Connecting to Nature as a Family

BY Virginia Bunnell

I am crouched on the ground, carefully studying an animal track.

My husband is wandering off trail looking at trees and not far from him my little man, age 5, climbs a fallen tree, calling out every once in a while for me to watch. We are, as a family, enjoying one of the simplest pleasures on this earth…time in nature.

As a society, we are more connected than at any other time in history. Unfortunately, that connection is to TVs, video games, tablets and phones. This connection takes us away from one of the most important connections: connection to the planet we inhabit, the earth. It wasn’t long ago that people lived by the rhythms of the earth.

They paid attention to her cycles, to the sun and the moon, and they connected their lives to her. In contrast, today we actually have a term for our lack of nature connection – “nature deficit disorder”–coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. Our children spend much less time outside for various reasons and in turn, as a society, we have lost respect and love for the Earth and in some aspects, the love and joy of truly being alive.

Yes, we lead busy lives. We are on the go all the time, but at what cost? If I could promise you a deep awareness about yourself, your family, and the world around you, a joyful experience filled with love, happy, curious children running free and a deep connection to life, what would you say? Would you think I was crazy if I told you this could all be found by spending time in nature with your family?

Children love being outside, it is a magical place filled with some pretty wonderful mysteries. They need time to explore and someone to explore with. As Rachel Carson, a conservationist, has said, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” So, moms and dads, it’s time to fill up those backpacks and get outside!

Getting Ready to Head Out

Although exploring in our own backyards is fun, hitting the trails for a few hours is a great way to expose children, and ourselves, to a different environment offering habitats, animals, and plants we might not normally come in contact with at home. Wherever you decide to head with your family nature adventure–the backyard, a creek, woodland trail or lakeside–the first thing to consider is how to dress and what to bring with you. Check the weather forecast, dress in layers that can be removed as children and adults warm up, and always bring an extra pair of socks, and mitts in the winter. Pack snacks and water, and never leave home without some kind of safety/first aid kit. Ours is pretty simple containing the usual band-aids, antiseptic wipes, gauze, scissors, tweezers, homemade ointments, homemade bug spray, a few homeopathics, and a knife. Depending on the season, we also bring along something for little ones to take a rest in: a sled in the winter and a carrier in the summer. Tucked in the front of our packs is a collection of things we might need to answer questions as we explore. These include field guides for trees, birds, animal tracks and scat, and wild and edible plants, a magnifying glass, binoculars, a camera, a notebook and pencils, and our casting kit. Having these things handy allows us to look up birds, tracks, plants or trees we find. We can draw a quick sketch if we can’t find an answer in the field guides and then do some more research once we get home and if we find an animal track we can take some time to cast it.

At times, we hit the trail with a specific goal. We might be heading out to look for tracks, to search for birds, to find wild foods or to collect flowers and leaves. On some trips to the woods I might create a little scavenger hunt so my little man has something specific to focus on, and other times we just wander with no specific plan and see where the trail takes us. Sometimes I pack an extra camera and as we start our hike I hand it over to my little man who then spends the next few hours capturing nature. It is amazing to see the natural world through his lens when I load the pictures on the computer. Whatever the plan, we always have a great time and leave the trail refreshed and alive.

Be Prepared

The other day I visited a trail with a friend. This was her first time at this particular trail and before we met up she took some time to seek out more information about the trail from its website. When we met at the trailhead she was concerned about a warning on the website stating black bear activity. I reassured her that it was unlikely we would see a bear, and if we did I knew what to do. When we go into nature we have to remember that we are visiting an area that is home to many different living things: animals, trees, plants, aquatic life, and bugs. A certain level of respect is required, the same respect we would show if we were a guest in someone’s home. Wherever you live, be sure to know what animals you might come into contact with and how to handle an encounter should it occur. Become aware of the poisonous plants in your area. In our area poison ivy is a nuisance. Familiarize yourself with these plants so you can identify them, and when in doubt stay away from plants with leaves of three. Teach children to ask before touching or eating plants if they are unsure. Sometimes the littlest creatures can do the most harm. Ticks are showing up in our area and are very common in many parts of the US and Canada. Learn how to protect yourself from them and do tick checks when you get home. None of these things should keep you from enjoying time in nature as a family, but they should create a need for you to do a little research before you head out into the woods. As the Boy Scout motto says: “Be Prepared”.

The Earth as Our Teacher

Our children live in the present, they are eager and excited participants in this journey called Life; they are curious and love to explore, and nature provides the perfect backdrop for their adventures. Spending time in nature teaches us and our children about the world, and more importantly, about our place in this world. We develop a respect and love for the earth that is important for the long-term well being of our planet. We learn to honour the earth, and we discover a deeper connection, not only to her, but also to ourselves and each other.

As a society, we have lost our connection to the earth, but we have the power to reclaim it. Time playing in the backyard, a simple walk in the woods, a day-long adventure on the trails, a camping trip, or a little time gazing at the night sky, all these have the potential to increase our connection. This is a gift we can give our children. Hold their hand, get out there with them, explore, hang out, ask questions, find answers and find so much more than you ever thought you could. The earth gives us many gifts, we just need to open our eyes and hearts, and receive them. Have fun!

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