How to Get the Kids into the Woods

Washington Butterfly Association field trip
Washington Butterfly Association field trip . Photo: Marianne Nance.

“Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).”

― Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

For just about anyone reading this newsletter, hanging out in the natural world probably ranks right up there with breathing. For many of us, the decision to become a forest landowner traces back to childhood experiences of hiking, hunting or camping… or maybe just spending time in a treehouse in the backyard. The research is out there in force showing that we are all better off with nature in our lives, but nowadays kids just aren’t getting enough of it. So what can we do to get our children or grandkids out into the woods more often?

It seems hard to compete with organized sports, busy schedules, and that ever-present screen, but there are a few sure-fire activities that will break down any reluctance. As WSU Extension Forester Emeritus Don Hanley says, “Get them a fishing pole… find a small stream… and stand back!”

We’ve collected some tried-and-true activities from more of our DNR and WSU Extension forestry staff, and hope these stories inspire you. And please, write back to me (Carol Mack cmack@wsu.edu) with your own accounts of kids in the woods to share in future issues.

As a new grandmother I’ve been wondering how old a kid needs to be to begin learning about nature, and Jim Freed answered: “I started when my grandson was still in a backpack. I let him touch the different leaves of plants that I knew were safe as we walked in the forest and gave him different flowers, berries, bark and leaves to feel and, occasionally, taste.

When he was around a year old, I found out that he liked to gather leaves and sort them by color, shape and size. He learned the different plants by the shape of their leaves. Eventually he had a large collection of leaves and would match a leaf to trees as we walked in the arboretum in Portland.

As he got older we started exploring different characteristics of trees and shrubs. My work at the Ohio School for the Blind taught me to employ all the senses in plant identification, so now when I’m with kids, we look at how to different trees bark feels, smells, and sometimes sounds. I let them come up with their own terms. Kids have pointed out that western red cedar bark looks like beef jerky, and the sandpaper feel of a rock elm leaf is like no other.” 

Bergvall-photo1_ada_mushrooms__82614-compDavid Bergvall also suggests starting kids young—

“Knife-wielding toddlers in the forest…you bet! Getting kids involved in forest or field activities doesn’t require a vast knowledge or a large investment in specialty items. Take for example our fun trip with another family this June in hunt for forest mushrooms. It resulted in kids connecting with nature, as well as a bounty of morels. On the way to the mushroom garden we crossed several streams teeming with bounding frogs and bugs. These generated all sorts of questions about cold water, what frogs eat, where are their nests, et cetera—classic little-kid questions from very inquisitive minds.

Mushroom gathering results
Mushroom gathering results. Photo: David Bergvall.

An hour later we started to ponder if we were taking too long as the two-year-olds began to waver. That all changed as soon as we started finding morels. I really don’t know if other parents let their little kids use sharp knives in the woods… but we did and she loved it. We had very specific rules which were adhered to without question. All the kids were so excited about the entire process; traversing the hills, climbing over logs, finding the next patch, harvesting the bounty, and later that night enjoying dinner. The planned activity was collecting mushrooms; the result was a wonderful day in the forest with family and friends. Our advice is “Keep it simple. Just get out and let the kids make the magic happen.”

I’ve found that for slightly older kids, anything that involves catching insects is a guaranteed hit. Try combining a small aquarium net with a dishpan-sized container for transferring the critters into long enough to get a good look. Throw in a Golden Guide to Pond Life and a magnifying glass; head to the water’s edge… and the afternoon is booked. A butterfly net for flying insects can set a kid off on a whole new career. If you need some guidance, there are excellent 4-H entomology activity books available. There are also kid-friendly groups like the Washington Butterfly Association that welcome families along on field trips.

Kids seem to enjoy building stuff, whatever their age. Something as simple as making “elf condominiums” out of sticks or crafting Andy Goldsworthy-inspired nature art can create great memories—be sure to keep a camera handy to record the results. And getting them involved in constructing bird boxes or piling brush for wildlife habitat is an excuse for future walks in the woods to see who might be living there.

Foods from the forest get everyone’s attention. It’s never too soon to work on the concept that some of those attractive berries or plants could be poisonous—building identification skills will keep the tasting experience positive. Jim Freed reports “I have had people who took my edible forest products classes as 4-H campers come to me 20 years later and tell me how they are still using the information I gave them with their own families. It’s also fun to get kids involved in collecting seeds, nuts, berries and fruits for birds or other animals to eat, instead of using commercial bird and wildlife products. This is a great way to spread native plant seeds in the family forest and fields.”

Steve McConnell adds “I never had fourth graders pay attention so well as when I handed out cambium for them to munch on while I described how trees move water and sugars up and down.”

Freed advises that tech-savvy middle and high school students can be encouraged to become a citizen scientists by working to develop ecology plots for their family forest or a tree inventory program for their local community forest. “They can probably give most of us lessons on how to use their phones for determining GPS locations or how to download some of the great apps available for plant and bird identification. Developing a video story of the changing forest by using photo plots can record how plants and animals vary with the seasons and over the years. Results of these projects can be often incorporated into the family stewardship plan or into a school project.”

Youth programs like scouts or 4-H have lots of family and club outdoor-related activity resources to download free or purchase, and these are generally arranged in levels by age group. Who knows… you may get drawn into helping a local club as a resource volunteer. Steve McConnell also recommends his experience with the American Wilderness Leadership School as great training for engaging kids in outdoors education.

For more activities and resources check out the following websites… and have a great time in the woods!

Forest Foundation

Imagination Tree

Nature Detectives

Discover the Forest.org

Nature Rocks

Safari Club

WSU 4-H Clubs

4-H Club Activities

By Carol Mack, WSU Kalispel Tribal Extension cmack@wsu.edu

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