When I was a kid, the moment my mom fired up the fire-breathing dragon, or “vacuum cleaner” as she called it, that was my cue to head outside and play. Sometimes I explored bug life on my own in the backyard and other times I belonged to a tribe of little bicycle riding, tree climbing, crick piddling hooligans. Supervised play included time spent fishing with my dad, learning about plants from my mom and camping, hiking, canoeing and bird watching with both of them. And to this day, I still hate vacuum cleaners and still love to play outdoors.
Sometime between when I was a kid and now, outdoor play fell out of fashion. Due to a myriad of factors, kids began spending more time at organized sports and activities while unsupervised time became dedicated to TV, video games and social networking.
While those of us in the hunting and fishing industry have been painfully aware of these changes, I’m not sure the rest of the world was until Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” gave it a name, nature-deficit disorder.
That book became a turning point in our collective social consciousness. Today, there’s a profusion of organized activities and events offered by state and local parks and nature centers. You and your children can experience everything from touring a wetland to identifying owls on a night hike.
However, some parents, such as Connecticut mom Jodi Valenta, enjoy taking the “home school” approach to introducing their children to nature. Not only is Jodi taking nature education into her own hands, she’s also sharing advice, activities and experiences in her new blog, Kids Discover Nature.
Jodi, who has a five-year old daughter and two-year-old son, relies on more than her maternal instincts when it comes to connecting kids with nature. She received her master’s degree from the University of Florida in wildlife ecology. And during her tenure as a director at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, she encouraged people to get outdoors via their Step Outside Program and helped break down barriers for young hunters through Families Afield.
After Jodi left her professional career to start a consulting firm, she felt the tug of wanting to do something creative as well as give parents the tools and resources they needed to raise children who love the outdoors.
“It is well-documented that children do not spend nearly enough time enjoying free play in the outdoors and are missing out on a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. They receive many benefits from exploring and playing in the natural world such as relaxation, creativity, imagination building, exercise and more,” Jodi said. “For 14 years, my professional career was devoted to fish and wildlife ecology and conservation. Now, as a blogger, entrepreneur and mom, my goal is to pass my knowledge and love of nature onto my children and others. Through my blog, I hope to inspire parents and caregivers to tell their kids to “go play outside” and provide useful tips and fun ideas to help them motivate their children to head outdoors and simply enjoy nature.”
I asked Jodi when she thought parents should begin introducing their kids to the outdoors.
“My children enjoyed being outdoors when they were newborns,” Jodi said. “We would take them for walks in their stroller so they could look at the trees and hear nature sounds. When they were fussy, we’d take walks because it would calm them down so they could fall asleep. It’s important to start getting outdoors early.”
Jodi stressed that it’s important to make outdoor play a regular part of your child’s life. By offering fun activities and giving yourself permission to play, your kids will look forward to it as a normal part of their day. You’ll have a good time, and so will your children.
The outdoor activities you plan for your kids don’t need to be complicated either.
“For toddlers, simple activities such as puddle jumping, cloud watching, exploring the backyard or identifying nature sounds are ideal,” Jodi said. “You don’t need special equipment, just your time.”
She also recommends projects such as pressing flowers, throwing and kicking a ball in the grass or creating a special place in the backyard such as a fort or fairy garden. With older kids, you can hike on local nature trails, picnic in the park or identify plants or birds.
“The important thing to remember is make a plan, but allow for deviations. It’s fun to have the freedom to explore.”
A few weeks ago through her blog, Jodi launched the 30-day outdoor challenge.
“Since summer officially has begun, I thought it would be fun to do an online, community-wide promotion to get kids outside every day for a month,” Jodi said.” “Over the next 30 days, I will be providing activity ideas. Some will be my own, but I also plan to include ideas from my favorite blogs, Web sites and books.”
Even if it rains, Jodi said that shouldn’t put a stop to the fun. Instead, put on rain boots and coats and join your children in discovering how the backyard looks different on a rainy day versus a sunny one. For example, you’re more likely to see earthworms when it’s rainy, which can lead to another activity - starting a worm farm. Or turn over rocks with your kids to examine the bugs underneath.
Because Jodi’s blog is a community environment, she hopes readers give her feedback, provide reports of their activities and share ideas.
I recommend learning how you can get involved in the 30-day outdoor challenge by visiting Jodi’s blog at www.kidsdiscovernature.com. You can also catch up with her on Twitter @KidsDscvrNature.