The author of “Last Child in the Woods” on the joys of sticks, puddle stomping, and more ways to connect kids with nature
As part of our Parenting Toolkit series, we asked Richard Louv, who’s also the co-founder of the Children & Nature Network and the author, most recently, of Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life to share his favorite ideas and resources for getting kids to spend more time outdoors:
Something kids always ask me that would surprise their parents:
“Where are the lions and tigers?” Seriously. When young or even youngish children who have spent little time in nature arrive at a park, that’s often the first question they ask.
My favorite nature craft you probably never heard of:
Make a slug playground. Get a small cardboard tray (like a box lid). Use sticks, paper, and toilet paper rolls to make slides, tunnels, seesaws, and more. Then put a slug, snail, or worm inside the playground and watch how it plays. They’ll need to be patient. Very patient!
Great nature activity for a rainy day:
When it rains, show your kids the joys of puddle stomping, ditch damming, and leaf boating. There’s no such thing as bad weather—just wrong clothes.
An outdoor skill every school-age kid should have:
OK, a few: tree climbing; hill rolling, using as many senses as possible; knowing how to prevent tick bites and rashes from poison ivy.
A nature-friendly app I couldn’t live without:
I can live without a nature-friendly app, but I do have a compass and animal track identification app on my iPhone.
Trail mix of choice:
My wife discourages trail mix (she says it’s fattening), but I often take it with me anyhow. Mixed nuts, yogurt pieces, raisins.
Bedtime stories I never minded reading:
For me: Books by great nature writers such as John Muir, Edward Abbey, Thomas Berry, Robert Michael Pyle.
Activities that emphasize direct experience with nature such as hiking, camping, building a backyard fort, and wildwatching (wild animals).
In addition to the above, preschoolers should get their hands wet and their feet muddy. Play with sticks, leaves, and dirt. Sleep under the stars with the family.
More great things to do with plants, sticks, and stones
Nature paint. Gather different leaves, kinds of dirt, and berries. Add water to each and mash into a paint consistency. (Even if your kids don’t care about the painting, they’ll love the mashing and mixing.)
Pebble poetry: Collect smooth, flat stones. Have your kids write one word on each with a marker or paint. Then rearrange the rocks into changeable poems.
Freaky flowers. Collect a few different specimens, then carefully disassemble them. Re-combine the petals, stems, seeds, and leaves into new flowers—or random new patterns.
Clever scorekeepers. Show your kid how to play Rock, Paper Scissors, or Tick-Tac-Toe (drawing in the dirt with sticks). To keep score, borrow an idea from Fiji: When you lose a round, you pluck a petal from a single flower. Last one left with petals is the winner.
Something every kid should have (that can’t be bought) to encourage a love of nature:
Their own special place in nature, whether it’s under a tree at the end of the yard, a hidden bend of a creek, or a rooftop garden. Nature educator Jon Young calls it a “sit spot.”
Family tradition I wish we’d started sooner:
Saving the migrating box turtles from the passing cars on the highway during tornado season in Missouri.
One thing parents worry about but shouldn’t:
Associating nature with doom. Our society has been sending that message for several decades. I’m not saying there’s no danger out there, but we do need to think in terms of comparative risk: Yes, there are risks outdoors, but there are huge psychological, physical, and spiritual risks in raising future generations under protective house arrest.
One thing parents don’t worry about but should:
Finding a balance between technology and nature in order to give our children and ourselves an enriched life and a nature-rich future.
Three things (large or small) I really wish all parents knew:
- Experiences in the natural world offer great benefits to psychological and physical health, and the ability to learn.
- Without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called executive function is at risk.
- We all can create new natural habitats in and around our homes, schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, cities and suburbs, so that, even in inner cities, our children grow up in nature—not with it, but in it.
One little ritual we could all start today to bring our kids closer to nature:
Make getting outside in a natural area an intentional act—a healthful habit, if you will—that becomes part of your life. It can be as simple as planning regular walks around a local park, having picnics, or learning how to garden in containers on the back stoop.
My motto as a dad: