Keeping your children connected to nature: Guest post by Kate Newberry of LawnStarter

 Photo courtesy: Pat Woodard

I admit it. Screen time limits for the kids went away in March because of COVID-19. Now, add boredom, plus virtual learning, plus parental exhaustion. And the wildfires, and the smoke from the wildfires. The answer?  A mind-blowing 12 hours and 54 minutes that my daughter has spent online, per day for the last few weeks.

Pre-pandemic, this was a parental fail. Right now, I’m trying to cut myself a break — and instead of judging, I’ve come up with some ways to get my children connected to nature this fall.

Camp in the Backyard…or Indoors

First, let’s talk about getting outdoors. It might not seem that much of a big deal for a city kid, because they’re used to the concrete and traffic lights, right?

Not so fast. Green space is shown to lower depression and psychiatric disorders in kids – and after a year like 2020, couldn’t we all use a natural antidepressant? Getting outside can really boost your child’s outlook in a year where almost everybody has struggled.

And here’s some food for thought. Life pre-pandemic was on-the-go, nonstop. My husband and I privately complained to each other for years that we never had enough time and always had somewhere to be and something to do — and the kids were scheduled to the max.  I think we spent more time in traffic than we did together as a family. We’ve tried to use this time as a reset — a way to reset childhood to what it should have been all along. That means simple fun and the attention of mom and dad — and camping in the backyard, together, with devices put away, harkens back to a simpler time, before the iPhone, and YouTube. Just make sure you put bug spray on the grocery delivery list before camp night!

Green space includes lawns and backyards, so pitch that tent right in the backyard, or at Grandma’s house, if you don’t have a yard. If the smoke is too hazardous, set up camp in the middle of the living room. Turn off the lights and flick on the flashlights — and let your sense of adventure break up the boredom. Make it more real with camp foods like hot dogs and burgers and s’mores. While it’s not the real thing, microwave s’mores come close! Your kids will actually look forward to bedtime when there are sleeping bags and ghost stories involved.

Harvest Fruit

No, it’s not the same as hiking through the San Bernardino mountains. But a pick-your-own farm gets your kids out in the California sunshine with a sweet reward, to boot. There are dozens of farms in the LA metro area, offering cherries, nectarines, pumpkins, et cetera. You will pay by the bucket or the pound, depending on the farm. It’s a great way to connect your kids to green, living things… and drives home the message that food comes from somewhere else besides Ralphs.

Even better? Some farms are working animal farms where you can not only buy fresh, organic eggs and milk, but your children can interact with the animals as well. One thing we learned: not all eggs are white or brown! Some breeds of chicken produce pale blue or green or even spotted eggs.

Garden Together

Whether you’re a real green thumb or your brown thumb extends to your elbow, planting a small container garden at home keeps your kids connected with the soil and living things. Whether you plant an indoor garden or an outdoor one, get your kids to help you with your fall gardening to-do list. Prune, toss plant debris in the compost pile, or do some planting.

Admittedly, gardening might be a hard sell for your kids at first, especially as regular watering and weeding get tedious. But this is one time you’re giving them permission to get dirty and I promise, they’ll get more interested when fruits and vegetables start to appear. I had to nag my daughter to water the container garden we had planted — she had picked out the herbs and peppers herself — but once the first tiny shishito pepper appeared, she was all in. In fact, we weren’t allowed to pick it for a few days, so she could admire her accomplishment.

Bonus: Kids love eating what they grow! For a pop of color, try an LA native plant like the bush Monkey Flower.

Create with Nature

Tap into your kids’ artsy side with nature-inspired projects. If you need a less-adult-supervision-required idea, try coloring pages. Start with a nature scavenger hunt for materials. Eucalyptus leaves, palm fronds, hibiscus flowers are all awesome items for this kind of thing. Keep them in a nature bin at home, or teach your kids how to press flowers in books. Painting rocks and sticks, and collecting feathers and old bird nests — are all things that can spark imagination in a way that the latest YouTube video or TikTok just can’t.

If you’re met with resistance when you tell your kid to put the screens away and make some art — be patient. There may be some moaning, but once you’re out and about and picking up cool rocks and leaves, their enthusiasm will grow. One game I play with the kids is a nature-inspired game of I Spy. I ask them to name the wildlife and the plants that they recognize — or count how many eucalyptus trees they see along the way, et cetera. Winner gets to pick what restaurant delivers that night.

Bonus: It teaches young ones to be aware of their surroundings, and to identify the plants and animals they see — both good skills to have when hiking something more rugged than a sidewalk or paved park trail.

Go For a Bike Ride

A bicycle is a great way to disconnect from screens. Right now, rides around the neighborhood are not only great exercise and great outdoor time, but they’re also a way for your child to boost his or her biking skills — and one day when the wildfire danger is over, he or she can translate those bicycle skills to the trail.

Any way you can get your kids out of the front door and moving outside is a way to connect them with nature. I have to admit to a little multitasking here: To get my daughter outside and off her phone, I asked her to begin walking the dog to earn some extra money. She’s actually starting to take the long way to the nature trail loop at the neighborhood park lately — and I have one less chore on my list. Win-win!

Find Nature In The City

It is possible to experience the great outdoors in L.A. by visiting a nature center or preserve. While many centers are closed, my family combats cabin fever by hiking around the grounds in some places. 

  • Madrona Marsh Preserve: The preserve in Torrance allows a limited number of visitors on Thursdays. 
  • Placerita Canyon Nature Center: While the nature center in Newhall is closed, the park is open from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. 
  • Los Angeles County Arboretum: Indoor spaces at the arboretum are off-limits, but you can visit the grounds by purchasing tickets in advance. 
  • Griffith Park: You can’t stargaze right now at the Griffith Observatory, but you can explore the 4,200-plus acres of parkland.

Visit Virtually

Turn their screen time into nature time with virtual field trips. A quick internet search will take you to wildlife preserves, zoos, or national parks. Not gonna lie – I stopped to watch a few while researching this article. And my daughter watched this Polar Bear on the Tundra tour over my shoulder! Pique their interest in a nature video by letting them pick the video, with the caveat that it has to be nature-centered. Another trick — have your kids list places they want to go when travel is easier after the pandemic and explore that via video.

Tip: check out the LA Zoo’s YouTube channel to learn about baby gorillas, Tasmanian devils, and Billy the Elephant. Your children will look forward to hiking, exploring, and visiting with the animals at the zoo. 

Connecting with nature and disconnecting from devices has been a real sanity-saver in our house — especially as virtual school has started, and work from home looks like it’s here to stay. When you can’t hit the hiking trail, these tips can help keep your kids (and you) a little more connected to the living world outside.

Kate Newberry writes about camping and hiking for several publications. She and her family have hiked everything from the Big Dalton Canyon in California to Pikes Peak in Colorado and the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee (although her kids claim the Smoky Mountains are just “small hills.”)

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