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By:  J.A. Mortenson





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Children Learn Through Nature

Do you remember when you were a child? Your parents would tell you everyday not to get dirty while you were playing outside? My mom used to tell me not to touch slimy critters, pick up dead animals, “and for Pete’s sake stay out of the puddles!” The importance was on getting a good education from school, not the outdoors. My dad would sit in his Lazy-Boy recliner with his feet up comfortably, staring blankly at the muted television set, while I sat at the kitchen table doing my homework. “Study hard or you won’t get anywhere in life,” my dad would say in his authoritative voice. “Sure dad,” I would say under my breath, then go outside while there was still daylight.

Although I pacified my dad with good grades, he wasn’t very attentive to my love for the outdoors, not to mention the educational aspects the world around us has to offer. As a matter of fact, he would get pretty upset when I came home with strange looking bugs or garter snakes (harmless creatures). He would disturbingly awaken from his comfort zone, in his Lazy-Boy, to tell me to get those things out of the house and wash my hands. “Don’t ever pick those disease-infected creatures up again!” he would screech, while my mom stood on the kitchen chair with a garbage bag ready to dispose of my interesting specimens.

Today, my house is different. My two boys love to learn by touching, feeling and observing everything from ants to poison ivy. Exploring what nature has to offer a young curious mind, will without a doubt, teach respect, love, and knowledge of the world around us including animals, insects, and reptiles.

All children, by nature, love to learn; it’s exciting, fun, and adventurous. That is what I have always shared with my children, my love and excitement for the world around me, and learning something new every day from nature‘s school-house.

Children learn by example. They look up to us and mirror our beliefs and values. So don’t just tell your children how much fun learning can be, show them! Participate in your child’s exploration of the world. Look through the eyes of your six-year-old for the first time as he discovers how a spider makes a web, or how a caterpillar needs to go through various stages in order to become a beautiful butterfly. Become curious in your own nature and ask open-ended questions for your child to think about such as “wow! How do you think spiders can make those tiny fibers?” Or “do you think an ant colony has communities like humans?” Asking these kinds of questions can help your child develop a pattern of thinking critical to his development.

Here are some great ways to get children involved in exploring nature the fun way:

  • Take a Hike - not just any hike, a nature exploration walk. Pack a lunch with plenty of water and hit the trail.

    • Bring a tree-identifying book with you and see how many trees and leaves you and the children can identify. This is great for children of any age. 

    • Bring a sack or a bag and fill it with lots of leaves. During your picnic, see if the children can match the leaves with the picture in the book, then identify the tree.

    • Bring the leaves home and have the children place a few under a thin sheet of white paper, then, with the edge of a crayon, color over the leaves. Kids love how the veins and the details of the leaves really show through the paper.


  • Collect Bugs - Yep, you read it right. Collect lots of bugs in a bug container or catcher. You can purchase a bug catcher very cheaply at a discount store, or you can make your own from a large jar with holes punched into the lid (we don’t want to suffocate these little critters). Some children (okay, not all) love to pick up various insects and creepy crawlers. You can checkout a book on insects and snakes from your local library, or go on-line and research what bugs you have caught. Children love to identify critters and find out what they like to eat and how they are good for our environment.

    • Go out in your yard, or go to a park with your bug catcher or container. Have the children collect caterpillars, inch worms, grubs, spiders, and yes, even garter snakes if your lucky enough to spot one (you will want to familiarize yourself with poisonous snakes and spiders in your area, safety comes first).

    • Bring your critters home (outside the house might work well). Have one child pick a bug to identify first, then flip though the pages to find out what it is. Have an older child read (or you, if you happen to be the oldest child in the group) and tell the others all about your friendly critter and its home.

    • Okay, time to let the critters free! (And yes, my dad was right, washing your hands would be a good idea).


  • Create a kid friendly garden - Children love to get dirty, right? Well, what better way to get your knees dirty than planting a garden? My eight year old son, at the time, loved this project (he is now eleven and loves his friends more). I took my son to the gardening store and he chose sunflowers for our gardening project. After reading the back of dozen seed packets, you get the idea of what may grow in your area the easiest. My son did most of the work, he was excited to measure each hole and plant each seed accordingly. When he was done watering the seeds, we sat in the soon-to-be sunflower garden and drank tea while looking at a book on how beautiful these flowers will be when they come up.

    • Choose seeds with your child and make sure they are hardy. Also, make sure you are planting them at the appropriate time of year (this information is on the back of every seed packet).

    • Begin digging! Let your child have the privilege of getting dirty (I don’t think he or she will complain about that). A tablespoon works just as well as a garden shovel if you don’t have one.

    • Once you have dug the holes, place the seeds in and cover them with dirt. Water gently; you don’t want to flood your seeds out of the hole.

    • Now, relax and wait for your lovely flowers to grow! I have found that through nature, children and adults can learn amazing things. It is not always what you learn, but the process you go through in learning it.

“Open the eyes of our children and let them see the beauty before them, untainted” - J.A. Mortenson




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