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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

Connecting with kids: A prescription for ‘nature deficit disorder’

Most adults have fallen short of intentions for connecting youngsters with nature since school ended in June. Sports camps and family summer schedules can get in the way of expanding a kid’s mind with exposure to beetles and blossoms. Every month offers a unique opportunity to introduce kids to the great outdoors, but with school out and schedules more open, this is prime time. Taking kids out can plant the seed for life-long, healthy, active pursuits as well as careers. A kid who learns that bugs are cool has a better chance of being aware that insects – and the food chain they nourish – are threatened by some of society’s choices. Take aim at the “nature deficit disorder” that’s inflicting young people with this prescription for treatment.

1. Take a walk

Whether it’s a stroll or a backpacking trip, hiking is easily the most convenient, versatile and accessible option available to get anyone engaged in the outdoors. Nature is everywhere, so don’t put off a walk just because you don’t think you have time to get somewhere “cool.”

Even the knapweed feeding the bees and butterflies in the vacant lot down the street provide a nature experience.

The Dishman Hills and Spokane County Conservation Areas are ideal local venues for exploring on and off trail. Bring a jar and a magnifying glass for close inspections.

Check out weeds as well as native plants. Make time to take in what comes along, such as watching the traffic on an ant highway if you find one. Look for “clues’ in the dirt, such as a wild turkey track or scat.

Avoid choosing a walk beyond the kid’s ability and be sure you have plenty of snacks and water. Destinations can be good, but try not to let a destination get in the way of shortchanging an interesting discovery or detour.

Tip: Our daughters’ “endurance” for being out on foot, canoe or bike increased significantly when we got them their own Camelbak hydration systems.

Jump at opportunities, such as this week’s rain storms. Why did all of those earthworms crawl out onto the sidewalk?

2. Go camping

Getting into the woods, along a stream or lake and setting up camp for the night is hands down – and hands on – the best outdoor classroom you can create.

From there, the kid can be exposed to creek stomping, berry picking, fishing and nature observation as well as life-long skills such as fire-making, camp cooking and eluding mosquitoes.

Camping carves out quality time to be one-on-one, which is the most endangered aspect of family life.

Create a daytime scavenger hunt and organize a night walk with headlamps. Listen for owls and watch for “shooting stars.”

National forests are top choices for camping, but kids can be just as absorbed in a local campsite or even sleeping out in the backyard. The younger the kids, the less they care about their surroundings beyond stick-poking range.

Insight: Our first family camping trip with a 2 year-old child was at Liberty Lake County Park. With a sand beach, lake, tap water, trails, wildflowers and critters, it was convenient, long on outdoors exposure and short on travel time. Perfect.

3. Read about it

Before, after or during a trek or outing of any kind, consider matching the occasion with appropriate reading for the kid’s age.

Childrens’ books can unlock imaginations and give kids images to seek out in the real world.

One of my daughters’ favorite outdoor books (more than 20 years ago) was Owl Moon. Probably a dozen times after we first read it to them at bedtime, I piggy-backed a little girl in pajamas into our backyard when I heard the calling of great horned owls.

Browsing nature books at a bookstore or library (ask for advice) can inspire an outing or activity.

For instance, David FitzSimmons, a father and author of the series of children’s nature books, wrote Salamander Dance for kids who may never see a live salamander, but will be nudged to look for them every time they’re near shallow water.

Journaling also can be a boon to an outdoors experience.

Timeless: Matching reading with an adventure is a lifelong habit. For example, I read John Steinbeck’s “Sea of Cortez” while paddling my sea kayak along Baja from Loreto to LaPaz and “Arctic Dreams” by Barry Lopez while exploring the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I wasn’t just reading those books; I was living them.

4. Get wet

Last week at the Fish Lake public boating access I saw a boy and his grandfather in wading shoes with little nets and a plastic bag. They were totally absorbed in catching tadpoles for observation, and the boy was eager to reveal to me all the other things he’d discovered in the foot or so of water he’d scouted through the lily pads.

What more do I need to say?

Turn over rocks in a creek to find cased caddis. Paddle canoes, kayaks or paddle boards to a shallow area of a lake and plan to get out and investigate. Skip rocks on the water for a break.

Bring a fishing rod for fish. Paddle through the lily pads at dusk with lifejackets on and a powerful spotlight to find the bullfrog that’s making that deep bellowing.

5. Go high-tech

Although many kids can benefit from going outdoors to “disengage” from electronics, their fascination with devices also can been a boon to connecting with nature.

Geocaching can turn a kid on to following GPS clues to treasures hidden anywhere from streams to mountain tops. In Spokane, gear up and get advice at Cache Cave, telephone 720-8382.

Search online for numerous applications that turn smartphones into nature-study tools. Most apps range from free to about $10.

Mobile apps for wildlife identification can turn nature observation into citizen science. WildObs and iNaturalist are examples of free mobile apps that act as a field guide to help identify creatures from bugs to carnivores. Snap a photo and send the info to a database and other observers who can see the GPS location of the find and help ID it.

The added beauty of looking at the outdoors through these apps is having your own photo and notebook record of what you saw. It’s like collecting without taking.

Similar apps are available for wildflower and bird identification and data sharing.

Low-tech idea: My youngest daughter grew through a phase in which she loved to pick wildflowers, despite our admonitions. Left to her urges, she could have de-blossomed a meadow with the efficiency of a swather.

So I made a flower press: layers of construction paper between 8-inch squares of quarter-inch plywood bound with four 3- or 4-inch bolts and wingnuts.

Then I made her a deal. She could pick a flower on every trip, but only one. This focused her attention and had her engaged in observation and decision-making sometimes for hours. And she had an impressive labeled collection by the end of summer.

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