Dr. Rick Van Noy is an English professor at Radford University in Virginia and the author of A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature Through the Seasons. He recently took the time to share his thoughts on kids connecting with nature.
Please tell us about yourself?
With my wife, two kids and a menagerie of non-human dependents, I live in an old farmhouse in the New River Valley of Virginia, where I teach English at Radford University. I grew up near Washington's Crossing and spent much time exploring the nearby park and nature center, canal and river, woods and town.
Why is it important for kids to connect with nature?
It may be just as important to "disconnect" from the TV, the video game, the computer for a little while. Kids need play just as kittens and puppies do: for physical and social development. Connecting to nature can also stave off boredom and depression and increase joy-it is fed by our innate affinity for wildlife. And time spent in the outdoors can foster discovery and life-long learning as kids learn the names of birds, insects, or plants. Nature activates the senses and absorbs stress. Oh, and the future on the planet may depend on raising a generation of kids who care about the environment, but no pressure there. Two more reasons: beauty and quiet.
What can parents do to encourage kids to enjoy the great outdoors?
Ideally, kids kick up their own adventures, but it seems necessary in our digital device age that parents be guides and model enthusiasm. If we are afraid of getting dirty or wet, so will they. So, parents should jump right in--build dams in creeks, forts in the forest. Catch toads or turtles. Climb mountains (or just molehills). Parents can lead hikes or nature walks and be curious themselves. If they don't know the answers to kids' questions, they find out in a field guide or talking with a naturalist.
What are some camping safety tips families should be aware of?
I don't like to overemphasize the dangers of outdoor experiences, as some risk-taking should go with the territory, but we do want to set some limits. Beyond the obvious-don't play with fire, don't feed the bears-one good rule is to make sure no one wanders too far from the camp or group if you are hiking. As kids get older, their perimeter of exploration will and should expand, but we don't want it to stretch too far beyond what you consider safe (for some, that's earshot). So, make sure you take a good look around the area and let them know where and how far they can go.
What advice can you offer to first time campers?
If it's your first time, you'll probably want to go car camping, which is when you bunk not too far from the vehicle that brought your supplies. You'll need to purchase some gear, such as a tent and sleeping bags, some simple cookware, but not too much else. Flashlights are key, both for flashlight tag and for finding your way around camp. Involve the kids in as much of the preparation and setting up camp (gathering kindling, unrolling their bag) as you can. For the first time, stay close to home, or even a in your backyard, before you book that long-distance trip to Yellowstone.
Where can parents find good places to camp with their children?
In the U.S, there are two kinds of places to camp: public and private. My kids like places with water the best, a lake to swim in or fish, and maybe some nearby trails to walk or ride on. Recreation.gov can link you to public sites in all states, and there are many other resources both on the Web and at visitor's centers for private ones. On your basic road atlas, look for the places with the tent symbol. If they have that, they most often have sites with fire rings, picnic tables, and bathrooms. Pretty soon you'll be making your way across the country this way.
Do you have any other advice you'd like to offer our readers?
For younger kids, I've had success taking out the toys. Take dolls for a swim in a creek or put the stuffed animals in plastic container and watch them bob up and down mini rapids. A chase will ensue. For older, becoming-more-jaded tweens, there may have to be more adventure: climbing rocks or swinging on vines, learning a skill such as kayaking or cross country skiing. But, the most important thing for kids is to limit screen time. We had a set when I was young, but not 65 channels, and Pac Man wasn't nearly as snazzy (or accessible-you had to ride your bike to the pizza place) as today's games, and the only computer in the house was a calculator. If they catch on to the joys of the natural world early, exploring in nature will become second nature.