We've all heard the shocking statistics about the rise in childhood obesity caused by inactivity and too many snacks. Communing with nature is an ideal way to get kids moving instead of staring at a video screen.
Sometimes this isn't as easy as it used to be. Way back in the dark ages, when I ran day camps before computers and i-Pods existed, my young campers eagerly built forts, learned how to build bricks out of mud and picked up every imaginable bug, frog and centipede.
Today, I show nine year olds how to pick up tiny crabs at the beach and they yell, "I can't do it. They'll pinch me!" Take those same nine year olds in the woods and they cringe with disgust at turning over a rotting branch to discover some wiggling bugs. "Gross!" is the usual response.
Outdoor recreation programs expose children to a world smells and textures that go way beyond a sterile plastic mouse. The following are ways to get children involved in nature activities.
1. Running Free: How often do we tell children "Be careful, you'll fall?" (Sure seems like a self fulfilling prophesy!) Many children don't have the chance of running on grass, since most playgrounds are filled with wood chips or safety padding. Find a large grassy area and play traditional games such as tag, Red Rover, Red Rover or Red Light, Green Light. Kids enjoy the simple freedom of running outside. And remember, no warnings from staff, saying "Be careful, you'll fall".
2. Wooden Wonders: Take a nature walk, looking for unusual shapes. So often, children think of all trees having a solid brown trunk with leafy branches. As you walk, ask children to look for a twisted tree trunk or branches that look like a witch's fingernails. How many shapes of leaves can they discover? What are the different textures on tree bark?
As you walk, ask each child to find two or three unusual small pieces of wood on the ground. Upon returning to camp, talk about their selected wood shapes. Are some smooth? Are some in unique shapes? Brush off any dirt or moss and set out an assortment of paints and brushes.
Watch children turn their pieces of wood into creative works of art. Maybe a narrow twig turns into a specked snake. A smooth piece of wood could be transformed into a beautiful butterfly with the addition of paper wings.
3. Many children's museums and conservatories have butterfly gardens where people walk through an enclosed area, observing butterflies. It's amazing to see the look of wonder in a child's eyes when a butterfly lands lightly on her arm.
With a little advance planning, you can create a butterfly garden at camp. Choose a sunny, sheltered area to plant butterfly-attracting plants. Butterflies like large clumps of color, so plant flowers in bunches.
Butterflies especially like nectar from Asters, Black-eyed Susans, Goldenrod and Zinnias. Depending on the time of year, children can help plant, weed or simply observe the development of your butterfly garden.
4. Ever try Volksmarching? This outdoor activity is ideal for all ages. There are over 350 Volkssport clubs throughout the USA, and many thousands around the world. Local clubs host the walking events. The club members select a trail for safety, scenic interest, historic areas, natural beauty and walkability. They then invite everyone to come and enjoy it on a weekend or a weekday evening.
The trails are marked or maps provided. Trails may be in cities, towns, parks, forests, rural areas, anywhere there is a pleasant or interesting place to walk.
Contact your local Volksport Club to see when your group could join an organized hike, or perhaps the Volksport Club group would set up a hike on your property. Children enjoy following the markers designating the course. A Volkswalk has festive atmosphere with people walking, kids skipping and babies getting pushed in strollers.
Add interest to an ordinary hike with some of these variations:
If you don't have nature trails, simply walk on sidewalks and turn the event into a coin walk. Let children take turns flipping a coin at ever junction. Heads means you turn left, tails says you walk to the right. Who knows where you'll end up?
Have pre-schoolers with you? Give each child a piece of colored paper. As you hike, see how many objects he or she can find to match their color. On other days, give young children paper cut into a shape or circle. Help them identify doors or tires that match their shape.
Bring along paper and some peeled crayons. Occasionally stop to let children place the paper on top of the sidewalk or a tree to create a rubbing. Try to identify the objects when you get back.
Don't let a little rain stop you. An everyday walk takes on a new experience as children walk through mud puddles.
5. Yummy Moth Milkshakes: Summer evenings are a wonderful time to see fireflies, bats and moths enjoying the warm air. (Okay, you'll probably see a few mosquitoes also.) Attract more moths by making this delicious drink... In a saucepan, mix together 1/2 cup sugar with 2 cups water over medium heat until sugar is dissolved. When mixture cools, and it is dusk, give children paint brushes so they can "paint" the mixture on a tree.
Let the liquid soak into the tree bark. About an hour later, when it is dark, use flashlights to check on your tree restaurant. If moths are slow to find it, shine the flashlight on the tree for a few minutes. The combination of sugar and light is sure to make your tree a popular feeding spot.
Want to impress your campers with your knowledge of nature? Explain the difference between a moth and butterfly. When butterflies land on an object, they bring their wings up over their backs. Moths keep their wings separated.
Silvana Clark has over 20 years experience helping thousands of children create arts and crafts projects and is a frequent speaker at camp and recreation conferences.