. Stops them from discovering things on their own. I don’t know about you, but things stick in my brain so much better when I discover or figure it out for myself vs when I read the answer or somebody tells me (I forget almost instantly which we can thank the sleep deprivation for).

So instead we are going to give them some autonomy and independence.  And besides, why can’t They take their shoes off and run if they want, why can’t they jump in puddles, why can’t they be dirty and wild. It’s outside, anything goes! Let them try. 

DO talk to them about their choices.

Yes, talk to them about the choices they are making or thinking about, but, DON’T try to sway them. Just state the facts. Example: “you look like you’re about to jump in that puddle. If you pick to do that your shoes and pants will get wet and we aren’t changing until we get back to the car. Is that going to be ok with you?” This might lead to them saying yes and jumping in or saying no. If they say no, ask them what ideas they have and pause to let them think (theres that pause technique). If they don’t think of any (and you’ve actually paused) give some alternate choices and again ask their thoughts: “how about if you took your shoes off so they stay dry? Or what if you walked over here on the dry part?, what do you think?”. This continues to bring them into the activity as an equal important part. Having had these conversations many times, my kids now are thinkers and make meaningful decisions about this.

If they change their mind

Now if they say “yes” jump in the river and get wet and then decide they don’t like it. THAT’S OK. Do NOT make them feel guilty for changing their minds. We are encouraging them to TRY. Sometimes we try things and think “oh, yikes No thanks!”. But, we didn’t know that until we tried. For us it might seem obvious that they may not want to be wet or sandy but for them those are the types of new things they are just discovering. Let’s let them discover and try! Then as they get older they try bigger things like a new sport or hobby or go for a career change because they know trying something new is ok! If you scold them they will be afraid to try next time and miss out on discovering something new for themselves. 

mother and son holding hands running down a path
Tasha Boin Photography

Lastly, remember your goal: connecting with your children while exploring nature. Your goal is not to stay clean, follow a path, go to a certain place or do a certain thing (even if you have planned to). What you do and what you look like does not matter. Your entire purpose is to connect to your kids.

These tips will build trust and allow for your kids to enjoy their time with you. Now in all honesty it might take YOU a little longer to enjoy it. I can’t tell you the number of times my heart jumps into my throat as they do something that feels a little risky, but they are doing it carefully so I just stand at the ready and watch with my anxious mouth closed. Then feel warm all over as they look at me I can see the look-mom-I-did-it joy in their little faces. Those moments we can celebrate together are magic. I promise the more practice you have the more you will grow to enjoy it, and the less scary it will feel. 

When to end the nature exploring: 

When your child is ready! Again, you don’t have to decide this (yahoo, one less decision!), they will tell you or you will see it. I do what I call a distraction prompt 1 or 2 times then we head home. 

A distraction prompt: This is a specific way to alleviate their anxiety and to allow a moment to distract them and engage in the space around them. Here’s how it works: 1. Agree with them, 2. Notice something, 3. Ask an open ended question. Example: “sure we can go whenever you want, hey did you see this tree? It looks so old, I wonder if there are any bugs eating it?”. Or “yes we can leave, wow the river looks fast today, I wonder how fast a leaf would float down it?”. By first agreeing with them you take the stress off that they HAVE to stay, they aren’t in control and you decide the end time…not a fun thought for a toddler. This way, they decide and for kids with anxiety that is HUGE.  

If I do one distractor and it leads to discovery and a little more time then great. If it doesn’t work I try one more time and if that also doesn’t work then the next time they ask I say sure and actually leave. Now if the first or 2nd time does work then start your count over. The one caveat is if it has been a while and YOU are done then just say yes and head on home. Sometimes I’m just done with an adventure. I’ve done all the deep breaths and self talk and I’m ready to have my kids safely buckled in their car seats!

To sum it up

The main idea is you and your kids are on the same team. Bring them into the team and work together! You don’t have to know it all, have it all planned or be perfect. Keep calm, explain anytime you weren’t calm, and work together. And while you’re busy being calm and curious, let them be WILD and FREE!

So now you are ready to LOVE exploring the outdoors with your children! You have the right mindset, you know how to bring your kids into the safety plan, you have the language to engage your kids, and you have an idea about when to head home. It’s time to give it a try!

Comment below with how it goes! Let me know what you learned and what you will try next!

Check out my article on family hiking here if you’re ready to hit some trails!

Other posts to help you nourish your wild souls through family connection

How to become a family team: Here

How to Simplify life so you have more time for connection: Here

Post Disclaimer

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article should be construed as medical advice.  Consult you health care provider for your individual nutritional and medical needs.  The opinions are strictly those of the author and are not necessarily those of any professional group or other individual

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