by Meredith Flory

My family just returned from a road trip where we visited our eighth National Park.  As I survey the pictures and think about the joy that these three days brought us, I recognize that the ability to travel and explore different regions in the United States is an opportunity not everyone has.  Over the past year I’ve thought a lot about how any parent can create experiences to help develop a love of the outdoors in their child.  My reading list and books for our family in this past year focus on getting the most of time spent outdoors— whether it’s jumping through backyard puddles or hiking at a park.  So, as we move into spring, I want to share what I’ve learned from those resources and encourage you and your family to get outside.

Acknowledge your fears
Do you have personal outdoor hang-ups?  Maybe you encourage your children to go outside and play, but for some reason, you are unable to set an example. Personal insecurities can discourage our children. Our family went tent camping for the first time this summer. I grew up in a family that camped, but my husband grew up going on RV road trips.  He complained about every little rock in his back so much that we called him Princess and the Pea!  It was not for him. But, we both understand that camping is a wonderful way for children to develop skill sets. We created a plan.  I chaperoned for deep nature trips like the Girl Scouts with our daughter. But, the next time we went as a family we found a “glamping site” where our tent structure had beds.  We still enjoyed the night sky and used a lot of camping skills.  Although I am terrified of snakes, I was blessed with a child that is fascinated by them.  I don’t want to keep him from exploring his interests because of my fear. So, we read snake books together and talk about snake safety in the outdoors.  When hiking with grandparents in the Gila National Forest, he asked Mimi for a snake guide from the visitor’s center.  We saw a snake, and he talked to the Park Ranger about what it was, assuring me— who was very far away— that it was not venomous.  As adults, it’s not too late to learn a new skill or develop an interest.  Maybe you never learned to swim and your children are begging you to get in the water with them. Consider lessons! Maybe you never tried camping or hiking, but your child wants to explore the woods.  Find ways to explore together— there are many trails for beginners at state and national parks, including some ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) accessible routes.

Allow Unstructured Play Outdoors
Many children experience the outdoors through sports or family vacations, but they may not have time to sit in nature to create, explore or even be bored on their own.  Structuring too much of children’s play is a well-documented problem.  This year I read There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (from Friluftsliv to Hygge) by Linda Åkeson McGurk, which is full of information on the benefits of getting your family outdoors.  We give our children firm boundaries for safety, but within those boundaries we have worked on being more patient with messes, risk-taking and silliness. I moved an old play kitchen to our backyard with simple toy dishes bought at Ikea and now my kids bake mud pies and conduct science experiments in the yard.  We allow them to take part in deciding which trails to do at parks, and on our most recent trip, my husband and I had to remind each other that it was easy to let them take off their shoes and socks in the car, or even change clothes, when they found a very muddy spot to play along the river. 

Add Nature Guides to Your Home Library
Recently, I started purchasing junior flora and fauna guides to have more awareness of the natural elements in the wild.  Looking at different plants and animals and recording what we see at parks, backyards or zoos has become a great family connection.  I have younger children who are not writing yet, so we found a Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book that has 48 common birds that children get to place a sticker on when they find it.  For plants, we purchased the Arbor Day Foundation’s What Tree is That?  National Geographic has an excellent line of books with “Ultimate” in each title that focuses on a type of animal.  If you plan a trip to National Parks, consider purchasing a passport book that allows you to stamp each park you visit.  Children are learning not only about nature, but how to use reference books to develop their observational skills. 

Watch a Documentary on Family Movie Night
Okay, here’s where you get to enjoy nature from the comfort of your couch with a bowl of popcorn.  A while back while researching an article, I read about the “David Attenborough Affect” which recognizes that millennials who grew up watching his nature documentaries in school or at home are now more environmentally conscious.  If you enjoy a good family movie on the weekend, look for one of the many great ones available on Netflix, Disney+ or at your local library.  Let different family members chose documentaries about their favorite animal or travel destination. While my son always picks reptile or ocean documentaries, my daughter loves Bear Gryll’s show on Netflix, You vs. Wild which is a “choose your adventure” interactive show about survival skills. 

Take Advantage of Local Resources
Georgia offers excellent opportunities to explore its greenspaces and hiking trails. We love Reed Creek Nature Park and Interpretive Center in Martinez which has a walking path, but also offers classes and events.  Savannah Rapids has easy hiking paths and opportunities for biking or kayaking for the more adventurous. North Augusta Greeneway Park and the Augusta River Walk provide walking trails perfect for a spring Sunday afternoon. Play Pokemon Go, print out a nature scavenger hunt, or take selfies by the river— whatever makes the walk appealing to your family. It is the great outdoors!

This article appears in the May/June 2020 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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