Buds are sprouting on trees, flowers are pushing their way above ground and everything around us is looking a bit greener and brighter. As our landscape springs into bloom, it’s a great time to try to encourage kids to get more involved with nature and the environment.
As Earth Day approaches (it’s April 22), families may want to take this chance to develop or encourage kids’ interest in the outdoors.
Kirin Stryker, sustainability educator with The Environmental Center in Bend, and Katie Chipko, coordinator for Deschutes Children’s Forest, offered some great tips and activities for local families and kids.
“Time in nature is not only great for family dynamics, it’s also really important for children’s health,” said Chipko, and that includes cognitive development as well as physical health.
As children age, the method parents use to get children interested in nature and the environment should also change. Stryker talked about a basic track that most environmental education follows. When children are young, the important thing is to focus on their connection to the natural world and to “reinforce their sense of wonder,” said Stryker, who credited environmental education expert David Sobel with this thinking. The goal is for small children to begin “loving the natural wold and feeling a part of it.”
As children grow, say about third or fourth grade, parents can begin to introduce issues that relate to our use of resources, says Stryker.
In fifth to ninth grade, Stryker says, children enter an “action phase,” where they want to do things and be part of the community. This is time to focus on the impact of our actions and to help kids take on different projects or responsibilities.
Parents should also think about scope. Small children focus on their home and possibly neighborhood and regular park. As they grow up, they begin to also think about their school, then town, then state.
Visit the landfill
It’s a bit unusual — and a bit stinky — but a trip to the landfill can be quite eye-opening, especially for older elementary and middle schoolers.
As part of its education and outreach programs in schools, The Environmental Center takes students on regular outings to Knott Landfill in southeast Bend. But kids don’t need to be on a field trip — parents can also take kids to check out the recycling center and landfill.
Stryker explains the landfill is part of their classroom lessons so that way children understand “there is no ‘away’; every action we have, there is a consequence of it.” She believes the trip can be powerful. “It makes a big impact. They see their trash doesn’t go anywhere.”
On a recent tour with fifth-graders from High Lakes Elementary School, some students gasped when they saw the size of the landfill. They were also surprised to see so many items in perfect working condition at the recycling center.
With young children, parents can use this outing to explain the difference between recycling and trash.
Kids can really catch on to birding, says Chipko. With a pair of binoculars and a field guide, you can give it a go. “You don’t have to know what they are to really enjoy the process,” said Chipko. The East Cascades Autobahn Society (www.ecbcbirds.org) also offers a lot of events and classes, including those aimed at families and children.
Think of geocaching as a treasure hunt. Instead of an X on a map, you have GPS coordinates. When you find the treasure — usually some kind of sealed container — you can take one item (caches often contain small trinkets) and leave something in exchange. Now, Chipko points out, families don’t need a GPS unit to participate. There are many smartphone apps to help families geocache. “It’s something that plays into things in childhood that are really exciting … like that love of exploration,” said Chipko. Check out: geocaching.com (general website to get you started) and oregongeocaching.com; the app Geocaching is available on both iOS and Android and is the official app for geocaching.com (though at $9.99 it’s pricey for an app.)
Make recycled art
This isn’t an outdoors project as much as this activity can help children (and parents) think about reusing items, rather than throwing them away. These are also indoor activities — great for rainy, blustery days. One fun idea from Stryker is to take old crayon stubs and nubs and melt them down. The melted crayons can then be poured into silicon cookie molds to create new shapes (like stars or animals). Parents can talk about how this process is similar to what happens when we recycle metal objects and the idea that some things can be made new again.
Other fun recycled art projects include making cards out of old paper or asking kids to make a structure entirely out of items from the recycle bin.
Find a spot and return
Stryker encourages families to find a particular place, say a special spot along the river, and to then return to that spot over and over and watch the changes over time.
Pay attention to the sky
This weekend is a great time to start, as a total lunar eclipse is going to take place. It should make the moon appear coppery in color and some call this a “blood moon.” Pretty cool. If kids seem interested, there are a lot of other great resources to check out, starting with our local observatories.
Try a scavenger hunt with a twist
Discover Nature Day at Shevlin Park last week, sponsored in part by the Deschutes Children’s Forest, included many fun, interactive features for children. One popular activity was a sensory scavenger hunt. This one was particularly appropriate for younger children. Participants were asked to find something soft, something hard, something sticky, something smooth, something that smells sweet, etc. Children fanned out in the area, touching trees, grass and rocks and engaging with nature in ways they might not otherwise. You could try this in your own backyard, neighborhood park or natural area. Another suggestion Chipko had, which may appeal to older children, is to incorporate technology into the hunt. Kids could take digital photos of the items they find.
Get more ideas
The Nature Conservancy started a great website called NatureRocks.org, which offers a wealth of good outdoor activity ideas. Families can plug in where they are playing (park, backyard, natural area, etc), how long they want to play, the child’s age and a few other key details and out pops a list of potential activities. The National Wildlife Federation also has a great activity finder, www.nwf.org/activity-finder.aspx .
Plant a garden: Focus on easy-to-grow items. If you don’t have room for a garden, consider a flower box or container garden.
Walk or bike to school: Great way for older children to “develop independence and get some exercise” says Stryker.
Build a fort. Use materials in your backyard or create a small shelter in a park or natural area (be sure to take it down when you are done.)
Earth Day Parade related events:
Bling your bike for the parade during a workshop from 1-4 p.m. Saturday at The Environmental Center, 16 N.W. Kansas Ave., Bend. Free.
Camp Fire helps kids make bird costumes for the parade from 1-4 p.m. Sunday at The Environmental Center. $5 donation suggested.
Fish stick upcycling for the parade at from 4 to 6 p.m. April 17 at Sara Bella Upcycled, 2748 N.W. Crossing Dr., No. 100, Bend. $10 materials fee.
Earth Day Fair and Parade from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 19 in downtown Bend.
— Reporter: 541-617-7860, firstname.lastname@example.org