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UP CLOSE & PERSONAL: Simple tips to inspire tech-savvy kids to experience nature


Nature HuntersParents remember childhood as a time when they ran around outside making up games with friends, but passing on a love of the great outdoors to your kids can be difficult to do when it seems like you are always busy.

Today’s generation of children are more likely to be found sitting with their faces glued to a laptop, tablet or phone screen than running around outside. While these devices can be necessary for getting homework done and provide opportunities for independent learning and fun, a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior found that sixth-graders who went five days without exposure to technology were significantly better at reading human emotions than kids who had regular access to phones, televisions and computers. Other research suggests that screen time can have a negative effect on kids, ranging from childhood obesity and irregular sleep patterns to social and/or behavioral issues.

According to the Camping & Education Foundation [www.campingedu.org], summer camps help kids to unplug and jumpstart their independence, self-worth, and social and other life skills. This spring, as kids prepare and anticipate summer camp, parents can mimic the camp experience at home by following these simple tips:

Get children outside as much as possible. This may include doing the following: sitting outside at restaurants, walking to destinations, planning family hikes on nearby trails or taking advantage of the area’s municipal, county and state parks.

Shaw Reserve 2Point out the beauty of nature. When outside with children, point out all the great things that can be found in nature. By showing them things such as weird plants or cool-looking birds, parents engage kids and inspire them to learn more about the natural world. Ranger-led walks in county parks and docent talks at places like the zoo can be a door to discovery.

Read books on the great outdoors. Reading truly is fundamental and when nature is incorporated it’s a double win. Going outdoors for a read-aloud or book club session offers more than just a change of scene; when reading a nature-inspired book it can provide the perfect living laboratory, where kids can try out what they have learned.

Kick the kids out of the house. Kids today often want to play indoors where the electronics are, saying “there’s nothing to do outside.” But once outdoors – and with the freedom to roam around within age-appropriate boundaries – kids soon find that there’s plenty to explore and ways to stretch their imaginations.

Get help from an expert. When kids reach a certain age, parents just are not cool anymore. Rather than trying to explain the perks of nature themselves, parents can enlist the help of an expert at a local park, the arboretum [Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit] or zoo. Giving a child the opportunity to learn about the uniqueness and weirdness of nature from a park ranger or zoologist is a gift.

Discover their interests. A child who likes Minecraft might be interested in learning more about architecture and building techniques, or farming. Translating small screen interests into the wide world can help to keep both parents and kids happy.

Make an appointment with Mother Nature. Soccer and gymnastics practice, mom’s night out, school festivals and friends’ birthday parties all make it on the family calendar, why not make a date with Mother Nature as well? Families that block out time in their busy schedules are more likely to follow through on spending time outside. When hiking, take a camera, but not your phone. Or take a sketch pad into the great outdoors as John James Audubon did.

Plan a nature craft. Found objects like leaves, pinecones, twigs, nuts, shells and pebbles make great crafts items. Kids can use the found treasures to build a birdhouse, decorate a picture frame, make a wreath and so much more.

Create a scavenger hunt. Set parameters on where the assembled kids can go to find the items on their list. Then, break them into teams and send them out to race to complete their lists first.

Organize a kid-friendly extreme nature race. In this team-based competition, each child must complete a task to help the team finish the challenge and move on to the next one. Parents can get creative with the challenges, but one rule must apply: nature has to play a role.

Plan a family camping trip. Spending a few days and nights in the outdoors can actually be simple to plan, even if your family isn’t an outdoorsy bunch. Some retailers rent camping equipment and for families that don’t want to sleep on the ground, renting an RV costs about as much as a hotel stay. It helps to keep things simple the first time out. Try packing sandwiches or a meal that can be eaten cold like pasta salad and tackle cooking on a future trip.

Although at first glance, kids might declare their preference for tech and tech alone, a few well-planned days in the great outdoors just might have them singing a new tune just in time for summer camp.

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