“What do you think that bird is saying?” asked a mother of her little girl in the park on Saturday. I didn’t hear  the answer, drowned out by a roar from a nearby baseball field.  But it reminded me of  a discussion I had awhile back with Dr. John Haskin, Director of  Education at IslandWood, the outdoor learning center on Bainbridge Island, Wash.  

John Haskin, Director of Education, IslandWood

John Haskin

“For young children, particularly ages 3 to 5, being and learning in the outdoors has some powerful advantages over the classroom,” Haskin told me. The rich sensory space of nature, the opportunity to move about and explore, and a child’s natural curiosity in the outdoors: combine these and learning and brain development are enhanced. “It’s not about turning children into environmentalists,” said Haskin. “It’s about using the outdoors to engage all parts of the brain for an immediate impact on its development.”

With the days getting longer and warmer, I thought I’d share a few tips from Haskin on engaging young minds outdoors.  His approach is practical, no-fuss, and doesn’t require any special knowledge.

  • Stay close to home. Use the neighborhood park or your own backyard. You don’t have to go to some vastly charismatic place with young kids. They can be engaged by a pile of leaves, a mud puddle or rocks to turn over.
  • 3-5 minute field trips are fine. The adult-guided portion of an outing doesn’t need to be long. Catch moments and deal in snippets. But you can encourage and reinforce a longer attention span in a child with practice.
  • No need to prepare a lesson ahead of time. It’s about being readyto guide a gentle “aha” moment when an opportunity presents itself. It can be as simple as “tell me what this smells like, what’s underneath this rock, what do you see?”
  • No need for special knowledge. Don’t worry about knowing names and scientific principles. Your goal is to model a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world around you.
  • Slow down. It’s not about a destination but about taking time to observe and explore. If your child can’t slow down on his own, use gentle strategies to hook him into it. Look for things around you that might catch his attention and do your own touching and feeling and exploration. Eventually, he’ll take note and your interest may pique his.
  • Meet kids at their point of comfort. Kids will come to an experience with all levels of interest or concern. It’s not about untangling fears but meeting them where they are. For example, if a child doesn’t want to touch a slug, don’t force him. Ask him to “touch with his eyes” and describe what he sees. With practice, over time, you can lay the groundwork for a child to be comfortable in nature and confident in exploration.
  • Set aside “kid dirty clothes.”  By designating a special “outdoors explorer outfit” –  rubber boots, coveralls, old jacket, any clothing item you don’t mind sacrificing for this purpose – you free your child (and yourself) to explore at will.