I’m sitting in Central Park on a sun-dappled blanket, book in hand. It’s a perfect Sunday afternoon. Suddenly there’s a burst of the most infectious laughter a few feet away. I turn to see a small boy of about three in a dress shirt and shorts, barefoot in a patch of dirt. He’s taking fistfuls of it and letting it slide through his fingers onto his feet. He’s wiggling his toes. He’s making patterns with his finger. He’s captivated. Apart from sensory play, here are two reasons why exposure to nature is especially necessary for city kids.
- Children’s lives are increasingly (and alarmingly) disconnected from the natural world. And worst of all, any experiences they do have are predominantly rooted in media and visual imagery, even in the classroom. This means that children are expected to love and care for the earth before they’ve been allowed to develop affection for it all on their own.
- Research shows us that if we’re to raise environmentally conscious little ones, we must give them a reason to want to protect the earth. Children’s emotional values of nature develop earlier than their logical and rational perspectives.
So what can we as parents and educators do to embrace the magic of the outdoors? According to several studies, rather than books and lectures, nature itself is children’s best teacher (Coffey 2001). Follow these simple steps for free summer learning and science fun in Central Park! You can teach nature appreciation in a myriad of ways:
- Invest in some New York field guides! Children love to identify birds, plants, and insects they come across. Before going on a nature walk, little ones might look through their guides and make predictions about what they’ll discover on their adventure. Showing children how to use resources teaches them valuable skills in research and observation.
- Looking is key! While it may be tempting to get to a destination, try to slow down as much as possible to take in your surroundings. Tools that will help children to become more observant might include binoculars or magnifying glasses.
- All children are budding naturalists! Help them to develop scientific vocabulary by asking them open-ended questions like “how do you think that grows here?” “what kind of bird might have built this nest?” or simply “what do you notice about this bark/insect/feather/rock?” Your curiosity will support theirs and spark language development as they compare and contrast, noting patterns, textures, and sounds.
- Don’t know where to start? Try The Ramble! In these thirty-eight vibrant acres of enchanting woodland paths winding around streams and rock formations, children will find hundreds of birds species among the trees, fungi, and moss of all shapes and colors in the undergrowth, and of course, squirrels and other small mammals gathering nuts and berries among the bushes and brambles. Take a notebook and some colored pencils and park on one of the many benches and encourage little ones to sketch something they find interesting.
Living in a city means you’ll have to get creative but that’s where our 848 acres of grass, trees, ponds, and wildlife come into play. You don’t need to be a science major either to know how to support their learning. Pack a snack, a few jars and bags for findings, age-appropriate observational tools and watch as your city kids transform into nature aficionados! Letting children touch different kinds of bark, look under leaves for Monarch butterfly eggs, or stare at brilliant scarlet cardinals through their binoculars fosters wonder and the ability to see their world as something to care for because it brings them joy. While little ones may be happiest observing a caterpillar’s movements or stacking pebbles in a pattern, older children could develop critical observation and mindfulness skills by sketching and labeling elements of nature that capture their interest or pressing leaves and flowers in their notebooks. That’s the beauty of the park. You don’t have to schedule, entertain, or rush. In fact, the best thing to do in nature is simply experience. Is that a cicada you hear? Could that feather belong to the infamous Red Tailed Hawk circling above the trees? What kind of plant does that seedpod belong to? It’s a magical world for those who care to close their textbooks and don their sense of wonder.
Early Childhood Educator with Masters from Teachers College, Columbia University, who nurtures little ones through hands-on learning. She creates a child-responsive environment by designing innovative lessons focused on Literacy, Math, Science, and Art.