Getting Kids to Pay Attention to the Outdoors

Jul 29, 2019

Getting kids to shift their attention to the outdoors can be a challenge, even on a beautiful summer day.

In this week's episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist talks about his own efforts as a father to help keep children connected to nature.

Recently my family took a trip to Portland Oregon, a weird and wonderful place. The boys did not enjoy the big city experience; if you ask them what their favorite parts of the trip would have been, they probably would have focused on what we now refer to as ecotourism--being in nature and seeing the sights that northern Oregon and southern Washington had to offer in terms of geography, water, and natural resources. They loved the drive to Mount Hood, the highlight of which was taking a chilly walk at timberline. As we drove back down the mountain, we stopped at a couple of small waterfalls formed by melting snow careening down the rocks.

Another day we drove to Mount St. Helens, which was the focus of the world’s attention for several long months when I was young. I was blown away, if you will excuse the pun, by standing on the edge of the blast zone. My boys enjoyed the view and the experience, but didn’t appreciate the gravity of the whole volcanic eruption back in the early ‘80s. The kids were impressed, but no more impressed than they have been by any other of the natural wonders we have shared with them since they have become old enough to travel and remember the sights.

Back at home, we are trying to fit in all the summer activities we usually pursue, between the heat, the storms, and the bugs. We swam, boated, fished, and we went for walks in the woods to check on the berry crop. These outings served several purposes. They kept the boys out of the house, getting them away from the video game systems and all but the smallest and most portable of electronic devices. They get some fresh air and exercise. But most importantly, it gave the boys a chance to explore nature, and gave me a chance to spend time exploring it with them. And although the boys truly enjoy seeing natural wonders across the country and Canada, they duly appreciate the beauty and nature surrounding us here in the Northwoods.

When I take my boys afield, I encourage them to explore. I keep them in range, but I give them a little space. I let them touch the stuff on the ground before I tell them it’s deer poop (that only works once, by the way). Their senses are sharp, but uneducated, so when they experience a different smell, texture, sensation, you can see by the look on their face that they are processing something new. Pleasant or unpleasant, it still makes an impression. As the years pass, these memories remain, and are renewed with the sights and smells of the woods each summer.

Getting kids out of the house and into the woods is a stressful situation for parents to put themselves in. The kids come back to you with stained clothes, wet socks and shoes, and legs scratched by blackberry and raspberry plants. You have to tend to insect bites, stings, leeches and ticks. You are watching for porcupines, skunks, bears, wolves, anything that moves can cause concern in a given situation. Plants, too—poison ivy and wild parsnip can turn a fun day into a miserable one. It would be so much easier to keep them in the house.

I know there are a lot of activities out there that compete for kids’ time, even in the summer. Try to fit in some unscheduled, unscripted time to explore the Northwoods this summer too. See if they react like my boys do. If so, they will catch frogs, chase tadpoles, and run from crayfish. They will watch, holding their breath, as an osprey hovers way above the water as it looks for its next meal. They will fumble with their phones to try to get a photo of a bear that springs from a berry patch and gallops away. Most importantly, they will share their new experiences with you, and it will remind you of your first experiences in nature—or it will be a shared new experience for both of you.

Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the masked biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.