Kids Will Love Nature if You Do These 10 Things
Plus, teaching the wisdom (and joy) of being wrong and experiments with mosquitoes.
Dear Avant Gardener, I'd like to get my kids outside more and encourage a love of nature. I had big dreams about my boys (ages three and six) helping me garden, harvesting veggies and looking under rocks for salamanders. In reality, squirrels steal the produce and the boys rarely venture onto the grass. Part of the problem is mosquitoes, which are very bad in summer, especially under the large mulberry tree at the back. I'd love to fix up this small, fenced backyard, but on a budget. — Brooklyn Girl in Philadelphia
Why would they want to play on the grass? Drive through many suburbs on the weekend and you’ll rarely see a kid playing on a lawn. Lawns, per se, are boring. That said, I’m confident the essence of your dreams can still materialize. You may not harvest produce nor find salamanders, but you can all learn to appreciate nature in your yard on a budget. And the enjoyment and skills you’ll be giving your kids (and yourself) will last a lifetime.
I know this first hand because, although I was a lousy mom in many ways, I did succeed in nurturing my four daughters' enjoyment of nature while living in lower Manhattan. As adults, they have varying levels of interest in actually getting out into nature, but they retain the skills of a naturalist: curiosity and the ability to observe closely; willingness to experiment and — equally important — risk getting things wrong; and appreciation of healthy sensory pleasures — sun on their backs, moving through water, the scent and taste of wild strawberries.
Be curious and observe closely like a naturalist
The first step is simply to get everyone (including yourself) using the yard regularly. Starting now, when it’s cold and the mosquitos are dormant, bundle them up when it’s not raining and model being a naturalist until these behaviors become a habit.
The questions below are examples of thousands you can ask and answer in any backyard. Start by asking them rhetorically and invite the kids to join you in trying to figure out or look up the answer. When the boys seem ready, pose the questions to them and let them find the answers. Eventually, they will come up with their own questions and answer them.
Observe and name: Can you hear the squirrels chattering? What kind of mulberry do we have? What kind of bird is that on the fence?
Count: Keep a list of the bird species you see in or from your backyard, keeping a guidebook handy. (As much as I love my identification apps, I suggest making your yard a device-free zone.) The number of species will increase as your plantings become more diverse.
Bring it indoors: Cover your walls with drawings and debris from nature. Look at leaves and dead insects with a computer magnifier.
Experiment and get things wrong like a naturalist
The scientific method is about making guesses and then rigorously testing them. It requires an openness to being wrong that, sadly, many adults lack. As Louise Penny’s fictional inspector Armand Gamache says, the first of four sentences that lead to wisdom is “I was wrong.” Here are examples of how to encourage playfulness about testing your own hypotheses:
Predict: When the mulberry starts to bud, ask how long before the leaves open. Encourage divergent answers, discuss rationales, and note them down. Later, celebrate the correct guess without penalizing the incorrect ones.
Monitor: How is the mulberry changing as it gets warmer? Document it, maybe with hand-drawn pictures.
Experiment: When the weather hits around 50 degrees, the mosquitos will start to come out and you’ll be able to do the mosquito experiment below.
Roll up your sleeves like a naturalist
“Give them some water and some dirt,” is the advice of my husband Pete, who has a degree in wildlife biology. Kids can explore their senses by making messes outdoors that you probably won’t tolerate indoors. Lean into that messiness. Skip permanent structures in favor of an ever-changing mix of junk, toys, tools, and household supplies. Here are some ideas, all vaguely related to science:
Construct: Even in winter, you can start playing with simple machines. For example, putting one end of a board on the deck and the other on the grass, then slide stuff down it. Forts are always a hit, starting with appliance boxes or old sheets draped over the table.
Make a mess: I never tired of making volcanoes with vinegar and baking soda and painting ourselves with watercolor crayons. Or just dump out a bag of soil in the yard and bring out their trucks. Hose everyone down before returning inside.
Splash: For summer, I highly recommend a small plastic pool; six of us delighted in one in our East Village front yard.
Plant like a naturalist
Here’s where to invest most of your limited budget: permanent, perennial native plants. (If your budget is insufficient, make an experiment of growing plants from seed; see the Wild Seed Project.)
Plant for wildlife: Your yard will become a much richer natural experience if you plant to attract bees, butterflies, and birds. Growing natives with kids is easier than produce, because they are perennials adapted to your climate and soil. Moreover, if squirrels — or insects and birds — eat them, it’s a big success. Yay!
Starting in September, plant a deep border — maybe eight feet — of flowering shade-loving shrubs and perennials under the mulberry tree. Kids can participate from start to finish. Newly planted natives need about an inch of rain weekly for six months, excluding winter; kids can monitor a rain gauge to determine when supplemental water is needed during this time. Thereafter, watering should not be necessary.
See my design, plant and Philadelphia nursery recommendations in “#1 Design Solution for an Urban Backyard.” In a sunny area, plant bright-colored flowers to attract butterflies and maybe even hummingbirds. (See the plant palette in “How to Enliven Your Entrance with a Vibrant Palette of 9 Native Plants.”)
— The Avant Gardener
Why, How, Wow!
Certain mosquitoes thrive in cities like Philadelphia because that’s where their food is: people. Generally speaking, mosquitoes come out to feed around sunrise, sunset, and at nighttime. They're rarely active during the middle of the day when the sun is out, since direct sunlight and high midday temperatures can quickly dehydrate them.
To turn nuisance mosquitos into a science project with your kids: watch the video below, talk about the terms, buy the supplies, set it up, and then observe. Can you see the mosquito larvae? What happens after you put in the Dunks? Monitor the number of mosquitoes in your yard to assess effectiveness.
If the mosquito population remains unchanged, hypothesize why – e.g., the ones biting you are coming from next door. Make sure to emphasize that the learning is the win, even if the mosquitos are still there.
Until you cut your mosquito population or if you are unable to, test various strategies to avoid them: natural repellent, going out midday, staying in the sun, and protective clothing.
Writing this column took my daughters and me down memory lane as we searched for pictures of fun times in our front yard and, later, roof garden in New York’s East Village.
Tools for observing nature
Field guides and identification apps
Merlin Sound ID (for bird identification; worth bringing a device outside)
iNaturalist (community of naturalists to track and confirm identifications)
Audubon of Rhode Island extensive, free content on exploring urban landscapes Audubon at Home.
Archimedes and the Door of Science (humorous historical fiction turns pool play into experiments with displacement)